After the success Antonio Conte achieved with a 3-4-3 formation last season more teams are opting for three at the back in the Premier League than ever before. Liverpool, Spurs, City and even notorious “football purist” Arsene Wenger at Arsenal have all experimented well with the option. Manchester United have won their first two games of the Premier League season with consecutive 4-0 victories and Jose Mourinho named the same XI, in an unchanged 4-2-3-1 system.
Whilst we have perhaps seen the default formation and core personnel that Mourinho will use against the lesser sides, it is worth noting that United have used a number of different systems under the self-proclaimed special one. He is arguably the best manager in the world at setting teams up to stop the specific opponent in front of them and the Portuguese will be banking on his side’s tactical flexibility to navigate the challenges of a full season.
Towards the end of last season, and throughout preseason, Mourinho experimented with various formations and systems as he juggled his squad, gave players minutes and adapted to the particular opponent. This approach is best illustrated by the 2-0 home win against eventual champions Chelsea last season. United started with three at the back and two players performed man-marking jobs on key opponents; Darmian countered Pedro and Ander Herrera played a starring role as he not only nullified Eden Hazard but also set up the opener for Marcus Rashford and scored the second, albeit from a fortunate deflection.
When analysing the squad as a whole there are very few natural wide players and this is certainly true in attacking areas, perhaps explaining the pursuit of Ivan Perisic. It could be argued that the only natural wide players in the squad are Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw, although of course many of the players excel in the flanks. Victor Lindelof adds a further option to an already bloated centre back roster; Nemanja Matic adds quality to the central midfield area and also another body and Romelu Lukaku was a necessary signing after the departures of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
With so much strength in the central areas it’s not surprising that Mourinho has looked to formations that maximise this. At the back, Lindelof can be eased into the English league with the protection of Bailly and Jones alongside him. In addition, all three are good enough to step out of defence into midfield areas, especially against sides that play with a lone striker. Bringing Ander Hererra into midfield also provides extra protection in front of the defence and this defensive unit should release Paul Pogba to play in a free role as the most attacking of the central midfielders. He has already seen the benefit of Nemanja Matic’s screening in United’s first two Premier League fixtures but, against the better sides they will face, Mourinho may feel further protection is required for Pogba to do his best work.
The other benefit of using a 3-5-2 formation is the addition of a second forward alongside Lukaku. The Belgian has settled well into the United squad and has impressed with his ability to occupy defenders and drag them out of position, allowing the supporting forwards to run into the space created. However, he has looked isolated at times and has often been surrounded by two or three defenders. In these situations a second striker would give the defenders an extra body to think about.
In preseason, both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford played this role well and Mourinho also has the resurgent Anthony Martial at his disposal. The potential re-signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic would provide the tantalising prospect of a powerful double act with Lukaku. One can just imagine the great Swede occupying one or two defenders while the Belgian takes others away with his intelligent running; the two of them dividing the defence and creating oceans of space between defensive lines.
Mourinho is acutely aware of the weapons he has at his disposal. He can’t play every single one of them in every match and he is a manager who will respect the other side no matter their apparent reputation. It is clear that he will use the many tools available to him in his squad to maximise his chances of winning. This was evident in the way he set the team up against Ajax in the Europa League final even though United entered the fixture as favourites.
He respected their threat and worked to nullify it whilst maintaining control of the match. To that end, even Marouane Fellaini has a place in Mourinho’s squad and his unique skill set will be used against certain teams. In that match, he was used to bypass the Ajax midfield and negate their high pressing game. His ability to retain possession from high balls turned the Ajax midfield and they found it difficult to establish themselves. It wasn’t pretty but United dominated and ultimately won the final comfortably, securing their second piece of silverware.
The first few matches of the new season have shown what Mourinho’s “Plan A” seems to be and, as impressive as it was against West Ham and Swansea, the team have a long way to go before reaching the levels Real Madrid showed at times in the European Super Cup final. Zinedine Zidane Real Madrid do not adapt their game for the opponent; the confidence and quality is such that they play their way no matter what. United are not there yet. In the meantime, United fans should expect Mourinho to show a level of pragmatism in specific periods of the season.
This is certainly not a criticism; after all, no United fan would complain about the way the team dispatched Chelsea and Ajax in the two aforementioned games last year. The flexibility the squad has shown in the last 12 months will serve Mourinho well as they face sterner tests and a demanding fixture schedule across four competitions. The players will need to be ready when called upon and the depth of the squad and adaptability they have shown will be exploited as Mourinho attempts to restore Manchester United to the pinnacle of English and European football.