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Mourinho’s tactical tweak is paying dividends for Manchester United

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The Champions League win against Young Boys was United’s third in a row since Mourinho made a tactical adjustment

BSC Young Boys v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Group H Photo by Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Getty Images

The Manchester United squad will land in Manchester airport later tonight proud of their victory over Young Boys. It was their first win of the new Champions League season and their third win in a row, a feat they had not accomplished since April. United secured a comfortable 3-0 in Bern against a team that threatened the visitors’ goal on occasion but ultimately failed to ever lay a glove on United. The victory was refreshing. It provided outstanding goals, dynamic counter attacking and was reminiscent of the Champions League victories of the Ferguson era.

Young Boys of Bern may not provide the most rigorous of tests, but United have hardly thrived in Europe in recent years. The name of Sevilla’s Wissam Ben Yedder still echoes in the ears of Manchester United fans. Losing to Sevilla in March was a bitter pill for many United supporters. It was a significant step backwards. This was the football heritage of Manchester United — José Mourinho insisted at the time — a history of losing rather than professional away victories.

The victory against Young Boys was punctuated by a number of important individual performances. On their plane journey home, Paul Pogba, Diogo Dalot and Anthony Martial will all feel that they justified their selection and will hope to be on the team sheet for Wolves this Saturday.

Both Mourinho and Romelu Lukaku hinted recently that a tactical tweak has been at the heart of the improved performances since the losses to Tottenham and Brighton in August. This is partly true. Mourinho stated in preseason that he wished to tweak United tactically but had not the personnel in the US to put it into place.

Since the season began, Mourinho has made an important change, transitioning his fullbacks into wing backs. This may not seem like a radical move, but Mourinho has had a traditional archetype of fullback since his days at Porto. Branislav Ivanović and Paolo Ferreira are classic Mourinho men, solid defenders whose first role is rear guard defence. Arriving at United, Mourinho had the problem of inheriting Luke Shaw, an expensive attack-minded wingback. Mourinho tried – and failed – to mould Shaw into a more defensively solid player. It seems though that Mourinho has relented and given Shaw the freedom to express his skillset rather than learn a completely new one.

It is working very well so far.

One of the hallmarks of José Mourinho’s success has been the four modes of play. These are: defence, transition from defence to attack, attack, and transition from attack to defence. While in a defensive mode, Mourinho’s wingbacks continue to position themselves in a flat back four with the centre halves. Once United move out of a defensive mode however, the wingbacks have the freedom to position themselves closer to the half way line, bolstering both the passing and attacking options.

As to why Mourinho didn’t develop this system sooner, he had two problems. Firstly, Luke Shaw’s ability to read the game defensively gave Mourinho cause for concern. Secondly, the fitness and ability of Shaw and Antonio Valencia to get up and down the pitch was called into question. This provided difficulties with United’s quick transitions from attack to defence. A successful wingback system is dependent on robust running and ability to chase down counter attacking opposition players.

Shaw’s fitness has greatly improved this season. His late goal against Leicester was the result of a surging run, and against Young Boys, Shaw did well to chase down attacking players in the second half (albeit while failing to block the cross). It is this ability to transition quickly which has given Mourinho more options in his tactical planning.

Since (and including) the Tottenham game, Shaw has operated as a wing back rather than a full back. Against Young Boys, Diogo Dalot took up a similar position on the right hand side. Mourinho has sacrificed his wing backs’ defensive duties for the sake of more attacking potency. Against Young Boys, Shaw created a chance in the first half for Marcus Rashford before later winning United a penalty.

Mourinho criticised Shaw in 2016 for his defensive failings against Watford. These frailties are still on display in 2018. Shaw failed to get back for Roger Assalé’s run in the first half, who was then fouled by Fred and Victor Lindelöf. While Shaw has been excellent this season going forward, he does not appear to have that sixth sense for danger, or often have an ability to track his runner.

Mourinho has allowed his wing backs to move further up the pitch and still achieve defensive stability by dropping his defensive midfielder deeper, splitting the centre backs, who then widen the pitch and provide cover for Shaw and Valencia/Dalot. It was evident in the first half that Shaw was well out of position for a number of Young Boys’ attacks but Nemanja Matić and Fred provided cover. Both Matić and Marouane Fellaini have performed this quasi-defender role in Mourinho’s new look side and it is arguable that Fellaini has been the better fit for the role.

Whether Diogo Dalot manages to secure a Manchester United starting berth in the coming season remains to be seen. He is a player that United fans are desperate to succeed. With two additional players in the attacking third, United’s ability to put pressure on opposition sides is greatly increased, leading to more chances. In their opening Champions League game against Young Boys, both Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial found the net, playing with freedom and expression that hasn’t always been seen at Old Trafford in recent seasons. For now, it seems like José Mourinho is beginning to take Manchester United in the right direction.