Exploring Manchester United’s new attacking setup

August 8, 2016 Tags: , , , , , , , Reads 17 comments
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For the first time in what feels like a generation there are plenty of options in Manchester United’s attack. Such was the depth of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal’s mediocrity that each was an architect of some of the most boring football seen at Old Trafford in decades. It is now José Mourinho’s time and the impression is already strong that he will not stand for it. Fun is returning to the red side of Manchester.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba will rejuvenate an attack that has lost its potency since Sir Alex Ferguson led the club to the title in 2013. Robin Van Persie’s super left foot spearheaded England’s most lethal attack, as the Red Devils plundered 86 goals in the league, 11 more than any other club as United stormed to a title that was essentially won in late March.

Those days are gone; goals became something of a rarity and not a certainty, particularly at home. It became common for United to limp to scoreless draws under Van Gaal, but the hope is that with a better system and greater talent available that becomes a thing of the past.

Mourinho has traditionally used a 4-2-3-1 system, with two deep-lying midfielders sitting behind a trio of attacking players and a front man that carries the bulk of the attacking load. His teams have scored plenty of goals.

It will be interesting to see how Pogba fits into the system. The Frenchman thrives as a central midfielder with freedom, a role in which he dominated last season after Arturo Vidal’s departure from Juventus. Pogba was the driving force in an outstanding Juve midfield, even without Vidal and the departed Andrea Pirlo.

Pogba suffered criticism after a series of underwhelming performances at the European Championships where he mostly featured in a deeper role. This is a big reason why Mourinho will not deploy the Frenchman as part of a two-man central axis. Instead, Pogba will be used as the advanced midfielder in a 4-2-1-3  or 4-2-3-1 system.

"For the first time in what feels like a generation there are plenty of options in Manchester United’s attack. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba will rejuvenate an attack that has lost its potency since Sir Alex Ferguson led the club to the title in 2013. Fun is returning to the red side of Manchester. "

Mourinho’s major attacking conundrum comes with Wayne Rooney’s role. The Englishman’s future no longer lies in midfield, according to his new boss, meaning that Rooney will likely only play at nine or 10. The Scouser’s inclination to drop deep means playing at 10 or in an advanced midfield role might be his best shot at redeeming a declining career, though he was truly dreadful in that role against Leicester City at Wembley.

This may also cause a problem for the Swedish striker with whom Rooney will share the front line this season. As Ibrahimović’s career has progressed, he has evolved from a striker sitting on the last man to a player more willing to drop deeper for the ball, playing in other players and creating more. Can two players who share similar traits work together, without getting in each other’s zone?

“I think every big player can work with other big players,” said the Swede. “That’s not a problem. I said many years ago the perfect partner for a striker is Wayne Rooney. He works not only for himself but for the striker and the whole team.”

Wayne Rooney Wayne Rooney: fading force

Ibrahimović echoed those sentiments when Rooney was rumoured to be an acquisition target for Paris Saint Germain towards the end of Ferguson’s era in Manchester. Perhaps there is hope. Willingness to work together is one thing – it remains to be seen whether they will gel on the field.

Rooney, Pogba and Ibrahimović, three challenges for Mourinho to solve. So what are some of the set-ups the Red Devils can utilise this season? With Ibrahimović, Rooney, Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard to choose from, not to mention Pogba, there’s a variety of options in the front four.

Right Wing – Central Attacking Midfield – Left Wing ; Striker

Mkhitaryan – Rooney – Martial ; Ibrahimović

Mkhitaryan’s creativity alongside Martial’s speed covers the flanks, with Luke Shaw and an overlapping right-back providing support. In this formation Rooney supports a central midfield duo and Ibrahimović leads the line. Antonio Valencia could thrive in this formation as Mkhitaryan is unlikely to hug the touchline, which will allow more room for the Ecuadorian to operate.

Mkhitaryan – Pogba – Martial ; Ibrahimović (or Rooney)

This mix offers pure athleticism and power, with Pogba’s free roaming role allowing even more space for Martial and Mkhitaryan to work around Ibrahimović, but keeping them far enough forward to not leave the Swede isolated. It would be fascinating to see what the Frenchman could do statistically playing in that role for an entire season. Don’t rule out this becoming Mourinho’s “go to” selection either, as it’s clear that the team will be built around Pogba.

Rashford – Mkhitaryan – Martial ; Ibrahimović (or Rooney)

It’s pace you want? Rashford and Martial’s youthful exuberance brings that in bunches, and the challenge each poses to defenders will allow substantial pockets of space in which the Armenian playmaker can work. Rooney has the tendency to become  isolated as a front man, so it’s likely that Ibrahimović will fill that role better than the Englishman in most formations, particularly this one.

Mkhitaryan – Ibrahimović – Martial ; Rooney

If the team is chasing goals this is the all-out-attack formation for special circumstances. Rooney and Ibrahimović’s work ethic could gel very well alongside Mkhitaryan and Martial’s penchant for scoring goals when deployed wide. From wide positions the Armenian scored six goals and made seven  assists in 14 leagues appearances last season, while Martial scored seven goals and made three assists in 18 games.

Mata – Rooney – Memphis ; Rashford

This is more likely to be a Cup Football selection, with Jesse Lingard also a possible choice ahead of Rooney, where Mata would switch to number 10. Imagine for a moment the luxury of having these players to choose from in a Carling or FA Cup tie. It’s a brave new world of exciting possibilities, even in the deprioritised games on the fixture list.

Anthony Martial Anthony Martial: explosive from the left

The reality about any combination of these attacking selections is the interchangeable names, with Memphis able to slot in for Martial, Mata coming in for Mkhitaryan, and Pogba becoming the advanced midfielder in any set up. Lingard may be utilised as a useful squad member in any attacking role, while Ibrahimović and Rooney can switch roles where required. Even Ander Herrera could be deployed in a similar role to that played by Oscar for Mourinho at Stamford Bridge.

