How Mourinho could evolve United’s tactics this season

August 20, 2016 Tags: , Reads 6 comments
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a man used to the spotlight. The Swede eventually stole the headlines with two goals against Southampton on Friday night, but Paul Pogba was firmly the centre of everyone’s attention during Manchester United’s first game at Old Trafford this Premier League season. The Frenchman’s integration could encourage manager José Mourinho to change his approach this season.

As a left-sided central midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system, Pogba was charged with leading the Reds’ counter-attack, with Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial providing the legs in support. Yet, Mourinho’s side was anything but a traditional 4-2-3-1, as below.


Against Southampton’s 4-4-2 diamond, the former Porto manager matched the Saints’ midfield more or less man for man.  Juan Mata tucked in on the right, Martial played as a traditional left-sided midfielder and Shaw became an auxiliary centre back, meaning that United always had a man advantage against Southampton’s strike pair of Nathan Redmond and Shane Long.

It was an unashamedly defensive move. Mourinho is presumably still guarded about United’s lack of bedding in – and the team’s lack of fluency was evident. Still, United boasted better players in every department and a match up between similar tactical formations tends to favour the more individually gifted side. The 2-0 scoreline reflected this observation.

"Evolution to a 4-4-2 diamond makes sense given the players at Old Trafford. Both Rooney and Pogba would benefit from more freedom – and more security provided by two other central midfielders."

Mata’s familiarity with a diamond formation and his performance against Bournemouth justified the Spaniard’s inclusion over Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The real surprise was Maroune Fellaini’s deployment as the holding midfielder over Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick. During three seasons at Old Trafford the Belgian has never shown the discipline traditionally associated with a role at number six.

Yet, with the Belgian dominant in the air, Claude Puel’s side was forced into the channels. Martial and Shaw on the left, and Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailey on the right, comfortably outnumbered Southampton’s forays down the channels with Daley Blind providing solid cover in the middle. Evidently, Mourinho was more than comfortable with the Saints having the ball out wide.

Pogba grew into the game during the second half and showed more than a hint of what United fans can expect from the world-record signing. The Frenchman’s composure and progressive outlook on the ball was pellucid. Not only did he always look to move the ball forward, but Pogba always had a trick or two ready to beat his man. Only the burgeoning but not-yet-there understanding between the Reds’ forwards stopped the former Juventus player chalking up a couple of assists.

Throughout the game United insisted on matching Southampton’s narrow midfield four. Considering that Martial has pace to burn, and Marcus Rashford or Mkhitaryan could have been included from the start, it might be more natural for United to stretch the game.

Mkhitaryan is a number 10 who often operates out wide. Jesse Lingard is clearly not going to force his way into the team ahead last season’s leading asset-maker in the Bundesliga. Or ahead of Mata, who has seemingly has earned Mourinho’s trust in the early games of the season.

This might leave United short of a proper right-winger, while both Martial and Rashford are centre forwards by birth and instinct. Ibrahimovic enjoys winning a flick on in attacking midfield areas so would benefit from having a proper number nine ahead of him as well.

Evolution to a 4-4-2 diamond, as below, makes an awful lot of sense given the players at Old Trafford. Both Rooney and Pogba would benefit from more freedom – and more security provided by two other central midfielders. It is worth recalling that the latter is schooled in midfield diamond from his four years at Juventus.


Although Fellaini is shown above, Carrick could easily fulfil the ‘Pirlo role’ and would benefit from having two highly energetic central midfielders ahead of him. Both Shaw and Valencia have the athleticism and pace to operate as attacking full-backs in a narrow system. Morgan Schneiderlin, Fellaini and Herrera are players with differing areas of specialty, and a tactician of Mourinho’s calibre can use that to advantage in tailoring the system to the opposition.

The very same logic applies for Rooney and Mkhitaryan, neither of whom is a traditional number 10. If an occasion calls for a Wesley Sneijder-type player, Mata can more than fill the trequartista role. Indeed, many argue that the tip of midfield diamond is the most natural home for the Spaniard. In addition, a system with two central forwards would grant Rashford more than enough minutes to ensure his continued development.

