Exploring Manchester United’s new attacking setup
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: 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: 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.