Against Rostov at Old Trafford during Thursday’s Europa League game, we saw a tantalising glimpse of a hitherto unexpected flexibility in Jose Mourinho’s thinking. However, against a team of limited personnel, talent and ambition, poor implementation and lack of confidence stymied United instead of liberating them.
His Chelsea teams, especially the all-conquering team of the first era, was a classic Dutch 4-3-3 with the central midfielder of three (literally) in the Makelele position and the two wide attackers essentially playing as wingers. At United, he’s attempted to embrace the attacking tradition by swapping the anchor man for a trequartista, without ever giving probably his most natural number 10 – Juan Mata – the chance to cement that position.
The current Chelsea incarnation have adopted an adventurous throwback Ajax formation, essentially a 3-4-3 with wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses performing as wide midfielders alongside Matic and Kante. Pedro and Hazard play as roaming inside-forwards behind the spiky and argumentative Diego Costa, who relishes the opportunity to make himself a nuisance to both centre-backs. It’s a solution that suits their personnel, although one wonders why no teams have tried harder to get at the wing-backs, pinning them back or pushing beyond them to pull the (relatively slow) centre-backs out of position.
United tried to copy the Chelsea formation against Rostov on Thursday, with Blind and Valencia playing as wing-backs flanking a back three of Smalling, Bailly and Rojo. Mkhitaryan and Mata were the inside-forwards, forming an attacking trident behind Ibrahimovic. On paper it looked like an ideal formation:
However, in implementation, there were a number of flaws:
- The back three played both too deep and too close together when they should pushing high, giving an option for the pass to retain possession and spreading wide to create angles.
- Pogba therefore had to come far too deep to collect the ball, having plenty of possession but seeing limited options and space to pass into whenever he looked up.
- Mata and Mkhitaryan were too far away from, and out of contact with, Zlatan Ibrahimovic for any effective link-up play.
- Blind played too narrow, and when he did stay wide, he lacked the pace of Antonio Valencia on the other wing to really stretch the Rostov back line.
In essence, United’s formation frequently ended up looking like this:
And as United began to cede possession to Rostov, it resembled something more akin to:
There’s an incorrect assumption that playing with a back three – a back five, some would say – is a defensive formation, but it completely depends on the personnel and the mentality. The superior German team of the 90s frequently played with a back three, but their wing-backs were very attack minded and the spare centre-back often ended up pushing beyond the midfield two. The memories of Lothar Matthaus pushing forward from deep are still a joy to recall.
There was potential for United to play in just the same way on Thursday. Chris Smalling – “Smallingbauer” – has the potential to step out of defence and play excellent probing balls especially to the flanks. What could have been a front five of Valencia, Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimovic, Mata and Blind offered an intriguing mix of pace, power, dribbling, passing and brute strength. As we saw, United’s confidence seemed to sap quickly in the second half and by the end they were a sorry and bedraggled mess. But all that is needed is a tweak of personnel and attitude and United could easily make the formation work and still live up to the attacking heritage that United fans cherish.
Whilst the personnel can change, this is how the basic formation would look.
Let’s look in detail at the key features:
- Jones and Bailly – the two outside centre-back – are the markers and ball winners. They move high, press the ball, attempt interceptions and follow their man safe in the knowledge that Chris Smalling, sitting deeper, can see the whole picture and can either cover or tell them to drop back into position as required. However, when facing a team with only one up front, the positions can reverse and Smalling can step in front of the other two, closer to the midfielders and offering a more creative passing option.
- The two wing-backs need pace, power and stamina. Valencia, having his best season for United, provides the template for this role. On the other side, neither Blind, Rojo nor Darmian really provide the same option that Luke Shaw does, and it’s something of a mystery as to why Mourinho doesn’t trust the former Southampton man.
- The security provided by having a back three, as well as Ander Herrera by his side, finally means that Pogba can be freed up to play his more natural role, become a presence at both ends of the field and the closest thing United have had to Bryan Robson since the great man himself.
- The number 10 – Mata here, but with half a dozen realistic options on United’s books – is purely an attacking presence. When United do not have the ball, he doesn’t press, but works hard to find space on the assumption that United are about to win the ball back and need to find him in one pass.
- Having two men up front is a rarity in the league at the moment, and United are better equipped to play different types of partnerships depending on the opponent than most. One of the key functions is that the centre-forwards pull out wide to link up with the wing-back and the roaming number 10, trying to create overload situations and make space. Having two strikers means there’s always presence in the box as well as the onrushing midfielders (Pogba, primarily) creating a problem for the opposition.
On the pitch, it’s essential that the team push forward, defend high, and the three centre-backs split wide. When attacking, the formation should be more like this, in something more like a 3-4-1-2 formation:
The same basic formation can be tweaked in a number of ways. If it’s a game in which United expect the opposition to play one man up front and cede a lot of possession, united could switch to Blind and Smalling as the outer centre-backs and provide two superior passing options, leaving someone like Bailly as the sweeper behind them. In fact, this formation could even extend Michael Carrick’s career by another year or two with him playing as one of the ball-playing centre-backs in this formation, relieved of the chasing and harrying duties.
Against Middlesborough on Sunday we saw a different interpretation of the plan. Valencia and Ashley Young were the wing-backs, which seemed like a sensible choice against a Boro team for whom ambition wasn’t just lacking this season, it doesn’t even seem to be in their dictionary. Mata and Lingard were the inside-forwards behind Rashford, a trio that offered pace and guile in tantalising glimpses. Carrick and Fellaini formed the midfield barrier. In this formation, Lingard would make an exceptional wing-back with his speed and energy, meaning that his opposite number would be pinned back.
At 2-0 up, something shifted in United’s collective psyche just as it did against Rostov and they seemed determined to fall back and defend that lead. Mourinho sent on an extra-centre back to deal with the “threat” of Rudy Gestede, when what they should have done was push higher and invite Boro to try balls over the top. With Gestede and Negredo having all the pace of Article 50 negotiations, Michael Carrick would have been able to deal with that and the only threat would have come from Adam Traore (and the simplest way to deal with him seems to be to give him the ball and let him run into a dead end – so much wasted potential there). Instead they retreated to their six yard line and defended shambolically.
By the end, United were playing Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Rojo, Jones, Darmian and Young, with Carrick and Fellaini screening the back seven. Would Ferguson have defended a 2-0 lead that way against Middlesborough? I applaud Jose Mourinho for trying something different, but he must have the courage of his convictions, and give the team time to grow into what could be the perfect formation.