After an impressive defensive display through the 2019/20 campaign, Manchester United have failed to replicate their form at the back at the start of the 2020/21 season. Their first clean sheet in the league came in their fifth game of the season against Chelsea at home, before which they had been exposed at the back by Crystal Palace and Tottenham who put three and six past them respectively. Brighton may have also had more than the two goals they scored if not for hitting the post five times while Newcastle and Paris Saint-Germain scored once as well.
Having conceded the third-fewest number of goals in the league last season, this was not an area of the pitch that Ole Gunnar Solskjær would have thought to be a concern but the Norwegian had to find a solution quickly if his side was to overturn their poor start. There had been rumours of interest in RB Leipzig centre-back Dayot Upamecano over the summer but Alex Telles at left-back was the only defensive signing for the side.
With Chris Smalling leaving for AS Roma and Phil Jones and Marcus Rojo seemingly out of Solskjær’s plans, the only options at centre-back appear to be Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelöf, Eric Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe who had an excellent game against PSG. However, in this tactical analysis, we aim to identify if Luke Shaw could be an interesting option at centre-back instead of the four mentioned players. The Englishman has been used in a back three under Solskjær and with Telles and Brandon Williams challenging him for the left-back spot, we will present our analysis as a scout report to see if Shaw can be a solution to United’s centre-back problem.
Is Shaw a reason for the current issues?
As the full-backs, Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bisakka are expected to push forward in the attacking phases. However, a major drawback of Shaw’s game is his inability to track back quickly. The left-back is not one of the quicker players around and is often caught out of position should the opposition hit on the counter. Attackers are able to easily move into the spaces in-behind the Englishman and when afforded that much time and space, are able to pick out their teammates and run at the centre-backs.
We also see that there is a shift in the backline when Shaw moves up the pitch. Maguire and Lindelöf move to cover the space down the flank and Wan-Bisakka has to stay with the backline almost as a centre-back in order to cover the winger on the opposite flank. This essentially means that only one of the full-backs can push forward in any stage of the game as the opposition would easily find space on the counter if they were both to push forward.
We see the same problem here again where Shaw’s inability to track back quickly leaves the winger with loads of space in-behind him. Nemanja Matić has to move to cover for the left-back and this frees up the area centrally. Wan-Bisakka then has to tuck into the centre to help his centre-backs and this opens up space for the winger on the opposite flank as well.
Shaw’s weakness in these situations forces his teammates to adapt to solve the immediate threat of a cross and in doing so, piles the pressure on the defence that ends up leaving spaces for the attackers to exploit. United have often been caught out at the far post due to this as well as in central areas by a striker or midfielder running to the edge of the box. So it is clear that Shaw’s positioning is a major initiator of such threats.
The problem is amplified when another defender pushes forward as well. In the game against Brighton earlier in the season, Shaw and Wan-Bisakka looked to push forward at the same time. This meant that there was space behind both full-backs and Maguire and Lindelöf were spread as they had to cover the half-spaces. They were well out of position and this left ample spaces for the wingers to run into and switch the play as well, creating a major threat.
Brighton were able to constantly pick their gaps in the defence and the threat of conceding loomed large for United. Even with defensive midfielders in the mix, United could not find a solution to this problem and they ended up packing the centre but leaving gaps down the flanks. Luck was on their side in that they managed to get away with these errors but they were made to pay dearly by Tottenham the following week.
Here, Shaw’s weakness in positioning and defending space was exposed. With Harry Kane often dropping back to link up with the midfield, Maguire would follow him and move out of position. This meant that Shaw had to cover for his centre-back and once again it left huge spaces down the left-wing. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford would be much higher up and by the time they could fall back to cover the space and the opposition winger or full-back would find himself on the receiving end of a pass.
Shaw is not the best in one on one duels and can be easily beaten for pace and that is exactly what happened through the game. The left-back was unable to cover the left flank on his own and when he moved centrally, he could not recover quickly enough to then close off the space that he had created for the opposition wingers. He was often too close to the centre as well and was made to pay for his mistakes multiple times, with Tottenham focussing the bulk of their attacks down his flank. His lack of pace, coupled with his positioning errors, means that the left-back is an easy target for the opposition and in this way, they could then destabilise the entire defence. Hence, it is clear that Shaw’s weaknesses are an important reason as to why the United defence has been well below average so far this season.
Luke Shaw in a back three – the perfect fit?
The most recent success of the back three was in United’s game against PSG. As shown above, the United defence looked much more organised in the defensive phase, with the defensive midfielders staying close to the backline and the wing-backs tucking in as well, so as to defend the half-spaces. This meant that the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Ángel Di María were forced to wider zones of the pitch and could not move to the centre as effectively as they would have liked. Shaw featured on the left side of the back three and looked comfortable in this role, linking up well with Telles at left wing-back.
Shaw was also crucial in defending against counter-attacks. Earlier he has been a major reason as to why the opposition could find space on the counter but when used in the back three, Shaw’s positioning was much better. His lack of pace was not an issue as he was no longer tasked with running with the wingers but to cover the spaces centrally. This also meant that the pacier centre-backs in Tuanzebe and Lindelöf would be able to cover the wingers should they cut inside while Shaw could look to cut out the passing option in the box.
His role came down to reading the game and snuffing out potential threats and the Englishman was able to perform much better in this position. United needed a left-footed centre-back to be able to better link up with the left wing-back and to also cover the opposition wingers and in a back three, Shaw was definitely able to solve this issue.
