Manchester United’s defenders have had ups and downs already this season. Conceding three goals to Crystal Palace was fairly questionable, but the most notable low point was some shocking defending which led to a 6-1 home defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur. While fans were quick to criticise the likes of Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, and Victor Lindelof, the players have since proved many of their critics wrong, with some quality performances in clean sheets against Chelsea and RB Leipzig. Despite this, there is still a large question mark over who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should start in his back line.
Manchester United’s Defensive Conundrum
Solskjaer tends to vary his team between a back four and a back five depending on the opposition.
The Norwegian manager usually deploys five at the back against big teams. It can provide more defensive stability, while also including attacking wing-backs who can greatly help the front line. He has used this to perfection in games like the matchday one Champions League fixture against Paris Saint-Germain this season.
Despite being depleted at the back with the likes of Harry Maguire and Eric Bailly out injured, Solskjaer still opted for five defenders. In the centre, Axel Tuanzebe and Luke shaw partnered Victor Lindelof, with the former putting on a fantastic display, his first match for ten months. As Shaw had tucked in as a left-sided centre-back, Alex Telles was given his debut at left back, and was allowed more attacking freedom than he would be in a back four. Aaron Wan-Bissaka started at right back as usual.
Despite not keeping a clean sheet, these five players provided United with arguably the team’s best defensive performance of the season so far, nullifying the explosive power of the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, and Angel Di Maria.
More often, however, Solskjaer sets his team up with a back four. More defensive fullbacks mean that they are unlikely to be caught too high up the pitch. And if they are, having just four defenders leaves an extra man elsewhere on the pitch, meaning that a midfielder will be able to cover.
Both of these formations have worked well for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United, and choosing which to use on a game-by-game basis will provide the best results for the Red Devils.
United have a wide range of players to choose from at the back.
In terms of right-backs, Wan-Bissaka is far and away the first choice, no matter whether Solskjaer chooses four or five at the back. His defensive ability is exceptional, and arguably the best in the Premier League, but his attacking game is also quality, and improving all the time. Brandon Williams provides good backup to the former Crystal Palace man, with a bright future ahead of him.
In the centre of defence, things start to become a little more complicated. In Solskjaer’s defensive four, Maguire and Lindelof seem to be the preferred choice. However, Axel Tuanzebe’s fantastic return from injury in the match against PSG certainly makes him a contender, and Eric Bailly provides quality when not stuck on the injury table. Luke Shaw is another capable centre-back for united, having shown his worth there in a back five, but Solskjaer usually uses him as a left fullback. Finally, Teden Mengi was promoted to the first team this season, and looks set to be a star of the future.
With all of these quality options, there is much room for change in the centre of defence. However, with all players fully fit, the most probable choice in a back four are Maguire and Lindelof, with Tuanzebe the most likely addition when switching to a back five.
Finally, United have two options at left-back: Shaw and Telles. In the glimpse that fans got of the Brazilian on his debut against PSG, he showed that he could certainly provide more going forwards than Shaw. Although Telles has only started one match for the Red Devils, and has just tested positive for the Coronavirus, he seems the more likely choice at left back, being an exciting new addition to the squad.