Why a Diamond Midfield Could Be the Answer to Manchester United’s Woes

With Manchester United’s right wingers disappearing like characters in an Agatha Christie novel, and to make things juicier, they can’t seem to buy a win. But here comes the plot twist – they whipped out a 4-4-2 diamond against  Brighton, and for a good 15-20 minutes, it looked like magic. A formation that can shape-shift into a 4-3-3 with two wide players and a striker lurking deep – now that’s a tactical rollercoaster we should buckle up for!


Now, before you burst into laughter, hear me out. The diamond formation not only lets United dance through their opponent’s tactical maze but also sweeps their right-wing woes under the rug. So, as we delve deeper into this tactical treasure hunt, I will show you why this diamond could be United’s shining gem in the Champions League showdown against Bayern and subsequent matches. Ready to unravel the mystery?


In the 4-4-2 diamond formation, tactical nuances come to life. The forwards, Rasmus Hojlund and Marcus Rashford, will show their versatility, drifting wide to exploit the flanks, whilst Bruno Fernandes operates as a dual threat: a false 9 and attacking midfielder. 


When in possession, Bruno Fernandes initially positions himself as the central forward. But, as the play unfolds, he cleverly drops into midfield, residing at the tip of the diamond. Casemiro commands the left side, while Diogo Dalot holds the right, with Sofyan Amrabat anchoring the base — when he returns from injury that is.


Analyzing Manchester United’s Start to the 2023/24 Season Under Erik ten Hag


An alternative approach is to have Bruno leading the diamond, flanked by Christian Eriksen and Scott McTominay, with Casemiro at the base. Casemiro on the left contributes defensively and aids in build-up play, while Dalot on the right acts more like a midfielder. During the build-up phase, Dalot drops between the center-backs to offer passing options and create numerical superiority, relying on his ability to receive and distribute under pressure.


Dalot’s role evolves as the team advances into the final third. Positioned centrally, he becomes a pivot point, making decisions on distribution or embarking on progressive dribbles. His involvement in attacking movements is crucial, exploiting spaces and linking up with central midfielders, the attacking midfielder, and the strikers to initiate intricate attacks. When he functions as a conservative wide defensive midfielder in this system, Dalot ensures defensive stability by tracking wide opponents and covering for the advancing right-back, acting as a shield against potential counterattacks down the right flank.


Bruno Fernandes takes on a hybrid role that demands intelligence and creativity. Bruno’s responsibility involves dropping deep between the lines to receive the ball, often pulling a defender out of position, which, in turn, opens up space for Rashford and Rasmus Hojlund. Bruno excels in making well-timed runs into the box, contributing to goal-scoring opportunities. His exceptional vision and passing prowess are the linchpin in orchestrating intricate attacking plays.


In the attacking phase, Rashford enjoys greater freedom, drifting wide and cutting inside, while Hojlund serves as the traditional target man, adept at holding up play and finishing chances. Their partnership should be dynamic, with Rashford’s speed and Hojlund’s physicality presenting a multifaceted threat to the opposition.


On the flanks, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Sergio Reguilon assume critical roles as full-backs. Wan-Bissaka’s defensive prowess, characterized by exceptional tackling and defensive awareness, provides stability on the right flank. He excels in one-on-one situations, effectively preventing opposition wingers from advancing.


Manchester United’s Slight Tweak in Build-up Structure and Its Ripple Effects


On the left, Sergio Reguilon’s overlapping runs and ability to join the attack contribute width, stretching the opposition’s defense. His combination play with the left-sided midfielder, often Casemiro or Eriksen, adds dynamism to the left flank, maintaining the balance between defensive and offensive contributions within the tactical structure.


The foundation of this system lies with goalkeeper Andre Onana, whose role is pivotal in initiating a possession-based style of play. Onana’s comfort with the ball at his feet allows him to act as a quasi-sweeper-keeper, facilitating accurate distribution to the wide-positioned center-backs, Lisandro Martinez and Victor Lindelof. Their positioning stretches the opposition’s defensive lines, creating space for progression.


In cases where a short build-up is hindered by aggressive pressing, Onana’s ability to play long passes to Hojlund, who can hold the ball and involve other attacking players, becomes crucial. This setup also capitalizes on Bruno Fernandes’ effectiveness, as Hojlund’s knockdowns can provide opportunities for Bruno to play Rashford through on goal.


