Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Manchester United brought a flurry of excitement based purely on the values summed up by a single word – winning. Regardless of how, when or where, executives at Manchester United have hired Mourinho to win. The fans, however, expect exciting football with flair off the charts, and with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Anthony Martial headlining United’s attacking talent, they should expect nothing less.
Though seemingly unrelated, the concepts of winning and playing football the United way were directly correlated under Louis van Gaal at Manchester United. The inability to find the ball in positive areas and use pace to break deep walls ended both United’s attacking ways and van Gaal’s tenure because the opposition realised that the Dutchman had no solution to the problems presented by two simple banks of four footballers in a formational tactic known as 4-4-2.
The concept is simple – too simple, some may argue. There are four defenders and two forwards, with the use of four midfielders as four different ways of transferring a ball from the defence to the attack. Since United last won the Champions League in 2008, Sir Alex Ferguson struggled to dominate European opposition in a 4-4-2; refusing to change to three men in midfield due to a lack of quality options in the centre of the park. Now, three years after the legendary Scot’s retirement, it seems football has further evolved from a game that can be won by midfield nous – a concept that becomes more believable with the recent success of teams that play with 4-4-2.
Iceland’s Euro 2016 brand of transition football stunted England’s 4-3-3 rather famously in the Round of 16. By planting two banks of four, they were able to compensate for a lack of technical ability with hard work and attack through gifted midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson. It is undoubted that this system is the best out there when considering the concept of defence. The only reason it isn’t considered the be-all-end-all tactic at this point is to do with the fact France showed the primary way of breaking the system down – staggering the midfield into a zigzag pattern allows technically brilliant players to exploit gaps, as Antoine Griezmann did against Iceland in sublime fashion.
It is for this reason that 4-4-2 has been abandoned by so many managers, but Iceland isn’t the only example of recent success. Atletico Madrid’s Griezmann and Fernando Torres fired them to the Champions League final in a 4-4-2 system despite supposedly not being nearly as capable as the rest of the major clubs in Europe. Real Madrid beat Bayern Munich 5-0 in the 2014 Champions League semi-final using a 4-4-2 system to completely nullify Pep Guardiola’s attacking impetus. Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph was predicated on the concept of a 4-4-2 system with Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo up top. Most notably, Leicester City’s “four” in midfield – Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante, Danny Drinkwater and Marc Albrighton – presented four excellent transitional footballers, and, subsequently, the most unlikely Premier League title in the history of the competition.
Mourinho’s primary tactic is a pressing 4-2-3-1, which is acceptable, but there is no reason why 4-4-2 can’t become the perfect wildcard option for United, with the right players to play the right football. United’s only “Plan B” option since Ferguson departed was Marouane Fellaini, but with the likes of Memphis and Marcus Rashford coming off the bench, it could be time to evolve from that. United has the perfect squad depth to play an effective 4-4-2 system with capable players in each of the 10 positions. With Paul Pogba’s seemingly imminent move creating a storm at United, here’s a preview of how United’s 4-4-2 depth could appear should Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 be negatively impacted.
United’s Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly form the perfect duo in defence, comfortable in the air and in the tackle, and crossing will be much less of a problem with two wingers to help out in the system. In midfield, Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin can come deep to retrieve the ball and distribute to Paul Pogba or Ander Herrera, where the transition football really begins. In smaller matches, Pogba and Herrera could be a monstrous midfield duo. Daley Blind was the greatest beneficiary of van Gaal’s brief use of 4-4-2 at Manchester United because he had the midfield freedom to control the game and get involved in the attack, the latter being an often underrated facet of his game.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is the undoubted option on the right, and on the left, Jesse Lingard would likely be more comfortable than in any other position. Lingard’s freedom to dribble as well as roam into central areas with Luke Shaw in wide areas will allow him to show the true capability of his skill set – many United fans wrote him off from a wide-right area because he has no room to move inside and perform where he does best. Up front, Martial and Ibrahimovic represent the best two strikers at one club in the Premier League, with only Chelsea coming close at the moment. Both strikers would roam into dangerous areas, one at a time, and open space for the other. Ferguson’s sides always had four strikers, and Memphis (performed well in a dual-striker system) and Rashford would be perfect for the backup positions. Wayne Rooney could find a home there too if his form improves significantly.
United is building something exciting at the moment, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial headlining a side of ridiculous talent. However, if the plan doesn’t come to fruition, there has to be the second option. A 4-4-2 system, just like the Ferguson days, could prove to be the perfect backup option to surprise, entertain and win at the same time. The 4-4-2 was ruled out five years ago, but Leicester’s, Atletico’s and Portugal’s successes show that football has changed. Mourinho needs to be able to adapt more than anything if he wants to build a dynasty at United, and 4-4-2 is the perfect tool to do so.