It is worth recalling that the two Mourinho sides that won the Champions League, Porto and Inter, both lacked wingers. At least in modern times, there are very few managers that can boast a similar level of success with narrow formations. With all the right ingredients already at Old Trafford, a 4-4-2 diamond will likely be in Mourinho’s tactical arsenal this season.


Denton Davey - August 20, 2016 Reply

I just can’t see how Mata/Fellaini/Rooney fit into the future – i.e, by the end of the season.

Oddly, AV25 does make sense in Jo$e’s system. It’s “odd” because he’s so limited as a traditional fullback/wingback since he’s one-footed but perhaps it’s possible to make-a-virtue-out-of-necessity by having him pin back the opposing left-sided defenders thereby opening space in which a winger/wing-back can frolic. A Valencia/Mhkitaryan combination might be very good in that way.

Adoyi Joshua - August 20, 2016 Reply

Great article Jay. I hope mourinho tries the midfield diamond doing the course of the season.

Mike - August 21, 2016 Reply

A 433 with
Carrick/Hererra, Pogba, and Fellani/schniderlin
Martial, Zlatan and Mkhitaryan

This is the most creative and balanced formation. It also incorporates all the best players in their right positions.

Unfortunately we have an Englishman who has to be played (for whatever reason that is only the Lord knows)

Its sad. I can already see our bonefide future star Martial losing his confidence being shunted out wide. His body language in the S’ton game was not that of a happy person. I would also be unhappy if I carried the team last year and now I am being played out of position to accommodatw an underperforming player.

Rashford will probably not get enough game time in attack. Stunting his awesome potential as a clinical finisher.

Mkhitaryan and Mata compete for the same spot. This is ludicris.They should play in the same line up if it is a 4231. Imagine how many chances Zlatan and Martial will get per game.

Alas its the same old problem for the past 4 years. We won against S’ton because of the individual quality of Zlatan. And we will continue to win cause we have a lot of individual quality this year.

I’m sure most will be carried away and are thinking, we are back etc.

But in reality the problems on the pitch and in the dressing room that come from playing a a player out of form are still there. And sooner or later it will come back to haunt us. It will be a shame when we see another Pogba situation happening with Martial or Rash or Memphis leaving us and blossoming in other teams which are based on meritocracy .

The Rookie - August 21, 2016 Reply

Nice work Jay.

I think the plan at the moment us for Rashford Memphis Schniederlin etc to be our Europa League starters. It’s a competition no one cares about, but we still have to go and play. You look at who we could start while resting our first 11, and it could be an exciting team that does quite well in Europe.

Ramnik - August 22, 2016 Reply

I think by playing a 4-3-3 with full backs to provided the width you are putting tremendous pressure on valecia and shaw to basically play every game of the season and prove our main attacking outlets which i think is unrealistic,if mourinho was going to play 4-3-3 he was surely going to buy atleast one marauding rightback. I think the best formation for united is what jamie carragher pointed out on MNF i.e a 4-2-3-1 with pogba and rooney swithching roles.
The only thing which worries me in this formation is the fact that we dont really have a top class defensive midfielder.

Duncan - August 23, 2016 Reply

Interesting, but I’m not sure Mourinho will change his formation,beyond the odd adjustment during matches. He’s already made statements about Pogba suggesting he needs to fit into the team, rather than changing the team to suit him. I would also argue that Lingard would have played instead of Mata, at least against Bournemouth, so I’m not sure he’s third in the pecking order.

Mkhitaryan could be a problem this season, as he may not play until the cups come along. If he does play himself into the first team he pushes two fan favourites out of the team in Lingard and Mata. If Rooney wasn’t in the team it would help solve that problem, because any of those three could play in the middle, but he’s sticking around.

So I think we’re going to have to learn to love this slightly odd looking team because I think they will have individual qualities that will win us games as mentioned above. It won’t be flowing, beautiful football but might be effective, in some ways resembling the last Fergie years where team selections, performances and formations all got a bit weird and disjointed.

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