Box midfields. The fashion, the fad, the latest innovation. Whatever you may think of them, it seems that Erik ten Hag is keen to implement the strategy in some form at Manchester United, as demonstrated in their Premier League opener against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Against Tottenham Hotspur, it will be interesting to see whether the Dutchman abandons the tactic, tries it again, or, perhaps more interestingly, finds another way to achieve it.
Box Midfields: Why?
The virtues of a box midfield really came to light last season, with a number of managers both based in England and abroad enjoying success through packing their midfield with an extra player moving into the middle of the park.
The general idea is to create overloads all around the pitch, while allowing certain players to move into dangerous areas from seemingly innocuous ones, usually – but not always, as we shall see – with two number tens pushing up as a player moves to support an existing holding midfielder to create a double pivot.
In theory, it also enables the team to work the ball through the middle of the pitch more freely due to numerical superiority. It is also popular among teams that favour counter-pressing strategies, since, while the touchline can act as an extra defender in wide areas, when possession is lost in the centre of the pitch, the more players that have access to the ball carrier in transition, the more likely they are to see immediate pressure rewarded.
With those advantages in mind, it is clear to see why a box midfield would be attractive to a manager like Ten Hag, who favours attacking in numbers and winning the ball back quickly. So how can he do it?
Luke Shaw Inverted: The Arteta Way
Perhaps the most obvious example early in the 2022/2023 season was Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, in which he had Oleksandr Zinchenko invert alongside Thomas Partey to form the double pivot as Granit Xhaka and Martin Odegaard pushed on. It was immensely successful and a big factor in The Gunners’ title challenge last term.
One problem Arsenal have suffered from in seasons gone by has been teams doubling up on their wingers, with Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli seen as their most prominent threats. Both players saw a huge spike in productivity last season – the Brazilian in particular, going from six Premier League goals to fifteen. With Zinchenko and, to a lesser extent Ben White, moving infield, opposition wingers would often follow them. That allowed Arsenal to get their wide players on the ball in one-on-one situations more regularly, thus increasing their ability to affect the game.
Zinchenko, as a player who started his professional career in midfield, was also more than capable in possession, helping his team build play through the thirds. His stamina also made him excellent at supporting Partey in winning the ball within seconds of Arsenal losing it.
Luke Shaw is an excellent passer of the ball, and one of Manchester United’s more press-resistant players. Despite having had some fitness concerns throughout his career, he generally has a good engine, as he has shown with some excellent performances when attacking high up the pitch and demonstrating good recovery pace. But against Wolves, the experiment of him inverting to sit alongside Casemiro barely lasted half an hour.
Part of the problem was the way Wolves had set up. While limiting the space of Matheus Cunha and Matheus Nunes to dribble freely through the centre was, in hindsight, the major failure of United throughout the course of the match, early on Pedro Neto was also a problem. The winger was more than happy to go down the line, and Shaw struggled to cover both the left-back zone and the zone alongside Casemiro. The experiment was therefore abandoned, although curiously both Mason Mount and Bruno Fernandes continued to play as dual tens. Poor Cas.
Whether Shaw just isn’t quite fit enough to cover two roles simultaneously or whether it is a matter of getting used to the tactic is unclear. In any case, the system did no favours for young Alejandro Garnacho, who played perhaps his worst match in a United shirt since joining the first team. Part of his struggle originated from the lack of support he received from other players. Wolves, essentially playing a 4-4-2 with two deep strikers, were able to cover Shaw with a forward (usually Pablo Sarabia) and still maintain a two-on-one against Garnacho.
As a side note, this kind of strategy could well become the norm for teams attempting to counter the box midfield, and one that Erik ten Hag might consider when facing sides such as Arsenal and Man City in the league. This brings us nicely to our next idea.
Lisandro Martinez pushed up: The John Stones Gambit
When Pep Guardiola makes a tactical tweak of some kind, it is often seen as a groundbreaking, revolutionary change to the game. Usually, it is really just a case of opening an old book. That was largely the case with his use of a 3-4-2-1 shape in possession during the second half of last season – it’s the old ‘WM’ system of yesteryear, before 4-4-2s became in vogue.
Fairly similar to the setup Arteta got so much joy out of when Zinchenko was in the team, in terms of the benefits it brought to the side, there was one key difference. Rather than inverting a fullback as Arsenal and later Liverpool did, he instead pushed up a centre-back: John Stones. With physical defenders nominally taking up the wide defensive positions, City were able to narrow their remaining back three in possession to defend against direct counter-attacks, while Stones and Rodri provided the shield against more structured attacks through the middle.
The added advantage here is that a player has less distance to make up when moving between a central position in the defence and one deep in midfield, meaning Guardiola did not need a physical freak like Zinchenko, nor was he as at risk in transition as Liverpool have often been with Trent Alexander-Arnold inverting.
Lisandro Martinez is the only defender Manchester United have who has spent a significant amount of his career in midfield, and is, therefore, the obvious candidate to support Casemiro through that position. He was, in fact, Arteta’s first choice to play in the ‘Zinchenko role’ in the summer of 2022 before The Red Devils snapped him up. The Argentine’s success as a central defender, however, means that he will probably never play as an inverted fullback under Erik ten Hag. But that does not mean he cannot be used in a box midfield.
An excellent passer of the ball and a front-foot ball winner, Martinez would be excellent in supporting Casemiro in situations such as Monday night, where teams set out to charge through United’s midfield. It may well have been the tactical change that Erik ten Hag actually wanted to make, but unfortunately, an injury denied him the opportunity to do so.
