Midfield Conundrums

February 20, 2018 Tags: , , Reads 8 comments
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The transfer of Alexis Sánchez from Arsenal to Manchester United put a spring in the step of United supporters when it was announced last month. In one swoop, José Mourinho and Ed Woodward recruited a top class player, while also dispensing, in the shape of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, an underperforming one.

So far so good, but United’s manager admitted that the signing would impact on the club’s post-season transfer plans, perhaps even when it comes to Mourinho’s plan to strengthen in central midfield. It is probably a reasonable line of thinking, but what followed from the United manager was eye-opening.

“If we have in our mind in the summer to improve the team in two or three positions, basically to improve the team in all the departments, if you have the chance to do something now it means that you don’t do in the summer,” explained Mourinho in January.

“Another thing is we get one or two players just to improve a little bit the squad and then in the summer you are going to do it again,” he added. “No. In the summer, we would probably have three transfers to do. If we do one now, in the summer it is three minus one.”

Two summer signings? It’s hard to square that circle, especially taking into account Mourinho’s interview with the club’s website last December.

“If, next summer, we are going to sign a midfield player, it’s to replace Michael Carrick,” said Mourinho. “Michael is a phenomenal player that, this season, he couldn’t give us anything at all. So if, next summer, we buy a midfield player, it’s not to improve our squad – it’s to replace Michael Carrick. So, to improve our squad in the midfield, we would need to buy two.”

But it’s not just Carrick that United could potentially lose in the summer.  Marouane Fellaini looks set to leave come the end of the campaign, while the multi-functional Daley Blind doesn’t seem to have much of a future at United, and there are questions about whether Ander Herrera will be at Old Trafford next season too.

Even if only Carrick and Fellaini depart, United will be left with a quartet of Nemanja Matić, Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay and Herrera.  Following Mourinho’s logic, the squad’s balance will be retained if he replaces both Carrick and Fellaini, but it will not lead to an improvement in the group as a whole.  That’s to mention nothing of United’s need to strengthen in defence. It is safe to assume that the Reds will be on the lookout for more than the two players suggested.

Midfield is the critical area though, and much of United’s recruitment strategy will depend on whether Mourinho persists with a 4-2-3-1 system or switches to a 4-3-3.  The United boss has more often than not opted for the former, as he clearly doesn’t feel that he has the personnel to operate with a three man midfield on a consistent basis. On the flip side, one of United’s better performances, away at Everton, came with the team operating with a three a and Pogba taking up a position on the left of  midfield. It was one of his most effective games this season.

The Pogba Dilemma

In recent weeks much has been made of Mourinho’s relationship with United’s star player. Mourinho has offered Pogba a touchline lecture, launched an “explosive” press conference prior to FA Cup tie against Huddersfield, and then the Frenchman missed said match because of illness.

Aside from the drama, the discussion surrounding Pogba’s best position is the elephant in the room: should Mourinho build the team around the Frenchman’s strengths in a 4-3-3, or should the player be more adaptable and embrace Mourinho’s preferences more fully?

If Mourinho opts to build a team around Pogba then the manager will want to strengthened to the point where he is more confident deploying a three-man midfield on a regular basis.  The trio of Matić, McTominay and Herrera doesn’t appear to be the answer. There has been the usual paper talk, with United supposedly signing Jorginho, Jean Michaël Seri, Fabinho, Sergej Milinković-Savić or Toni Kroos. Each would represent an upgrade on the current options, but none would be cheap either.

There might also be a need to reshape the squad’s attacking options, as Mourinho has Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata vying for the four attacking spots in a 4-2-3-1.  The switch to a three would leave six players competing for three attacking places. That’s not even taking into consideration Andreas Pereira when he returns from his loan spell at Valencia.  Lingard and Mata could arguably be moved into midfield, but then again Mourinho is not one for half-measures.

Paul Pogba

If the Portuguese coach sticks to the current system then he can leave his attacking options untouched and he can afford to reduce the number of midfield targets he needs to purchase in the window.

