The inclusion of Maraoune Fellaini in the starting line-up against Burnley at Turfmoor had many predicting that they might be in store for a rudimentary style of football. What initially looked like a return to Mourinho’s 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 variation from the Leicester and Brighton games was in fact an adaptation of the 5-3-2 that we saw on Monday night against Tottenham.
United started well against Tottenham on Monday but a lack of cutting edge in attack was followed by an inept showing in midfield from Nemanja Matić, Paul Pogba and Fred. Ander Herrera’s poor positional sense was badly exposed for Tottenham’s second goal, demonstrating his future does not lie in defence.
Mourinho adapted the formation for the trip to Burnley and it produced a few surprises. United played three at the back, with Victor Lindelöf spreading left, Chris Smalling to the right and Maraoune Fellaini dropping deep from midfield in the central role.
No stranger to playing in defence, having been utilised as a central defender on occasion at Everton by David Moyes, Fellaini excelled in the centre of a back three. Relatively comfortable in possession and capable of stepping up into midfield, Fellaini’s shortcomings as a central midfielder are not evident in defence. Fellaini took charge of defensive positioning at corners and his aerial ability provided much needed respite from Burnley’s route one approach.
Whether this can be a long-term option remains unclear. One of United’s least level-headed players, Fellaini can be rash into the tackle, as was evident when he gave away a penalty in the dying moments against Everton at Goodison Park in 2016. For now though, Fellaini brought assurance to a defence badly in need of a clean sheet.
With three at the back, Luke Shaw was more advanced up the pitch. He provided an option to his midfielders along with an avenue to switch play. Shaw was instrumental in Lukaku’s second goal, roaming into the box and causing chaos for the Burnley defence. This was Shaw’s fourth game in succession and he has grown in confidence with each outing.
Without affecting the game in a serious way, Jesse Lingard had a good game, not only providing a link between the midfield and attack, but in the way he supported Shaw and Antonio Valencia in attack, and always giving a passing option. Lingard was unlucky his (now) trademark shot didn’t find the back of the net early in the first half.
Despite missing a penalty in the second half, Paul Pogba gave a much-improved performance on his showing against Tottenham. More eager to get on the ball, Pogba was dangerous in possession and Burnley were afraid to press him. Arguably his best move was a defence splitting pass in the second half which allowed Romelu Lukaku through on goal.
Despite having had his first preseason in years, Alexis Sánchez was derided for his showing against Leicester. These criticisms were hushed against Burnley where Alexis put in a dogged performance and put in the cross for Lukaku’s first goal. A 5-3-2 formation is one which clearly suits the Chilean’s skill set, having also played it in his final year at Arsenal.
While Burnley may not provide the same level of opposition as Tottenham or even Brighton, there were clear differences in Manchester United’s performance. The midfield was far more organised against Burnley and the Shaw/Sánchez alliance provided genuine trouble for Burnley. Additionally, Maraoune Fellaini provided strength against Burnley’s aerial threat and worked the ball well into midfield.
Problems remain in the United setup that will become exposed in more difficult games. While Shaw and Sánchez provide an attacking option along the left, opposition teams will look to stifle this output. Whether Diago Dalot can become United’s future right back remains to be seen, but United need to develop a system of play with multiple avenues of attack. Marcus Rashford was also lively upon his arrival, and the new system is one which may liberate the one-time prodigy.
Perhaps the greatest difference between United’s team and that of City, Liverpool or even Tottenham is the lack of a high press. Upon losing possession, United transition into a defensive formation where they do not engage the opposition - José’s “low block” - until they are deep into United’s half. This provides opposition teams too much comfort, especially in the Champions League.
The game at Turf Moor was preceded by a fortnight of chaos and an underwhelming plane flying over the ground before kick-off. The Burnley game was the vital first step for Manchester United in redeeming their season. While managing Real Madrid in 2011, Mourinho lost a pivotal game 3-1 to Barcelona at the Bernabeu. José then instigated a classic response, the ultimate siege mentality which produced 11 consecutive league wins.
Real Madrid won the league that year. There is hope for United fans yet.