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Jose Mourinho should consider ditching the 4-2-3-1 formation next season

In his close to 18 years of top-tier European football management, Jose Mourinho has earned a reputation for being a tactical genius and rightly so, a look at his trophy cabinet points to that fact too. During his three-year stint at the Santiago Bernabeu and his second spell at the Stamford Bridge, Mourinho utilised his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation to immense outcomes. But perhaps one of his most impressive performances in that period with the formation was while managing the Los Blancos in the 2011/2012 season.

‘The Special One’ set up Real Madrid to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation for the most part of the season, featuring Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso working the central defensive pivot. In the offense, he had Karim Benzema at the tip of an attacking four; with Angel Di Maria on the right-wing, Mesut Özil directing the play in the middle, and Cristiano Ronaldo dictating things on the left. Real Madrid went on to pip Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona to the summit of the league that season, scoring a total of 121 goals and finishing the league with 100 points.

While Mourinho has previously recorded tremendous success with the 4-2-3-1 formation from his time at FC Porto, Madrid and North London, at United he has struggled to break defenses whenever he sets them up to play in a similar fashion. There were moments last season, like against Liverpool at Anfield when it felt like Mourinho’s focus was to keep it tight, allowing the opponents no space to attack as long as it would take. It worked effectively, defensive wise that is!

Liverpool found it difficult to break down a hard-working and well-organized United defense; in the end, it left a lot to be desired and some of the fans were not impressed. Fundamentally, the requirement of the Portuguese manager’s4-2-3-1 formation is keeping the defence tight long enough to win back possession. Once the defence is able to dispossess the opposing team, the midfield players are able to get the ball up quickly to the team’s attackers, who then link up quickly with each other to catch the other team’s defence unprepared.

While this has proved quite effective in some scenarios, it has also earned the reputation of coming off as a bit cautious and negative; something that left United offensively anaemic and proved to be the difference between them and the free attacking cityzens last season. Perhaps most pointedly, a critical look at their performance in the 2-0 Premier League loss to Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium in January this year, the verdict screams for Mourinho to implement a more balanced system that suits his costly personnel.

Paul Pogba’s influence in games, in particular, has been limited in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Forced to play at the base of the midfield alongside Nemanja Matic, his lack of defensive discipline and the desire to drift into the attack has often left United limping in the middle of the pack. Nevertheless, from his explosive form at Juventus playing alongside Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo to his impressive New Year display in United’s 2-0 win at Goodison Park last season, there is no doubt about the French International’s abilities in a 4-3-3 setup.

United have had some exemplary displays playing that formation, with Pogba let loose to drive forward and do what he does best, dictating play and allowing United to attack with more fluidity and zest. Now with the addition of Fred to the side, the assumption is that Mourinho has been conscious of this fact for a while and will be looking to explore the 4-3-3 formation further.

Even though the defensive aspect of the game cannot be overlooked, and the 4-2-3-1 formation has seen United finish the highest position since Sir Alex Ferguson left five years ago, the need for joyously rousing performance against rival teams cannot be stressed enough, and the Old Trafford faithful haven’t hidden that fact from their manager.

I could go on and on how 4-3-3 formation favours this Mourinho’s United, and the need for the manager to modernise and reinvent himself tactically, but suffice to say that much work still needs to be done if United are to overcome Manchester City and a resurgent Liverpool next season.

Written by George Oduor

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