Manchester United have had to wait for their first home win of the season but it arrived in emphatic fashion with a 5-0 win over RB Leipzig on Wednesday night. Faced with two daunting fixtures to open their Champions League campaign, United have won both in style.
Marcus Rashford will take the plaudits, and rightly so after his quickfire hat-trick after coming on as a second-half substitute. But up against the dapperly dressed Julian Nagelsmann, widely regarded as the most astute young coach in European football, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got it spot on and deserves huge credit for the manner of this victory against the Bundesliga leaders.
United’s long unbeaten run towards the back end of last season was built around a 4-2-3-1 formation that relied heavily on a select group of players. These two European successes have come after changes to the shape and the personnel. A sign of adaptability and depth.
Donny van de Beek’s role at the club came under intense scrutiny in the build-up to this game, much to Solskjaer’s bemusement. The £40m signing from Ajax is still waiting for his first Premier League start but the season is only five games old and he was given his opportunity here.
The Dutchman’s inclusion in a diamond formation not only proved that it is possible to find a role for him but might even point the way forward for United under Solskjaer.
This system suits so many of his key players.
Mason Greenwood’s opening goal highlighted that perfectly. Fred won the ball back in midfield before Paul Pogba, floating on the left side of midfield, drove forward before threading a pass in behind the Leipzig backline. Greenwood, operating in a more central role as part of a front two, made the run from in to out and finished with his left foot.
Everyone involved in that goal benefits from the team’s new shape.
Pogba, in particular, has been a victim of the 4-2-3-1 because it places too much defensive responsibility on him, accentuating some of his weaker points. Here, he was able to operate with that extra bit of freedom without compromising United’s defensive structure.
Solskjaer appears to have come to the conclusion that he needs two of Fred, Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay on the pitch to provide the necessary protection for his defence.
The diamond formation enables the United boss to find a place for Pogba without undermining the influence of Bruno Fernandes – who was shifted out to the right wing to accommodate the Frenchman’s introduction of the bench against Chelsea at the weekend.
Of course, it does mean one of Greenwood, Rashford and Anthony Martial missing out – and all three were on the scoresheet against Leipzig, with the latter converting a penalty. But that should not be too much of an issue – in fact, the system arguably suits all three more.
None are out-and-out wingers. Greenwood’s goal was an example of the sort of opportunity that he has been denied when restricted to the right, while Rashford is also happier when playing more centrally – as was evident for all three of his confidently struck goals.
Martial is the one who has been given the nominal striker’s role but his forays down the flanks are one of his greatest strengths and he has been unable to do much of that when asked to provide that reference point for the team in the middle of the pitch.
Van de Beek has the intelligence to play that withdrawn central role, lending the ball to others, and if it should become available more often, it is a better solution than the formation against Chelsea that effectively leaves him as third choice for one position.
Fernandes’ late cameo was enough to remind everyone that Van de Beek will have to settle for being second choice even in this system, however. For all of the neat work of the new arrival, he does not possess the remarkable imagination of Fernandes. Few do.
After almost finding Martial with a delightfully dinked free-kick, he had the awareness to put Rashford through on goal to double United’s lead and end any doubt about the result. Leipzig’s defence did not see it coming but Fernandes already had the picture in his head.
Maybe it is Solskjaer who has a clearer picture now too.
What a response it has been after that shocking 6-1 defeat at home to Tottenham. Solskjaer could hardly have hoped for more positives since then. He will welcome the versatility now evident within his squad. Do not expect him to stick to any one formation just yet.
But the potential of this team was there for all to see in this win. The diamond might not be forever and United will not always sparkle as they did in the final 15 minutes at Old Trafford, but it would be a surprise now if it is only brought out on special occasions.