Drawing Up the Battle Plans I – Why it is important to say goodbye to the 4-2-3-1 formation

Almost every Manchester United fan has had his say on the formation that needs to be used to get the best out of players like Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, and Romelu Lukaku. While United have used the 4-2-3-1 for most of the season, our best performances this term has come when United play a midfield triumvirate. The former formation has been used by United manager Jose Mourinho for most of his career and has, of course, won him a number of winners’ medals.

But in modern football, the system is looking ancient with few teams looking uncomfortable when playing against the system. In this two-part series, arguments are given as to why the 4-2-3-1 system should be junked in the first piece before drawing up formation plans for the next term in the second piece.

The biggest factor that comes to mind when talking about the 4-2-3-1 is the fact that Pogba plays in a double pivot in the centre of the park and leaves him starting in a much deeper position making it difficult for him to influence the attack. Should he leave his assigned position, it leaves the other midfielder Nemanja Matic exposed to counter attacks and renders him isolated.

This is perfectly fine in the opening weeks of the season when players are fresher and fitter and can cover grass easily without fatigue, but as the season progresses, it becomes difficult for Matic to single-handedly cover the defence. While this is the evident problem with this style of play, it isn’t the only drawback.

Despite the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, the backbone of the team has to consist of David De Gea, Eric Bailly, Pogba, Martial, and Lukaku. No matter what the wage being paid to Sanchez is, this is the team of these four players as they will be here for the long run. Sanchez in all likelihood will leave at the end of his current contract. The formation and style of play have to be such that these players are comfortable in their positions. Here, we come to the Martial problem with the 4-2-3-1 system of play.

Starting Martial on the left-hand side of the three behind the target man is the perfect position for the Frenchman but the 4-2-3-1 leaves him deeper than he should be. Martial made his name as a striker in his debut season and while it is clear he should not be starting ahead of Lukaku, he should be playing the wider role in a much more advanced position. Yes, Martial still has to track back and his work ethic has to improve for him to take up this role but Martial should playing alongside Lukaku, no doubt. He is arguably our best attacker and there is no point in leaving him five to ten

He is arguably our best attacker and there is no point in leaving him five to ten metres behind where he should be playing. While some may call me biased, Martial has more potential than Sane but Sane from his position has a much greater influence on the game than Martial because Sane starts that five to ten metres ahead of Martial leading him to get more goals and assists.

While this may not be the most evident problem, playing 4-2-3-1 hampers Lukaku to an extent. This system leaves him isolated because of Mourinho’s style of play, especially in bigger games. But Lukaku has a hugely underrated link up play. His ability to bring fellow attackers into the game is one of the best for a striker in the league and his assist numbers ratifies this fact. But if there aren’t any attackers alongside him who is he going to play the ball into? His holdup play is exceptional too but there is so much he can do, can he?

While there are still certain aspects that the 4-2-3-1 brings to the table like defensive solidity and ability to soak pressure as a team. But that is not the United style of play. As wisely said, attack is the best form of defence and it is imperative to ditch this outdated style of play and adopt a much more attacking approach.

How this approach can be put into action while addressing the problems of the current 4-2-3-1 system will be discussed in part II of this two-part series. Stay tuned.

Written by Vivek Menon

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