Red Thoughts: Do Man United need two defensive midfielders?

by Red Debate

After three successive defeats in League and European games, the Red Thoughts team discuss whether a more defensive midfield lineup is needed.

Think about it as a written podcast, a fans’ forum, a place to debate and discuss. Feel free to join in the discussion in the comments below.

REX: I think we do. Van Gaal’s football might have been boring, but he strengthened up the defence. We just have to play our fast players on the wings to push the ball forward and put Mkhitaryan at no. 10.

FAB: It seems unthinkable that after 6 games we would be having this type of discussion. But maybe it’s better that we clear things up right now rather than it all going wrong in December.

RICK: I say we stick with the three man midfield, but drop Rooney and Fellaini. Our problems have been caused by the CMs not tracking the opposition midfielders, nothing else. We have also been poor with our distribution and tempo, which leads me to say that we need a playmaker, whether it be Carrick, Blind, or Schweinsteiger. I would personally love a midfield trio of Carrick, Herrera and Pogba. All have physical presence, can make intricate passes and Carrick can dictate the play from deep.

REX: We should drop both Rooney and Fellaini, but it still won’t do us any good because the midfielders we have don’t track back regardless. Herrera tries but he’s not the fastest, so he ends up getting booked a lot. All in all something needs to be done. Whether it’s formation changes or anything to make us more solid defensively. Because our back four is just horrible at the moment.
RICK: I think you underestimate Herrera. And so what if he gets booked? Fellaini gets them every game.

FAB: In the second half against City, things seemed to work perfectly fine with Herrera supporting Pogba, and that gave Paul freedom to go forward several times. I know that in the aerial duels we need someone like Fellaini, but against Watford he turned into the Fellaini he was before, using his elbows and even gave away a penalty. I was happy with the three man midfield of Herrera, Pogba and Schneiderlin in the first half against Feyenoord. For me, Morgan is the player that we need in front of our defence. I am sure that if these three start together, or at least Fellaini is benched and subbed by one of these two, things would change for one simple reason – a new corridor will be opened for Pogba to do his magic in the final third.

BETS: I don’t want to go back to two DM’s. But if we stick with one, he has to be both an excellent distributor who can play the killer pass, but also sound defensively, with a good ability to intercept, break up play, and tackle.

REX: That’s why I think we’re screwed in the middle of the park without two. Very few players have both abilities – to defend and have the killer pass. Carrick used to do it fantastically but he’s aged and we can’t depend on him any more to do this, game in game out. We need one CM who’ll just sit right in front of the centre halves, and the other to be a springboard for attacks but who would also come back to help as well.

BETS: Is this only solved by having two DM’s? For instance, are Shaw and Valencia good enough defensively? A good full back should first and foremost have defensive instincts. Neither of these guys have done anything wrong, but are they natural enough defenders to play the FB positions in the formation we’re trying to play? Should we sacrifice the attacking qualities of Shaw and Tony V for a while, and play Darmian and Blind at RB and LB to see if it makes us more steady?

COREY: The problem with going for more traditional full backs is width. Right now they are the only ones providing width, with the likes of Martial, Mata, Mkhitaryan and co all interchanging and drifting inwards. If you play more defensive full backs, then you need to play more traditional wingers that stay out wide. But then it would be cross after cross with only Zlatan in the box. Maybe in a 4-2-3-1 you’d have your number 10 arriving in the box late. But in a 4-3-3, your central midfielders aren’t going to charge into the box and risk being caught on the break. Instead they will sit on the edge of the box and mop up cleared balls from defensive headers.
Morgan Schneiderlin-min
RICK: I disagree. In a 4-3-3, when the cross comes from one side, the opposing winger is meant to get in the box to provide bodies. If you look at most wingers nowadays they get into the box to get on the end of headers, Antonio at West Ham for example. Plus at least one of the three CMs is also meant to go in, with one staying on the edge for clearances. That makes 3-4 bodies in the box for each cross. If we play my preferred team, that would put Pogba and Herrera in the box with Carrick on the edge. Or Pogba in the box with Herrera on the edge. So we would have plenty of support.

DAN: I think our problems are all down to formation. We aren’t a 4-2-3-1 team with the players we have, we are more a 4-3-3 or 3-5-2. We haven’t got any natural wingers. Pogba needs a Carrick alongside him who can keep it simple and break up play. I’d prefer a 4-3-3 with Martial and Rashford either side of Ibrahimovic and a midfield 3 of Carrick, Pogba and Rooney, but I think with the players we have, against some teams we could go three at the back, especially against those who play one up top. Carrick would hold, Shaw and Valencia play like wing backs anyway. Play Martial/Rashford next to Ibrahimovic with Rooney in midfield behind them. I honestly think we are waiting for Pogba, Rooney and Ibrahimovic to click and we will be deadly.