But then there is the question of what to do with Pogba. Should Mourinho play him in a midfield two with Matić and risk limiting the Frenchman’s impact, or does he move Pogba further forward and drop Martial, Alexis or another to accommodate?

There’s no question that Pogba needs to be in the side, but how to consistently get the best out of a world-class player seems to be eluding the manager. Yet, the Frenchman has scored three times and set-up nine goals this season. Imagine how effective he could be if he finds his groove.

Matić Matters

Matić’s was not a stardust signing, but during the early months of the season he looked to be an astute capture and has been one of José’s “untouchables” having played 33 times this campaign. Only Romelu Lukaku has featured in more games.

Naturally, the sheer number of matches is taking its toll on the Serbian, but Mourinho doesn’t feel confident enough with his options to rest his holding midfielder. It all leads to a potentially problematic cocktail of United going into season-defining matches with a leggy Matić. It is not an ideal scenario.

McTominay’s progress is interesting, although it remains to be seen whether he can become more authoritative. The next step in the youngster’s development is to become an able deputy to Matić so that Mourinho has the option to rotate when the situation demands.

Of course, Mourinho is just as likely to bring in a more experienced player during the summer in order to relieve the Serb’s burden, but the point remains that United shouldn’t risk the burnout of a key player as the season draws to a close.

To dominate or to react?

A key tenet of Mourinho’s footballing vision is how his teams respond to transitions in play, whether losing or gaining possession. He demands a high level of discipline, plus the need to be clinical when going forward.

In that respect, Mourinho is different to his Premier League contemporaries, many of whom look to press high, force mistakes and work on attacking patterns. Mourinho relies on his team to convert any chance that comes its way, while maintaining defensive discipline and structure.

Manchester City 79 18 66.5% 88.7%
Manchester United 51 14.1 53.6% 82.8%
Chelsea 49 16.3 55% 84.6%
Liverpool 61 17.4 56.4% 83.3%
Tottenham 52 17.6 58.2% 83.7%
Arsenal 51 16.3 58.8% 84.3%


*Stats from WhoScored.com. Accurate as of 20/2/2018

It leaves the question as to whether Mourinho will ever look for his midfield to play in a more expansive manner, or place his faith in a more cynical approach? The gameplan will influence the type of midfielders that United will try to recruit in the summer window.

There may well be a larger turnover in the summer than suggested. It’s hard to see otherwise, with Matteo Darmian, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Chris Smalling, Blind, and Fellaini almost certainly leaving the club. Carrick will hang up his boots and may take on a coaching role.

Perhaps Mourinho has plans to reincorporate Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Andreas Pereira, offer McTominay more games next season, or bring some fresher faces from the Academy. More realistically he will look to the market to compensate for any departures.

Whatever the strategy, Mourinho must first work out how to shape his midfield if he is to turn United back into a victory hungry juggernaut.  At this moment, it’s looking to be quite the conundrum.


Nick Kafkalas - February 20, 2018 Reply

I can’t believe 18 months in and we fans have no idea what our starting 11 will be game to game. Chopping and changing all the time leaves us playing like a bunch of individuals who have never played together with no cohesion. If he insists on the 4231 then he needs to sell a lot of players. Young isn’t a lb but is the starter. Pogba isn’t a dm so sell him. We have no rw except maybe lingard, mata isn’t a winger. Alexis should be on the right with Martial to the left but our “Special One” insists on playing Alexis on the left. Jose won’t change which means we won’t be successful. Sir Alex adapted which is why he was successful for so long. Jose is too stubborn.

Elliot Black - February 21, 2018 Reply

Sell Pogba? Interesting. Alexi has played 4 games for United, I think to say that Jose is ‘insisting’ on anything at this stage is jumping the gun slightly.

Enjoyed the article, feel it’s pretty spot on. I’m enjoying McTominay’s progression also, but can’t help feel the outcome is inevitable and he will be replaced externally. Really hope the future has a place for Pereira always been impressed with him and think he has real potential as part of a midfield 3.

