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Manchester United back to basics: 4-4-2

From a tactical perspective, many view the 2016/17 season as the year of the 3-4-3. It was the primary formation used by runaway Premier League champions Chelsea; it brought great dividends to a Tottenham Hotspur team in need of a win against elite opposition, and it was used by six other teams in the Premier League from third-placed Manchester City to seventeenth placed Watford with differing degrees of success.

After being humbled on his first return to Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho set about formulating a counter to Chelsea’s dominant system. Mourinho’s Manchester United experimented with three at the back in the first leg of the Europa League match against Rostov before switching to the aforementioned ‘3-4-3’ formation in United’s FA Cup clash against Chelsea. Mourinho was experimenting as part of a plan to match Chelsea’s formation in the hopes of replicating the success that Tottenham had defeating Chelsea in a league game at White Hart Lane two weeks prior. Mourinho assigned his right centre-back, Phil Jones to man-mark Chelsea’s biggest threat, Eden Hazard. Despite a positive start to the match, United became undone when Ander Herrera was sent off in the 35th minute for two yellow cards, losing 1-0.

Ever the pragmatist, Mourinho further adapted his approach replacing Jones with Herrera as the man marker and opting for two fast attackers to occupy Chelsea’s defensive line when the London club later visited Old Trafford. The latter point is particularly notable as Mourinho opted to drop Zlatan Ibrahimovic in order to enhance his tactical approach to both games. With the ball, employing quicker tireless runners up front enabled United to absorb Chelsea’s possession and counter quickly and decisively.  Without the ball, the quick attackers can relentlessly pressure the ball playing centre backs in Chelsea’s defensive line.

Having found success with this formula it is likely that Mourinho will use this approach to counter the ‘3-4-3’ formation until it is no longer successful. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be completely far fetched to see Manchester United implement some version of the 4-4-2 on a more regular basis against Premier League opposition next season.

Looking at the lineup against Chelsea, there are ways United’s lineup next season could improve upon the team that was fielded against Chelsea at Old Trafford. The implementation of Manchester United’s new signing, Victor Lindelof, alongside Eric Bailly in defence would give the team a better ball playing option in a position that the opposition has to rely on one attacker to cover two centre-backs. This could help United move the ball from back to front with greater efficiency and efficacy.

The implementation of a striker with greater mobility than the injured Ibrahimovic could be the perfect partner for Marcus Rashford to make runs off and harass the opposition centre-backs. This is a role that could be carried out by Henrikh Mkhitaryan who may have been dropped to the bench for the Old Trafford fixture as a result of rotation following the team’s exertions in the Europa League days prior. Further additions to the squad could see United’s ability to counter this formation improve next season. Also, don’t count out the possibility of United’s young players showing great improvements and a better understanding of Mourinho’s tactics in the new season.

Written by David Sagoe

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