TOM: For me, for a 4-3-3 to work we can’t rely on a limited player like Fellaini, there needs to be a creative force behind the two CMs. Fellaini has shown improvement in a two man pivot but is not the man to control things from deep. I understand his inclusion against Watford because of his height, but it wasn’t working as he won hardly any of the second balls and is just a recycler of the ball. In a 4-3-3, there needs to be a player with vision who can read the game defensively and play an offensive pass from deep to set things moving, we only really have three that fit the bill (four if you include Timbo) and that’s Carrick, Blind and Basti. Basti seems like his time is done with us though so its a toss up between Mike and Daley. Blind is a great reader of the game and can pick a pass but generally recycles more often than not, so for me we’re crying out for Carrick at the moment.
COREY: My issue with the team right now is the style of play rather than the formation. First there’s our pressing. I personally prefer a high press, however Mourinho clearly does not. But regardless of when you press, you have to press as a team. You cannot have one or two people pressing while the rest of the team drops off. Teams like Watford should not be having long spells of possession and they should not be allowed to find a flow to their passing. When one player closes down the ball, the other players need to be pressing the outlets and closing the passing lanes.

The other problem I have noticed is our transition from defence to attack. We are either taking unnecessary risks trying to play out from the back and are too slow doing it, or we are punting the ball up the field either to a lonely Zlatan or into space for Rashford and Martial to run on to. We should not be punting the ball up field. In most of the Real Madrid counter attacks under Mourinho, the ball was kept on the ground, and it was played with pace. It was quick one-twos and through balls. You never saw Ramos just punting it up to Benzema, for example.

Both problems can be solved by improving one feature, and that is our off the ball movement. And that’s where dropping Rooney and Fellaini comes into play. Playing Schneiderlin and Herrera in a 4-3-3 instead of Fellaini and Rooney adds a lot more pace and mobility to our midfield.

HEMOR: Our problem is that we sit back and let our opponent attack us in the hope that we’ll stop them from causing any damage. Whether that’s Mourinho’s tactical approach or the players are just not showing interest I don’t know. However one thing is obvious, our players aren’t working hard enough on the pitch, I read that United have run the shortest distance in the EPL.
Jose Mourino-min
COREY: Mourinho does in fact tell his players to drop deep, it is part of his philosophy. The point is not to invite pressure, it is to stretch the play. A lot of teams come and sit deep against us, so by sitting deep and inviting teams to push out of their half we are creating space to exploit on the counter attack.

HEMOR: I strongly agree with us sitting back and counter attacking City even though we didn’t do it well. But sitting back against a team like Watford is what I don’t understand. They should be the ones sitting back, not us.

Another problem we have is our attacking players don’t make efficient use of the ball and lose it easily, which gives the opponent another chance to attack us. Also, Pogba pushes forward a lot without tracking back, which has left Fellaini isolated and gives our opponents a lot of space in midfield. I can’t blame Pogba for that, though, because that’s how he played at Juventus. He pushes forward because the likes of Marchisio and Khedira are behind him doing the defensive work and controlling the game. Pogba usually picks up the ball in the final third, where he can use his creativity and offensive abilities to damage the opponent, but in a two man midfield he doesn’t have that freedom. That’s why I’ve been asking for 4-3-3 since we signed him. Pogba and Herrera playing in front of a DM (whoever it is) will give us more defensive cover, a more offensive option, but more importantly it will give Pogba total freedom to push forward because the DM and Herrera have his back.

COREY: But this problem has two solutions, neither of which require a formation change. Firstly, you can tell Pogba to be more disciplined, and not get exposed so high up the field all the time. The second thing you could do is make him our No. 10, and stick two actually defensive midfielders behind him.
Paul Pogba-min
FAB: A specific system needs the right players. At Inter, you could see that the midfield was everything to Mourinho. I know it was quite a defensive lineup, but it was necessary to beat the likes of Barcelona in the UCL. That treble winning team had someone like Esteban Cambiasso, who would read the game for him, and I think that this is Jose’s major concern at United at the moment. Someone like Michael Carrick is definitely an option along with Herrera and Schneiderlin. But for sure, our game is screaming out for someone like Ander Herrera to play.

TOM: Also, adding Carrick or Blind allows us to switch formation without having to make subs, as both can play DM, CM and even switch to CB if necessary to make a back three, allowing us to switch between all the formations mentioned depending on what is needed in a match.

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