Like most things in life, football formations have a history of going in cycles. And if yesterday’s match against Arsenal is anything to go by, Jose Mourinho has found his answer to Manchester United’s recent troubles, in two teams that dominated the last two decades of English football — his own Chelsea squad that won consecutive Premier League titles in 2004-06 and Sir Alex Fergusson’s Manchester United of 2006-09.
The Portguese manager started the match with a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3) formation, opting to not go with his much-preferred 4-2-3-1. The formation had a fluid front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial (later Wayne Rooney) and Juan Mata, constantly interchanging their positions, very similar to Sir Alex’s front-three of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez (sometimes Park Ji-sung). In the midfield, he had Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba occupying a more advanced role while Michael Carrick sat back protecting the defence, reminiscent to Mourinho’s Chelsea team with Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele.
The dynamic front three
Sir Alex perhaps used the front three to best utilise the forwards in his team. Neither Rooney nor Tevez were the traditional ‘big’ strikers and were instead forwards who relied on quick-feet and pace to score their goals. Ronaldo, who started as a winger in a 4-4-2 system, was also showing tendencies to cut inside from the flanks and score goals. All three forwards were highly versatile, with the ability to play in the flanks and most importantly, happy to track back, allowing Ferguson to play a very dynamic front-three, constantly drawing the defenders out of their positions.
Mourinho’s decision, though, could have been borne out of circumstances. Even though he has a big forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the striker’s ability has considerably waned since their one season together at Inter Milan (where Mourinho played the 4-3-3 and Ibrahimovic scored 25 goals). The team also lacks quality wingers who can feed the strikers. Mourinho has already tried Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the wide positions but all have shown a tendency to cut inside and move towards the centre. In his Inter Milan team, Mourinho had the luxury of having full-backs Maxwell and Maicon aiding the attacks, but barring occasional performances from Antonio Valencia, none of Manchester United’s full-backs have lived upto Mourinho’s expectation.
At Chelsea, he did not have the same quality in full-backs (William Gallas/ Wayne Bridge/ Paulo Ferreira) but had natural wingers in Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Damien Duff. That meant his full-backs could sit back and concentrate more on the defence.
Addressing Pogba concerns
The pressure on the wingers had also been compounded by Mourinho’s insistence on playing a 4-2-3-1 formation until now. The tactics require the wingers to be disciplined, helping out in defence, while also being a major force in attack – something the likes of Eden Hazard and Cristiano Ronaldo found hard. By playing a 4-3-3, Mourinho has eased the pressure on his attackers, the extra central midfielder tracking back to support the defence.
Mourinho’s shift to 4-3-3 or a 4-1-2-3, similar to what he used during his first stint at Chelsea, is also a bid to get the best out the World’s most expensive player. Pogba has failed in his roles as number 10 or as a part of the two-man midfield pivot in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Though Pogba has the vision and the athleticism to thrive in the role, he has often struggled with the extra defensive responsibilities put on him.
This was highlighted at the EURO 2016 when Pogba failed to partner N’Golo Kante to good effect. Didier Deschamps had to then bring in Moussa Sissoko to add balance in the midfield. This could also be down to Pogba’s years in Juventus where he developed into a world-class footballer. The team used to play a midfield duo of Aturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio (who replaced Andrea Pirlo in the role) alongside Pogba, both defensively sound technically-gifted players, which gave him the license to roam box-to-box.
The new formation also allows Manchester United’s best outfield player of this season — Ander Herrera — to have a greater impact. The Spaniard has shone brightly whenever he has been given the role of the more attacking-minded midfielder in the double-pivot of a 4-2-3-1. But he has to do the bulk of the defensive duties when he partners Pogba in the role, which stifles his attacking-side.
Mourinho, has therefore inverted the midfield pyramid in the last few matches to bring some much-wanted stability (the late goal conceded against Arsenal certainly a blot in an otherwise dominant performance).
To be fair, Mourinho did try playing the formation after his team’s derby loss against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. But against Watford, he had the wrong players required to execute the 4-3-3 to perfection. He had Rooney team-up with Pogba, while Fellaini guarded the defence. The Belgian, though physically strong and great in the air, isn’t a natural defensive midfielder and was found wanting in so many instances. By replacing Fellaini and Rooney with Herrera and Carrick, Mourinho has decoded a formation that best suits his current line-up of players.
A draw against Arsenal isn’t something that would please Mourinho, but his team dominated the Gunners yesterday, and was perhaps a tad unlucky to not to have earned all three points.
Mourinho is a manager who gets things done his way, so it remains to be seen whether he will persist with the 4-3-3 formation in the long-run. But for now, he seems to have found a solution to United’s early season problems.