One negative result is not the end of the world for Manchester United, but the tendency for José Mourinho’s side to produce displays very similar to the one against Brighton and Hove Albion kept the Red Devils out of Premier League and Champions League contention last season.
Many believe the Portuguese manager could struggle to guide United to a top four position, and they would not be wrong; given the strengths of many other sides in England, finishing in the top four will not be easy for any team.
This season, much more is expected from Mourinho and United with a very similar side, and should the current 4-3-3 formation be proven insufficient in producing the best out of the current players at Old Trafford, the following three formations could be used instead.
Scenario 1: Mourinho’s Classic 4-2-3-1
It took almost two seasons for José Mourinho to be convinced that his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation is largely outdated at the top level of football, but should his new 4-3-3 system, supposedly more progressive, be ruled out, he will be very tempted to switch back.
Ander Herrera was a defensive mammoth in United’s first season in this formation, averaging 2.7 tackles and 2.6 interceptions per 90 minutes, and Fred played in a similar role for Shakhtar Donetsk. They would provide young centre-backs Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf with the protection required to play the ball out from the back properly.
United may struggle to score goals, but Mourinho has always prioritized not conceding at the back and with Paul Pogba in a reinvented role in front of the midfielders, he would have the freedom to contribute more in attack but also require the discipline to assist the defence.
Alexis Sánchez would be narrow enough to make runs in behind Lukaku from the right-wing, and Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial would be able to resume the rivalry which yielded good form from both in the first half of 2017/18. Juan Mata, who has struggled in wide areas, could become a central figure again as a deputy to Pogba.
Scenario 2: Three at the back?
United’s lack of a right-winger has led many to believe a formation with three defenders at the back would yield more success for this United side, allowing the centre-backs less pressure and more time on the ball.
The Red Devils’ current starting midfield is not suited to a three-man defence, but this formation would allow Nemanja Matić to play deeper as a centre-back, which would arguably lengthen his career into his thirties while solving United’s problems playing out the back. If Mourinho doesn’t trust Matić, he could use Marcos Rojo, who has largely impressed at centre-back during his time at the club.
With Luke Shaw regaining form and Ashley Young better in this system than any other, Antonio Valencia and Diogo Dalot returning to fitness and perhaps even Andreas Pereira being able to slot in at wingback, United would be loaded with options throughout the pitch.
The icing on the cake would be the strike partnership of Lukaku and Sánchez, which, if both players were serviced correctly, would be one of the best in England.
Scenario 3: The Manchester United 4-4-2
Gary Neville’s words echoed: “United have always played 4-4-1-1, 4-4-2, with two wide players. It’s ingrained in the club. Don’t change, don’t make short-term decisions.
While any manager would be hard-pressed to fashion two wide players out of the current crop at United, playing a 4-4-2 formation and transitioning between a narrow and wide phase would allow a pragmatic grittiness reminiscent of Diego Simeone’s overachieving Atlético Madrid side.
Pogba would have a similar role to his Juventus tenure from the left-hand side, while the exciting young Pereira could play out wide and display his excellent crossing ability, which has been missing at United in recent years.
The Lukaku-Sánchez partnership is continued in this formation and just as easily could involve Mata, Rashford, Lingard and Martial.
A formation change could be on the cards for United, who have a plethora of options despite the limitations which may have resulted from an insufficient transfer window. However, most importantly, Mourinho needs to begin to play the right players and said players need to perform.
United’s win against Leicester on the opening day of the season did not come without fault, but it showed the 55-year-old manager’s desire to use pressing systems as his method of breaking deep-lying defences.
The way results look for United at the moment, the next match against Tottenham Hotspur could be the defining moment of Mourinho’s United career and his tactical decisions will be reflected in the outcome of the match, whether positive or negative.
Three Scenarios is a series which looks to provide three hypothetical solutions to a current football-related problem. Follow us on Twitter (@tfbfootball) for more articles like this one!