Ryan: We’re almost two months into the season now, with nine Premier League games played, three in the Europa League, two in the EFL Cup as well as the single-game Community Shield.
And, so far, Manchester United’s results have been mixed. In the last seven days, a humiliating 4-0 defeat away to Chelsea was followed by a morale-boosting 1-0 derby win over Manchester City in the League Cup.
Along the way, José Mourinho’s team selections have been even more mixed than his side’s results, with 21 different players having appeared in the Premier League alone.
The days of managers having a set-in-stone first-choice XI are probably long gone; the modern game is very much a squad-dependent one.
But over-rotation in key positions prevents a team from building the necessary level of cohesion and understanding.
Mourinho is still the new man at Old Trafford and he will still be getting to grips with the task at hand, so there’s no reason to panic just yet (or is there). And he will need another transfer window or two to truly shape the squad in his image.
But, after such heavy rotation and experimentation, is Mourinho finally getting close to deciding which players he is going to rely on this season? Are we any closer to striking a satisfying balance within the staring line-up?
Andi: In some senses, there's definitely an established core. If we ignore injuries for the moment, then we can be fairly sure that any Mourinho line-up will have David de Gea in goal, Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind in defence, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera in midfield, and then Marcus Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack. So that's seven from eleven basically established.
However, this isn't just a question of 'who are the other four?', because the identities of those other four completely change the roles of the established seven. If Luke Shaw plays then Blind's a central defender; otherwise he's at left-back. The midfield has a completely different character and shape depending on whether it's Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney, Morgan Schneiderlin or even Jesse Lingard that come in, and then Rashford seems to switch sides depending on who the other winger is.
Ultimately, it's the midfield question that's the most important one, and that's also the one furthest from resolution. Speaking personally, and while I've not always been persuaded that he's the Geordie Xavi, I think Carrick brings something to the pairing of Pogba and Ander Herrera that none of the other options do. But perhaps it's not a bad thing to have flexibility in there, as long as the performances don't drop and Mourinho makes the correct call. Who do you think ends up in the midfield long term?
Ryan: I think the biggest conclusion we can draw from the last few weeks, regardless of results, is that Herrera has to start when fit. When Pogba made his (second) debut against Southampton earlier in the season, it was Herrera who made way for the Frenchman, with Fellaini retaining his place.
It soon became apparent that a Pogba-Fellaini midfield axis was not going to work, so when Herrera came on at half-time in September’s derby defeat, he brought a degree of balance that had been sorely missed.
Before Mourinho settles on who the third member of the midfield will be, he needs to decide whether he wants to play 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, as he’s kind of jumped between the two a lot lately.
If it’s 4-3-3, then Carrick is still the best option at the base of the trio. If he wants to go 4-2-3-1, the issue of whether you play Pogba within the deep double-pivot, or as the number 10, becomes key. In that system, perhaps the mobility and athleticism of Schneiderlin could be of value.
If it were up to me, it’d be a midfield three with Pogba on the left, Herrera on the right, and a 28-year-old Michael Carrick anchoring.
At 35, we can’t really expect Carrick to play every three days, so therein lies another key issue. Do young think the the transfer window is the only way to solve this problem, or do you think there is a perfectly suitable solution within the current squad — whether that means reinventing a player or shifting the team’s shape?
Andi: While I quite liked your idea of a possible 3-4-3/3-5-2, it would be so unusual for Mourinho that I think we can probably rule it out. The obvious solution within the squad has always seemed to be Morgan Schneiderlin, who was excellent at Southampton, and perhaps his introduction late against Manchester City — a game Mourinho was desperate to win — shows that he hasn't quite been discarded like Schweinsteiger.
But ultimately, I think this is going to be one for the transfer window, most likely summer (on the basis that nobody's going to be selling anybody good enough halfway through a season). Until then, I expect United's midfield to shift in shape and personnel around Pobga and Ander Herrera. Games for everybody!
We've got an interesting question to consider ahead of Burnley in defence, too. Marcos Rojo surprised everybody, including possibly himself, by playing pretty well against City. Admittedly, we only saw 20-odd minutes of Sergio Aguero, but Kelechi Iheanacho is no slouch. Has he put himself back into the reckoning for the second central defensive slot alongside Bailly (when fit) or Blind (now that Bailly's crocked)? Or do you expect Smalling to return as and when he's fit and has got over his Chelsea nightmare? And either way, are United going to go defender shopping in January?
Ryan: Possibly, but I’m reluctant to make an about face on my opinion of Rojo just yet. He’s been a disaster over the last 18 months or so. Although, having said that, his initial run at centre-back a couple of years ago showed some promise; his tenacity can be both a gift and a curse in the middle of defence but, when on song, he’s a serviceable centre-half — which is more than can be said of him at left-back.
Smalling was almost impressively inept at Stamford Bridge last weekend, and seems to have regressed to the level he was at before his solid form from early last season. Even so, I think he’ll probably come back into the side once fit. Long-term, though, I think Mourinho will want a better central defender to start alongside Bailly.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Mourinho look to add an experienced defender in January. Southampton’s José Fonte was supposedly a summer target, so he could be an option. And Pepe has been linked with a mid-season Real Madrid exit; Mourinho has worked with him before, so I wouldn’t be wholly surprised to see his name mentioned in connection with a move to Old Trafford.
But rather than such short-term fixes, I’d prefer to see Axel Tuanzebe given a bit of game time. Then, in the summer, if José still wants a top-drawer partner for Bailly, there may be greater scope for finding one.
How would you treat the Burnley game if you were Mourinho? Do you go all out for a 3/4-0 victory to make a statement, or do you prioritise getting the much needed three points and aim to minimise the risk of slipping up?
Andi: The three points is definitely the most important thing, though in a funny sort of way the circumstances kind of force Mourinho to go for it a little bit. After all, the defence is going to be makeshift whatever the approach, so the game will likely have to be won up the other end. And a decent home win would do wonders for the mood around the club.
How to best go about winning it is an interesting one. Burnley are well organised, and in Tom Heaton and Michael Keane have a goalkeeper and central defender who are both on the edge of the England team, which is unusual for a newly promoted side. That, along with the fact that they'll be perfectly happy with a draw, means that it's probably going to take a little wit to beat them, that United aren't just going to be able to overlap and cross their way to victory. So I think Mata has to play, and maybe we'll see Henrikh Mkhitaryan's long-awaited return.
Presumably United will persist with Ibrahmovic, even though his goalscoring touch has deserted him entirely. (At times on Wednesday, so too had his passing.) At some point this season, however, I'd like to see one of Rashford or Martial given the start as the striker. United are definitely trying to press at times during games, but Ibrahimovic isn't of much use, so it's always a little off-kilter. Maybe at home to Burnley, with a tricky mid-week away game coming up, is the right time to experiment up top.