For the first time in a while United has a multitude of options in attack. Thanks to successful off-season recruitment – a refreshing change for the club – alongside retention of players that allow Mourinho flexibility, United can now boast a variety of options depending on the opponent.

This puts an exciting spin on the beginning of a new era. The trick for Mourinho now is to make it all work. Then, he needs to make it last.


NazManUnited - August 8, 2016 Reply

@AdamJosephSport Ibrahimovic the new Boss Man!

Ngozi Daniel - August 8, 2016 Reply

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is Hugo’s Boss 😎

MrMan - August 8, 2016 Reply

Hang Rooney from the Stretford end. Sell Mata and go 433 to get the best from Pogba. Come on Jose I will take the tram to OT with the rope for you

DentonDavey - August 8, 2016 Reply

The big problem for the last three years has been a lack of foot-speed up-front. Martial/Rashford/Mhkitaryan all offer that but all three might not play at the same time, assuming that Zlatan is a lock to be the first-choice #9. Other guys – Adnan (?), Lingard, Rooney, Young (?), Mata (?) and Memphis will get playing-time AFTER the other three/four. In fact, the three “question-marks” might not be in the squad at the end of the month.

If Jo$e goes with the 4-2-3-1 then he gets less from Paul Pogba. So, spending large on Pogba means that he has to be the main-man around whom the midfield rotates – does he play as the “6” or the “8” ? or will he be restricted to one role ??

My own personal preference would be to have the “protector” role played by Blind, let Pogba be the box-to-box dynamo, and let Ander Herrera be the other guy.

The only significant complication I see in this arrangement is that Daley Blind might be more valuable as Eric Bailly’s partner in central defence. Blind is such a good “footballer” that he can be a huge asset wherever he plays because he helps to make his team-mates better.

In answer to the real question that lying-in-the-weeks = TheWayneBoy looks like he’s on borrowed-time.

LostMyWay - August 8, 2016 Reply

I’d rather scratch my eyes out than watch Blind play centre half all season again. WTF are you talking about?

Smalling is our #1 center back, so where does that and our transfer business leave Blind? On the bench where he belongs.

Denton Davey - August 8, 2016 Reply

Would you prefer this ?

De Gea
Valencia Bailly Smalling Shaw
Mkhitaryan Blind Pogba
Rashford Ibrahimovic Martial

You might want to “scratch your eyes out” but Daley Blind was a key member of an ever-changing back four last year; his partnership with DDG and Chris Smalling was key for the EPL’s lowest goals-against team. I also seem to remember that Smalling made more disastrous decisions than Blind who had a bad fortnight in early January but was otherwise very calm and assured – kinda like having prime-MC16 in midfield; hugely under-rated.

LostMyWay - August 8, 2016 Reply

I stopped reading at “redeeming a declining career”

Rooney deserves more respect than that from a fan site.

Ed - August 8, 2016 Reply

Respect is what? Lying about the fact that he’s on the decline. He is. In fact he’s pretty mediocre now.

LostMyWay - August 8, 2016 Reply



Ed - August 8, 2016 Reply

He thinks Rooney isn’t any good any more. Lots of people think that. Get off that moral high horse. Somebody has an opinion different than yours. Deal with it!

LostMyWay - August 8, 2016 Reply

So Rooney gets the same scrutiny the anti united brigade put on him out of their wired fetish here?

Honestly can’t believe I just read a United fan making a speech about how important Blind is and questioning Rooneys place in the team. It blew my mind.

Watch how much Rooneys game improves when he has world class around him, like he always has when playing with special players.

If you think Rooney doesn’t deserve a United shirt I can almost guarantee you don’t either.

Ed - August 8, 2016 Reply

Wait – so you’re OPINION is more important than anybody else’s? Tell you what, leave a name and don’t use a fake email address and we might have some more respect for your OPINON.

bobbynoble - August 9, 2016 Reply

. “……..Watch how much Rooneys game improves when he has world class around him…..”

Well it certainly needs to improve.

j-diz - August 9, 2016 Reply

You’ve lost your way if you are blind to Rooney’s long and ugly decline. Mate.

NazManUnited - August 8, 2016 Reply

Better players, better results, well that’s the expectation or should I say, hope! 😊

Mike - August 10, 2016 Reply

We won’t win the title this year for the simple fact that Rooney’s continual selection will damage the confidence of better players. Micky Taryan, Mata, Memphis, Rashford and even Martial will lose confidence as they are continually playing on eggshells as any mistake means going to the bench. The United ‘legend’ (who requested to play for multiple competolitors) meanwhile continues to stink the place and keeps getting picked.

Rooney at the moment is like an albatross around the teams neck just as Raul was for Spain before Aragones (?) dropped him before Euro 2008. That liberated the Spain squad and proved to the players that this was a meritocracy.

As long as the fat scouse is at this club playing regularly and poisoning the sense of meritocracy in the dressing room we will not take a step forward.

Rail was 10x the player he was and he got dropped l. While this idiot continually stinks up the joint.

Damn frustrating I say.

Cartis - August 14, 2016 Reply

This should be Man utd’s 1st team

De Gea
Valencia smalling Bailly shaw
Rooney Pogba
Micky Zlatan Martial

This is the best way to get the best out of Pogba and still fit Rooney in the team because i know he gets Captain privileges and Managers like him…Everybody is speaking about how to fit Rooney get the best out of Pogba forgetting we have a good player in Morgan Schneiderlin.

Any team Mourinho picks… either with two deep lying midfielders or one deep lying midfielder, Morgan Schneiderlin should be in the mix.

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