Stubborn Mourinho must consider a change in Manchester United's formation
Manchester United are all-but-certain to miss out on the Premier League title for a fifth successive season despite a £153 million net transfer spend for the summer and winter windows. Jose Mourinho has overseen remarkable improvement at Old Trafford, including a Champions League return. That said, he must be disappointed his sophomore season title charm hasn't worked.
A high-flying start to this campaign had football fans and pundits heralding United's ascension. By year's end, however, the Red Devils had plummeted to third place. Mourinho made multiple excuses for the dip, including timid crowds, Henrikh Mkhitaryan's "disappearance," and a perceived lack of funding to compete with Manchester City. Reality was the boss himself had failed to draw the best from a talented, expensive squad.
United fans can take pride in a likely top four finish and potential FA Cup and Champions League runs, but the Portuguese coach must consider switching to a 4-3-3 formation in order for the Reds to truly excel. Tottenham's effortless 2-0 success over United midweek highlighted a handful of flaws in the visitors' 4-2-3-1.
Paul Pogba's constant disregard for defensive effort and positioning left Nemanja Matic chasing shadows. Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard, and Anthony Martial were scarcely noticeable for the serial lack of fluidity between them. Ashley Young was made to look non-league standard defensively by Kieran Trippier and Christian Eriksen's persistent double-teaming.
Switching to a 4-3-3 with Ander Herrera back in the line-up would allow for a grittier, high-pressing strategy. Nemanja Matic's composure and wisdom in a deep role would remain the same. However the energy provided by a gutsy Herrera would prohibit central midfield dominance against the league's stronger sides. Good cop, bad cop, as it were.
The Serb and Basque duo would be crucial in covering for Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. Both thrive as attacking wingbacks rather than conventional fullbacks.
Paul Pogba has made it clear his priority is to get forward and influence the attack. He can certainly still do so as the lead element in a three. In games where little-to-no defensive work is required, Pogba's presence would be crucial to unlocking the door in a more advanced locale.
In more difficult encounters, the Frenchman could build play up from a natural centre-mid position. Attacking support would be provided by a duo selected from Alexis Sanchez, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, and Jesse Lingard. Sanchez and Lingard especially love to track back, win possession, and spark counterattacks. And yes, that leaves the currently injured Marcus Rashford in the cold.
Mourinho rarely makes more than one defensive substitution per match, however. He enjoys sending fresh legs injected with pace into the fray to frustrate tiring defenders. A suitable rotation can be found to keep everyone involved.
Mourinho's side remains the third-best attacking group in the Premier League, behind City and Liverpool. It's difficult to pick faults in their attacking prowess. That isn't the problem. Balance is. While the 4-3-3 would lose the permanent support of a fourth forward player, the pace, power, and technical expertise of Romelu Lukaku, Sanchez and Martial/Mata/Lingard should be sufficiently daunting with Pogba pulling the strings.
The ability for these players to drift and ghost between positions in the final third would ensure the Red Devils maintain a constant threat on the counter, especially with Valencia and Young (or Luke Shaw) overlapping.
While the 4-2-3-1 has had a terrific run, Mourinho must pluck up the courage to drop one of his costly attacking talents to implement a more balanced system that suits his personnel. It just might take United to the next level.