What this also means is that the centre-backs now had more freedom to cut out the danger early. Earlier we had seen that Maguire pushing out of the backline meant that Shaw would have exposed the flank but when deployed in a back three, this was not the case. The wing-back would be tasked with covering the flank while Shaw could showcase his awareness and cover for the centre-back that had moved out of position. In the back three, Shaw’s positional awareness was much better than when deployed at left-back and it was proving to be an asset for Solskjær. It also seemed to bring the best out of Shaw, who did not have to run as much to cover vacant spaces down the wing and he was able to perform better throughout the game.
While Shaw was often caught out at left-back, his defensive qualities are not to be underestimated. He does possess the ability to close down wingers when in position and can certainly be a problem when used properly. This was the case when he was used in the back three. The Englishman would often be used as the cover to cut out any underlapping or overlapping runs down the wing and this meant that United could defend these zones better.
Shaw would have the wingers in front of him and not behind him and in tighter spaces, could win the ball back more efficiently. He would also have the support of the wing-back in these situations and hence would not be isolated against the wingers. This brought out the best in Shaw defensively while also providing the required cover for United down the wing and it was starting to look like a perfect marriage.
This new role also offered United greater flexibility in formation shifts through the game. Playing Shaw as the left centre-back meant that the side could also switch to a 4-2-3-1 in the game, with the Englishman moving over to his left-back spot and the left-wing back pushing higher up the pitch. This is similar to the shift that is seen in Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal where Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka work similarly down the left flank. While Williams was not the most suitable candidate to use down the left-wing in this formation shift, the signing of Telles provides greater attacking options for United and can surely make this tactic more dangerous.
When shifting to the 4-2-3-1 in-game, Shaw does not have to push as far forward as before either and hence will not be caught out as much on the counter. Should he move forward though, he could make the underlapping or overlapping run down the wing as well, providing even more width in attack. This tactic is one that is more often used against the so-called lesser opposition where United look to assert their dominance on the game. Should the opposition look to counter, Shaw would simply have to fall back and stall the opposition centrally and the faster wing-back will be able to get back and cover the space left behind. Not only does this role get the best out of Shaw, but it also seems to address the current issues at the back as well.
Is the back three the way to go?
Under Solskjær, United have employed a back three in most of the bigger fixtures. Teams like Liverpool, Manchester City and PSG have tricky and pacey wingers and the back three seems to offer the most cover and balance for the side. Solskjær understands the risk of the opposition spreading his defence and attacking the half-spaces and as a result, uses the three centre-backs to cover the threat. What this does is also afford the wing-backs greater freedom to move higher up the pitch.
In a back four, Wan-Bisakka and Shaw have not been as effective in providing width in attack and the onus of attacking down the wings falls on the wingers alone. The full-backs do not have as much freedom to attack considering that the opposition can counter down the spaces behind them and will have to stay slightly behind. This makes it difficult for United to break down sides who sit back in a low block as they are forced to work their way through the centre where the opposition has a numerical advantage and can easily close them down. The wingers also often find themselves having too many bodies to pass from the flanks and are not able to provide a large enough threat either.
The use of wing-backs naturally pushes them higher up the pitch and since they know that they have more cover at the back, they are able to operate with more freedom in attack. United’s game against Newcastle earlier in the season was an example of how dangerous they could be when they had width in attack even though they had operated with a back four. United operated with two defensive midfielders to provide cover for the centre-backs and with Newcastle sitting back, their full-backs could push higher up the pitch and aid the attack.
However, should Solskjær want to play a more creative midfielder like Paul Pogba or Donny van de Beek along with Bruno Fernandes, then the back three would be ideal in order to make the most of their wing-backs while also not reducing the cover provided for them. What the back three also does is provide United with better squad depth and options off the bench. A major concern in the previous campaign was a lack of impact off the bench but considering the summer signings and their positions, the depth looks much better when moving into a back three.
Bailly and Tuanzebe are good options to provide cover for any of the three centre-backs mentioned above while Williams and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are decent options at full-back as well. In midfield and attack, United still have the likes of Van de Beek, Juan Mata, Daniel James, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani apart from the names mentioned above and this is a good list of options to have for any side off the bench.
While it has been a strategy adopted against the bigger sides to provide more defensive cover while also being largely out of possession, we saw how United used this formation to take the game to PSG and create more than enough chances throughout the game. A changing of personnel in the defensive midfield role could also enable them to boost the attacking threat and this would be useful against the other so-called lesser opposition. As a result, the back three does seem to be an excellent option available to Solskjær and allows him to put out a well-balanced side against any opposition.
Shaw has often been exposed at left-back and with Williams making the most out of his chances last season, along with the signing of Telles, it will be difficult for him to secure that spot if such performances continue. However, a simple swapping of personnel may not solve the problem either, as we saw the problems caused by the current tactics where the centre-backs have been left exposed. In such a situation, it is interesting to see how Shaw can reinvent himself as a centre-back in a back three, having already put in multiple good performances in this position.
The 25-year-old would want to make the most out of his peak years and rather than diving into the market and splashing out more money on another centre-back, United could turn to Shaw as a solution to their problems. A left-footer with good awareness and ability to read the game at centre-back, Shaw ticks all these boxes. His lack of pace and stamina is a major issue at left-back and starting off in a back three, Shaw could slowly begin his transformation from left-back to centre-back as well. It will be intriguing to see if Solskjær fancies this change but from the evidence so far, it looks to be a near-perfect fit.