Manchester United are looking for their first Premier League title since 2013, and José Mourinho is looking for his fourth in total. The club have just returned from their pre-season tour of the United States. Pre-season is a time for experimenting and trying different systems and formations, but which will work best for the Red Devils?
The Best Manchester United Formation
4-2-3-1 was the most common system last season. It relies on a base of two holding midfielders to cover the back four. The remaining four attacking players then have licence to be creative and express themselves in the final third.
As the season went on, a major problem became clear: the side didn’t have a recognised holding midfielder in the squad. Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger were frozen out and that left Mourinho with only four options in midfield.
Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera established themselves as the first choice duo in this formation, but weaknesses started to emerge with this pairing. Pogba’s attacking instincts were often stifled when asked to play a more defensive role in a midfield two and Herrerahad similar issues; his unlimited energy and sheer determination is a major asset, but the defensive role limits his on-the-ball capabilities.
Marouane Fellaini has also been used in this position several times, but he has a lack of mobility which hinders him when asked to be the midfield anchor. Although he has his uses, he slows down the fast, fluid football United want to play.
The club have just completed the signing of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea for £40 million. The Serb was a key player in Mourinho’s last title-winning side at Chelsea, and should he start to reproduce his displays of two years ago he will be a vital asset in helping his side challenge for the Premier League.
His presence in the side could allow Paul Pogba the space he needs to be the creative outlet which United bought him to be. Matic being in side will also allow more balance as he is a natural defensive midfielder; something the club haven’t had since Owen Hargreaves left in 2011.
A quality number ten who can get in behind the opposition and pick up the ball in space is vital to the 4-2-3-1 system, and United tried a number of players in this role. Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard were all used, but none showed the consistency to make the position their own and the position has been continually rotated whenever the formation was used.
One bright spot was the signing of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian struggled at the start of his Manchester United career but during the second half of the season he showed his class. His pace and movement gave United a different outlet and he contributed 11 goals in all competitions. His upturn in form gave United a different dimension in the attacking third. On numerous occasions he led counter attacks with his pace and direct running whenever he received the ball. If Mourinho wants to continue with a 4-2-3-1 then Mkhitaryan will be a key man in order to link the midfield and attack and give the side fluency going forward.
A back three is becoming more and more popular in the English game, and Mourinho experimented with it during pre-season. The current squad of players, however, may not be best suited to it.
A 3-5-2 system relies heavily on wing-backs who are able to get up and down the pitch on a regular basis. Antonio Valencia has proven he can do this role with the greatest of ease, even at 32 years of age. The opposite flank, on the other hand, is proving to be far more difficult to fill for Mourinho. Luke Shaw can do the job but his continued injury problems have hampered his progress; Ashley Young is struggling to show enough quality in the final third; other options include Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan but all three are forward-thinking players who have a lack of discipline defensively.
When the opposition winger and full-back attack simultaneously, one of the central midfielders has to cover the wing-back or one of the centre-backs has to move out of position. If either the wing-backs or the central players on their side aren’t defensively aware enough, the system can be exposed.
One argument in favour of using a 3-5-2 is that Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford would be able to play up front together. Both have exceptional pace and Rashford’s guile and ability to beat a man, coupled with Lukaku’s raw power and strength, could tear defences apart. Most teams have grown accustomed to playing against a solo striker and a formidable pairing like that would give opposition managers plenty to think about. United always set up with a front two under Sir Alex Ferguson, and this system could be a throwback to that.
A balanced three in midfield allows for the side to be secure and dictate the tempo of the play. Michael Carrick, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera all offer something different and compliment each other well. Young midfielder Andreas Pereira, having had a successful loan spell at Granada where he scored five goals in 35 appearances. He should be a solid cover option for the ageing Carrick.
A midfield three will help to protect United’s back line. Central defence has been a problem area over the last few seasons. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have both looked shaky and won’t be regular partners for Eric Bailly, whilst Victor Lindelof is still finding his feet. Having protection in front of him could be just be the thing he needs in order to settle into English football.
United will look to be on the front foot in the majority of games, but having a system which can easily switch into a 4-5-1 where the wingers tuck in and help the defence will prove very useful over the course of the season. The club are back in the Champions League, so having a system which can double up into a more secure shape will help greatly.
Deployed slightly deeper and using his intelligence to find the space, an additional midfielder can confuse the opposition and make up for the lack of a number ten. Using someone like Juan Mata or Mkhitaryan in this way can be a nightmare for the opposing team to mark. It will be unclear where either will pick up the ball and what spaces they will try to run into to receive it.
There are plenty of options from which Mourinho can choose, which is always needed in the modern game. If United are going to challenge for the title the players will have to be flexible enough to adapt to different styles which will help them throughout the season.
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