In Manchester United’s first competitive game of the season (or final pre-season game, since the Reds lost), José Mourinho deployed no fewer than 3 formations. The team started out in a 3-5-2, either to compensate for all 3 central defenders being at least partially incompetent, or in an effort to contain the best team on the planet. At half time, a switch was made to 4-3-3, and after conceding a second, the formation became something dangerously close to an old school 4-4-2 with two big men up front.
We here at The Busby Babe are not convinced that the difference between a 4-4-2, a 4-4-1-1, and a 4-2-2-2 isn’t more about the personnel on the field - and the blabbering of football nerds on the internet - than it is about actual tactical nuance. But we’re not going to let the little matter of us all having scorn for this exercise get in the way of us producing this sweet, sweet content. We are professionals, after all.
So with 75% of his summer targets attained, over a year working with the squad to implement his ideas and learn his players’ strengths, Mourinho should have a clear idea of how to get the best out his charges. How do we expect his team to shape up?
This is Mourinho’s safe place. At Porto, at Chelsea, at Inter, at Madrid (sometimes), at Chelsea again, and now at United, Mourinho has eventually landed on 4-3-3 as his team shape of choice. He knows what he wants from each position in that formation, so it should play to his strengths as a coach and a tactician as well as to the strengths of his players. In any case, this tactics business isn’t always as complicated as it looks. Get your best players on the pitch in their best positions, and let the rest of it figure itself itself out.
A midfield trio uses Nemanja Matić as the sole holding midfielder - the role in which he became one of the most dominant midfielders in the league. This in turn allows Paul Pogba, who is easily United’s most influential player, more room to get forward. Last season, we started seeing the early stages of “As Pogba goes, so United goes,” and a formation that puts him in his best position is a no-brainer.
Predicted starting XI: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Lindelöf, Shaw; Matić, Herrera, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Lukaku, Rashford.
I’m suggesting the 5-3-2 (or 3-5-2, you pedant) not because I think Mourinho will actually use it this season — anyone who thinks he’ll opt for anything other than the 4-3-3 are only kidding themselves — but because it really is a possibility worth considering. United’s experiment with the back three under Louis van Gaal may not have ended happily, but the recent success Chelsea have had with such a system suggests it was United’s execution at fault, rather than the idea itself.
As Brent hinted in the introduction, its chief advantage for United is the fact that it masks the patent incompetence of our defenders. Admittedly, we haven’t yet seen much of Victor Lindelöf, but we’ve seen all too much of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Playing them in a trio minimises the risk of a defensive error proving catastrophic, with two others to sweep up after the inevitable mistake.
Furthermore, the 5-3-2 would allow us to maintain the well-balanced midfield trio Brent identifies above, as well as give Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia — two very athletic full-backs — licence to roam freely. Finally, it would facilitate the playing of Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford in an attacking two — an intriguing prospect indeed. Alas, we don’t expect it’ll ever be anything more than a prospect, but it’s something to ponder. Like everything, it’s great on paper.
Predicted starting XI:
De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Lindelöf, Rojo (when fit), Darmian; Herrera, Matić, Pogba; Lukaku, Rashford.
When your best left-back is a perennial crock, your best right-back is a converted winger, and your preferred back-up in both positions is Matteo Darmian, it’s time to get retro. United won their first ever title with the long-passing genius of Charlie Roberts in the middle of a three-man midfield, and they will win their 21st with the same model.
At the back, David de Gea tends goal behind Eric Bailly and either Victor Lindelöf, if he turns out to be any good, or Phil Jones, because he looks like he’s accidentally blundered through a timewarp from the early 20th century. Marcos Rojo will cover once he regains his fitness; Axel Tuanzebe will probably have to go out on loan.
In midfield, we’ve got some flexibility. Paul Pogba will take the captain’s armband and boss things around, and will be supported by two from Nemanja Matić, Ander Herrera, and Michael Carrick, depending on the opposition. Andreas Pereira can provide cover.
Up front, an embarrassment of options. In tBB’s view, Antonio Valencia has to start on the very right, as perhaps the only true winger in United’s squad. On the left, Our preference is probably for Marcus Rashford, in the interests of pace. Romelu Lukaku takes the central striking role, which leaves just the inside forward positions to be filled.
With Rashford likely to be cutting in from the flank, we’d like to see Juan Mata given the inside left position — he can either overlap around the left, providing a crossing option, or operate more as a playmaker. Inside right, meanwhile, goes to Henrikh Mkhitaryan, because he’s ace. Time to revert the pyramid.
Predicted starting XI:
De Gea; Bailly, Lindelöf; Herrera, Pogba, Matić; Rashford, Mata, Lukaku, Mkhitaryan, Valencia.
How should Manchester United line up this season?
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