The news keeps getting worse for Manchester United.
After 2 below-par performances in the first two games of the Premier League, first came the news of Mason Mount’s injury, then Luke Shaw’s injury further dampened the remaining enthusiasm.
While Mount’s injury could actually be a blessing in disguise, Shaw’s injury is so significant it could lead to many fans’ Manchester United vs Nottingham Forest prediction being torn to shreds.
At his best, Shaw is United’s most progressive player at the back while also having the athleticism to shut his flank down in defence.
Erik ten Hag has a tactical nightmare on his hands trying to work around this issue because what Shaw brings to this team cannot be replicated entirely.
Here are the three ways he can set his team up to make it look better than the sum of its parts-
Realistic option- Diogo Dalot
It will be right in tune with United’s season so far if the Aaron Wan-Bissaka vs Diogo Dalot debate, the good kind, is ended by an injury to Luke Shaw.
Dalot has previously played at left-back under Erik ten Hag and he is the most realistic option to do so against Nottingham Forest.
He is fairly two-footed and his athleticism rivals Shaw’s. However, as said earlier, any option that replaces the English international won’t be as good.
Dalot’s weakness is two-fold- he is not comfortable in tight spaces and defensively, he remains a little suspect.
Forest will sit back and hit on the counter, a nightmare tactical scenario for Dalot as it exposes both his weaknesses.
Furthermore, he is a natural right-footed player. United play with inverted wingers, who cut inside onto their stronger foot. In such a scenario, the full-back needs to overlap and stretch the opposition. Dalot’s natural tendency will be to come inside on his stronger right, leaving the Forest defence in a comfortable position.
United will find themselves having multiple players in the same space on the pitch, a tactical nightmare.
Ten Hag will probably choose him anyway because the other options are even riskier.
Daring option- Alvaro Fernandez
You know what you get with Alvaro Fernandez. Lots of attacking endeavour, a mazy dribble or two which makes you think he’s destined for the top, and a whole lot of defensive issues.
Fernandez is coming off a successful loan at Preston in the Championship where he was voted their Young Player of the Year.
His pre-season displays for United were also encouraging, albeit a bit shaky in defence.
Having said that, if there was ever a game in which to blood him successfully, Nottingham Forest is it.
United will probably end up having more than 60% possession, and that’s where Fernandez thrives. With Wan-Bissaka on the right, United can even go for a lopsided full-back system, where Fernandez plays as a quasi-winger to hold the width on the left.
Wan-Bissaka can stay back and form a back-three in possession, ably supported by Casemiro ahead of the defensive line.
An incisive full-back on his stronger foot should be the answer to a team sitting in a deep block. A daring option should be the way to go against a team daring you to break them down.
Will Ten Hag think the same? One shouldn’t hold their breath on it considering his stubbornness in team selections.
Wild card option- Victor Lindelof
This one is for the tactical savants. Against Wolves, Shaw was tasked with coming inside to support Casemiro, forming a “box midfield” to have numerical superiority in the middle.
The experiment was ended after 30 minutes as nobody quite figured out their role, leaving Casemiro on an island all by himself in the middle.
Victor Lindelof fits that role like a glove if Ten Hag wants to try it again.
Mikel Arteta bought right-footed Jurrien Timber and immediately installed him as the left-back, a position he had never played in his career. He looked imperious because that role was that of a left-back in only the name.
In practice, he used to come into the midfield as the inverted full-back, on his stronger right foot, and unsettle teams with his brilliant passing repertoire.
Lindelof offers exactly that skill set, with the added bonus of more physicality and strength. United will dominate possession and Forest’s threat on the counter can be sniffed out by funneling their attacks out wide. Inverted full-backs provide that flexibility.
The middle is clogged as the full-backs sit inside, alongside the defensive midfielder, forcing the opposition to pass away from the goal. Considering United’s midfield repeatedly emptying in the first two games, this option makes a lot of sense to solidify the soft underbelly of the team.
Besides these three options, the manager can play Lisandro Martinez as the left-back as well but his skillset is too important in the middle of defence. Either way, United need to make the best of the bad situation they’ve been given. Anything less than a win against Forest will ensure full-blown panic mode.