How Mourinho could evolve United’s tactics this season
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.