There are some important differences in personnel terms between United and City, however, and that could make this strategy somewhat difficult for Ten Hag to implement. Guardiola’s aforementioned use of physical fullbacks strong in the air is an important factor in halting counter-attacks, which United do kind of have, depending on who is playing. Luke Shaw and Diogo Dalot are both good in the air – for fullbacks at least – but Tyrell Malacia and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are far from it. Playing a system that only works for two options out of four would not be ideal, particularly considering that on Man United’s right side, Wan-Bissaka is the in-form option.
Additionally, an in-possession back three of Dalot, Raphael Varane, and Shaw would offer good ball progression, but is still some way off the City trio of Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias or Manuel Akanji, and Nathan Ake in terms of stopping counter-attacks and winning aerial duels. Still, with United now able to play a high line and limit aerial contests thanks to the summer signing of Andre Onana, it is there as an option.
Mason Mount dropping in: The Xavi Gavi Solution
The box midfield was not just an English Premier League phenomenon last season – it occurred all over Europe. Barcelona had gone three seasons without a La Liga title for the first time since they won the competition in 2005, but charged to a comfortable win last term, with a tweak from Xavi proving decisive. Much like Guardiola, the Barca boss had begun the season playing a fairly orthodox 4-3-3 with the standard positional play principles in place. But some shaky performances – particularly in Europe – along with the emergence of La Masia graduate Gavi prompted a change in system.
Readers will notice that creating a box midfield almost always involves having a player perform two roles simultaneously, with others shuffling to accommodate. In Barcelona’s case, there were a pair of academy graduates doubling their workload for the team while other players covered.
Gavi nominally took up a position on the left wing, but spend the vast majority of his time playing right alongside Pedri in the hole, allowing Frenkie de Jong to drop into his favoured deep inside left position besides Sergio Busquets. The end result was a box midfield created by a forward dropping in rather than a defender pushing up or inverting.
But with a player now spare at the back, it also meant that the electric Alejandro Balde had the freedom of the left flank, and boy did he use it. The 19-year-old would often be found playing right on the shoulder of the opposition defence, primely positioned for through balls from De Jong and Gavi, or a long diagonal from Pedri. Once more, the box allows the wide man to isolate the defender one-on-one, only this time the wide man is coming from a deep position where he has had plenty of time to pick up pace over his eventual marker.
In Mason Mount, Manchester United have signed a versatile player, and Erik ten Hag is known to value that quality in his squad. While Mount is expected to play the majority of his matches in midfield, he does not always have to start there. As arguably the team’s most high-intensity runner, he is probably the most suited to covering two roles in tandem, and his blend of counter-pressing nous and technical ability would lend him well to playing in ‘the Gavi role’ in such a system. As an added benefit, he could do it from either side, giving the manager more options.
Ten Hag clearly wants two number tens in the team, but his pursuit of Sofyan Amrabat suggests that he may well go for a natural double pivot at the same time. The Moroccan dropping in alongside Casemiro while Mount drops in alongside Bruno Fernandes seems a far more suitable setup given the players United would have at hand.
The potential benefit to Luke Shaw would also be interesting. He may not have the lightning speed of Balde, but he has shown himself to be a fine contributor to his team’s attacking phase of play during his time at the club.
At the weekend, Ben Chilwell delighted in his newfound freedom under Mauricio Pochettino – who pretty much set his side up in a 3-Box-3 with no real wibble-wobble positional hoodoo – and viewers will have seen how effective that could prove to be this season after he broke through Liverpool’s defence to score a one-on-one that was unfortunately ruled out for offside. Shaw may not be as good a finisher, but he is roughly as quick and a better passer of the ball, meaning he could become a real creative weapon given the space to do so.
Fitness over the course of the season could be a concern in such a demanding role, but United do have a couple of other options who would be effective in covering for Shaw. Malacia has the speed, stamina, and dribbling ability to do some damage on his day, while Dalot showed that he can be a goal threat from exactly that kind of position when he scored against Nottingham Forest last season. In the background, Alvaro Fernandez is, for now, still at the club, and viewers of last term’s EFL Championship can tell you all about how dangerous he is in attacking positions.
Erik ten Hag does have options in the squad if he is intent on pursuing a box midfield with Manchester United, but all of them do come with issues that will need surmounting.
The Shaw experiment against Wolves showed plainly that a box is not for every occasion, and even when it is appropriate, there are question marks over the England international’s suitability for the role. Whether that is down to fitness or understanding is unclear, but something will need to change for it to be a viable option.
Lisandro Martinez pushing on forces the manager into specific team selections to keep United safeguarded against direct attacks into physical forwards, of which there are many in the Premier League. Martinez is surely the most suitable player in the current squad to support Casemiro from the back, however, meaning it may well be worth it in the long run.
As for Mount dropping in, there are two main problems. Firstly, Man United will need to sign another midfielder to make it work, and with Amrabat out of the club’s price range at present, that will mean successfully negotiating another player’s departure. Secondly, it will place an extra burden on the fullbacks, although this has arguably become one of the strongest positions in the squad under Ten Hag.
But as we saw last season when David de Gea posed problems playing out from the back, the Dutchman’s pragmatism will see him abandon the pursuit of a tactical ideal if he finds it to be unsuitable for his squad in the season’s opening weeks. He gave it two games last term, so we are likely to see at least one more attempt at a box midfield in some form or another against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday.