Manchester United interim manager Ralf Rangnick attempted to make use of False-nine tactics against Manchester City at the Etihad. Formation wise, the German has switched between the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-2-2-2 very often this season. Rangnick used Bruno Fernandes as a false-nine in the Man United line-up. United showed bright signs but were ultimately steamrolled by a magnificent City side.
The false-nine is an interesting option for Rangnick in future games too. With Edinson Cavani’s recurring injuries, Rashford and Ronaldo’s drop in form, the Red Devils are short of natural centre-forward options.
How could Rangnick modify his set-up to make the false-nine more effective?
David De Gea has been the go-to man for United this season. The Spanish goalkeeper has been a crucial figure between the sticks for the Red Devils. De Gea’s ball-playing abilities are arguably the biggest downside of his game. However, the 31-year-old makes up for his poor distribution with exceptional shot-stopping abilities, and hence is a crucial part of this side.
Raphael Varane and Harry Maguire are the ideal centre-back combination for the Red Devils. Both players are comfortable with the ball at their feet, which means they will act as the first line of progression.
The players also have contrasting profiles which help them to cover up for each other’s deficiencies. Varane is one of the paciest centre-backs in world football. The Frenchman’s recovery speed makes him an asset in executing the high-line that Rangnick often desires. Maguire is very good in the air, and one of United’s best progressors from the back.
United’s full-back combination is dependent on other key areas of the field.
On the left, Luke Shaw has struggled to touch the meteoric heights he achieved last season. However, the Englishman has been defensively sound and safe in possession. Telles is a more attacking player, and a lot more involved higher up the field. Another interesting note is that the Brazilian has also played as a defensive mid-fielder for Porto. This creates avenues for interesting rotations, especially when the Red Devils are in possession.
On the right flank, United do not have any wingers who are naturally comfortable at giving width. Rashford, Sancho and Elanga are all more comfortable in the half-spaces or closer to the goal.
When Wan-Bissaka on the right flank effectively kills off all attacks down the wing. United tend to be more compact or narrow in shape making the defending easier for the opponents. Dalot on the other hand is a player who offers more in the final third. The effective use of wide spaces is a crucial aspect of utilizing a false-nine. The Portuguese has dropped in and out of the side in recent weeks but is the better fit for this system.
One of United’s biggest problems this season has been the lack of a natural 6. McTominay and Fred have both been used in the deeper role, with varied success. However, the Red Devils have looked defensively fragile due to this constraint. The pivot is often caught higher up the field, allowing opponents to directly attack United’s centre-backs. Nemanja Matic is a great fit for the role. However, the Serbian lacks the legs to continuously be a reliable option for Rangnick.
United could tackle this issue with an unconventional solution. Victor Lindelof could be utilized as a DM in the formation. The Swedish international has been deployed in the centre and right side of the defence this season but has played in the mid-field under previous manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Lindelof also started his career as a mid-fielder.
We have named an attack-minded full-back on either flank. Using Lindelof as a pivot allows the Red Devils to transition between a 3-man back and a 4-man back more effectively, adding variety to their attack.
The 27-year-old also adds more defensive strength in the middle of the park, while not compromising quality on the ball. Lindelof is a very efficient long-passer and composed under pressure.
Ahead of Lindelof, Paul Pogba is a sure starter. The Frenchman has been in imperious form under Rangnick this season. Pogba can act as the creative and progressive fulcrum of the team. On the left, the 28-year-old will be ideally placed to occupy the half-space in possession. He also can be given the freedom to drop deeper as Telles overlaps.
On the right, it is a toss-up between McTominay and Fred. The Scot offers more stability and helps to recycle possession. The Brazilian is a more dynamic figure with plenty of energy.
Since United are playing with two offensive full-backs, there is a higher possibility that they will get caught on the break. In such scenarios, McTominay acting as an auxiliary 6 would add more defensive solidity. McTominay is also a useful presence in the box for set-pieces or crosses.
The clear takeaway is that Fred is the more dynamic player, and attempts more pressures, tackles and interceptions. McTominay is a more passive but safer option off the ball.
By playing three contrasting profiles, United’s midfield will have a lot of flexibility in shape. It can take up a double pivot shape, or a single pivot with 2 8s.
Jadon Sancho is another player who has come into his own in recent days. The Englishman has been very effective down the left flank. Sancho can give width, allowing runners from deep to utilize the half-spaces.
Alternatively, Rangnick can make use of Sancho in the half-spaces, allowing Telles to overlap better.
On the right, Rangnick has a choice between Elanga and Rashford. In recent weeks, 20-year-old Elanga has been a revelation. He also scored the crucial equalizer against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.
What Elanga adds to this side different from the other forwards is his movement off the ball. The Red Devils have the luxury of Ronaldo, Rashford, Sancho, Fernandes and Pogba in their attack; all technically gifted players. However, none of them provides enough movement without the ball at their feet. Elanga’s runs from deep constantly disrupt the opposition defence and also create spaces for other players to occupy. Rashford is also a great fit for the role of the right-wing. However, based on present form, Elanga edges out the Englishman.
Bruno Fernandes at false-nine is an exciting option. The Portuguese has been United’s best player this season with 9 goals and 6 assists to his name. Fernandes often has a “free role” in the United set-up, allowing him to pick out pockets of space to exploit. Deploying the former-Sporting CP mid-fielder in the false-9 role allows him to roam the field without sacrificing the structural integrity of the team.
All-in-all, the base formation would look like this:
Off the ball, this set-up does not compromise on Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2 pressing structure. Pogba could step into the dual centre-forward role when united are off the ball.
On the ball, this formation creates avenues for several interesting rotations. Let’s highlight a few salient features this formation allows:
- 2 10s higher up the field:
Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are highly effective players in the half-spaces. By allowing Elanga to drop into the centre-forward role, the team can also create a scenario for Fernandes to occupy the half-space. This provides 2 benefits:
- Elanga can hold-off opposition defenders to create space in front of the box, or make runs behind
- Pogba and Fernandes, the team’s best creator, can stay as close to the opposition goal as possible.
- Inverted full-backs, semi-inverted full-backs:
Sancho and Elanga are both effective players out wide. This could create a facility for Rangnick to invert Telles and Dalot, allowing Pogba and McTominay to also push higher up. McTominay will be able to make late runs into the box and provide a crossing option for the wingers. This set-up also retains the full-backs deeper, making defensive transitions easier.
An equally feasible option for Rangnick is to invert only one full-back. Inverting Telles would allow Sancho to find space in the wider areas. Dalot on the other side can overlap allowing Elanga to move closer to the goal. So while the team formation remains unchanged, Rangnick is being able to utilize individual player skill-sets differently across the field.
- 3-man back or 4-man back:
With Lindelof functioning as a defensive mid-fielder, United can take up a 3 at the back shape at any point. Another variation to achieve the 3 back would be by allowing McTominay to drop into the space created by Dalot overlapping.
Such a set-up would be more useful against opponents trying to press higher up the field.
Is a false-nine the right way for United to line up? What other players could fit into the team? Let us know in the comments.