Denton Davey - February 21, 2018 Reply

It looks like the in-transfer of Alexis is resulting in a kind of “subtraction-by-addition” since there is no longer much playing-time for Rashers, Tony Martial, JesseMessi, and Juan Mata because BOTH Sanchez AND Lukaku seem to be all-but-guaranteed starting roles.

Peter L - February 23, 2018 Reply

In my opinion we have the personnel to dominate midfield the way the other big five in England do but it seems Mou’s instructions are to stand off and concede possession and often to play the direct long ball – which is effectively 50-50 as to whether possession is retained (certainly based on the evidence of our games this season). It’s frustrating seeing your team over-run in midfield in every big game – especially with a wonderful player like Paul Pogba in the middle. I don’t understand why Mou seems to not want us to press the ball and assert ourselves and take control of games in midfield… Our vague attempts at pressing the ball this season have been embarrassing in how uncoordinated they are. You can see it in our recent games from how often the players are shouting at each other for not pressing in unison. Where is Mou and the training ground in all this?? I think these tactics are more of an issue than the squad personnel. Right now it seems like we could sign Thiago AND Kroos and still not dominate midfield against the other heavyweights.

Dazza2501 - February 25, 2018 Reply

This article nails many of the issues that have occurred since Mourinho took over. It is noticeable Guardiola has ensured City get the best from De Bruyne, likewise Pochettino often plays Delle Alli free behind Kane et etc. Surely the job of a coach is to create a framwork where players of Pogbas ability perform at or near their best, not told to fit in where told. In addition I really fear Mourinho is losing what touch he had. There seems to be plenty of unhappy players at the club. Recent team selections neither seem to reward or develop the younger talents of Marial, Rashford or Shaw. That is before you consider the likes of Fosu Mensah, Tuanzabe or Gomes as the next set of potential first team talents. Although United have improved under Mourinho the progress is not as great as the net spend & talent available. I am sure City & Spurs can point to a number of players who have improved under their current managers, but with Mourinho it is harder to quantify. Many of the other top coaches in the league actually coach attacking moves & shape, yet it is accepted Mourinho drills defensive shape, in the hope one of his star attackers provides a moment of magic. Perhaps, for all the attacking talent, United are less fluid and incisive as their rivals due to the selections, tactics and coaching. Pogbas situation seems to embody a number of players at the club who are shackled by a cautious pragmatic manager.

Denton Davey - February 25, 2018 Reply

I don’t disagree with the thrust of your comment BUT I’ve been very disappointed with the commitment from Pogba – he was AWOL against Newcastle for the Shelvey cross that led to their goal and today, again, he was too casual in the situation that led to CSKALondon’s goal. Also, he’s a real “stroller” – not much energy when the ball goes the other way.

Pogba’s lack of drive/commitment is surely not what Jo$e wants from a midfielder and I wouldn’t be surprised if all the speculative reports of a rift are close to the mark. (Listening to Souness/Liam Brady/Dietmar Hamman, it’s pretty clear that these old-timers have little patience for a strolling midfielder – curiously Keane-o has backed Pogba but, then, he is a very angry man who would pick a fight in a phone booth.) If that’s true then I think he might be on his way – but who will come back the other way (assuming that Real Madrid/PSG are willing to do business with UTD) ?

SKW - February 26, 2018 Reply

How can we seriously talk of selling Pogba?

He’s our one worldclass player outside of De Gea. And we can’t make him fit in our side? Shouldn’t the manager have known that beforehand? I can’t for the life of me figure why we buy players who do one thing well and then try to force them into other positions (and Fergie was doing this, too)> Either buy them and play them in the right place or buy someone else.

Ye gods this isn’t complicated.

Mike - March 2, 2018 Reply

We unfortunately hired Mourinho 3 years too late. All things shall pass and now football has passed Mou and left him as a relic.

He is far too succesful to ever believe his methods are not working and change. We start games against rivals using tactics that would have dominated them 12 years ago.

But alas, we have had the success. We have had the glory. Maybe we need a little suffering so the next PL title (which will definetly not be in the forseeable future) is that bit more special.

So freinds don’t begrudge the journey. We will be back (obviously not with Mourinho in charge) and we will dominate…………..Maybe or maybe not.

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