The recommended defensive structure here is the 2-3 rest defense setup. It places a sturdy foundation with two central defenders, typically the center-backs, anchoring the defensive line. These center-backs play a pivotal role in maintaining a compact shape, marking opposition strikers, and intercepting passes effectively.


In front of this defensive duo, we have three key players. A defensive midfielder takes on a crucial role, acting as the linchpin in breaking down opposition attacks and initiating counter-pressing when possession is lost. Flanking the defensive midfielder are two central midfielders strategically positioned to provide support to both the defensive and offensive phases, ensuring smooth transitions.


Alejandro Garnacho: How Can Manchester United’s Rising Star Sharpen His Game Next Season?


In this system, a player like Amrabat (or Casemiro) assumes a vital role as the base of the diamond, often dropping between the center-backs to create a temporary back three during the build-up. This not only bolsters the defense numerically but also enables the full-backs, Reguilon and Wan-Bissaka, to advance higher up the field, adding width to the team’s play.


However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that this structure can be vulnerable if not executed flawlessly. The risk stems from potential gaps between the lines when the two deeper midfielders push forward to press the opposition. Teams with swift transitions can exploit these openings. To mitigate such risks, Manchester United should emphasize maintaining compactness and a well-coordinated pressing trigger. When possession is lost, the team must swiftly transition into a compact defensive shape, thwarting rapid counter-attacks.


In this defensive setup, Bruno Fernandes takes the lead as the first line of defense, orchestrating the press. Rashford and Hojlund should employ intelligent pressing tactics, cutting off passing lanes and pressuring the opposition into making errors. Effective communication and defensive discipline are the linchpins in successfully managing these defensive challenges.


In this tactical framework, the pressing scheme of choice(suggested) is the hybrid press—a synthesis of man-oriented and zonal pressing principles. Its effectiveness hinges on situational awareness and adaptability. The pressing intensity fluctuates according to the ball’s location on the pitch.


In the defensive third, a more assertive man-oriented press comes into play. Rashford and Hojlund, the striking duo, press the opposition’s center-backs with tenacity, compelling quick decisions. Meanwhile, Fernandes orchestrates the midfield press, applying pressure to the opponent’s defensive midfielders or deep-lying playmakers.


Mason Mount: How Does the Englishman Fit Into Manchester United’s Set-Up?


The wide midfielders, Casemiro (or Eriksen) and Dalot, diligently track the opposition full-backs, restricting their time and space on the ball. Simultaneously, the two central midfielders, including Amrabat (or Casemiro), press their counterparts, effectively closing down passing lanes. As the ball ventures into the middle third, the midfield diamond converges centrally, establishing numerical superiority in midfield.


Bruno and the central midfielders shift their focus to congesting passing lanes, intercepting passes, and maintaining a compact structure. Full-backs Wan-Bissaka and Reguilon adapt by narrowing their positioning, providing additional support in central areas while remaining prepared to press wide if the ball is distributed there. The striker duo collaboratively applies pressure on the opposition’s center-backs and disrupts build-up attempts. Bruno assumes a pivotal role in coordinating the press, making critical decisions on when to trigger it and when to sustain a compact shape.


The wide midfielders, Casemiro (or Eriksen) and Dalot, exhibit tactical flexibility by transitioning between man-marking and zone coverage depending on the position of the opposition’s full-backs and wingers. Wan-Bissaka and Reguilon also display adaptability, adjusting their positioning to either support the central press or engage in one-on-one marking when the situation demands it. This hybrid pressing approach thrives on adaptability and collective understanding of situational cues.


In the ever-evolving narrative of football, there is a constant, almost poetic ebb and flow. Manchester United, a club that has seen the highest peaks and weathered the stormiest of valleys, now stands at the precipice of change. It’s a path fraught with challenges, as all worthwhile journeys tend to be, but within the framework of this evolving system lies the potential for redemption and resurgence.


The history books may record the struggles of the past, but they are but chapters in the grand novel of this club’s existence. With each setback, a valuable lesson is etched into the collective memory of the team. As the season unfolds, it carries with it the potential for Manchester United to rise anew, to write a chapter of glory that eclipses the shadows of doubt.


By Tobi Peter / @keepIT_tactical

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images – Getty Images