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Manchester United built for 3-5-2?

Manchester United started the pre-season by lining up in a 3-5-2 formation. Manager, Jose Mourinho, initially explained the change as part of his plans to experiment with formations should United need them in certain fixtures. He would, however, go on to use the formation on a number of occasions throughout the pre-season including in United’s first meaningful contest against Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.

Prior to the emergence of this formation, many expected United to stick to the 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 formations that they oscillated between last season. The 4-5-1 formation that Mourinho has favoured in recent years is the most defensive of the three formations with two deep-lying midfield pivots dictating play and protecting the back four. Although Mourinho was forced to play this formation in an attacking sense, out of necessity at times, when United needed to fill the midfield with players capable of attacking; United were criticized for using Paul Pogba in too deep of a position. The Frenchman is not known for his ability to track midfield runners and despite his excellent long-range passing, his defensive responsibility inhibited his ability to get forward score goals at the rate that he had for his previous club, Juventus.

4-3-3 was seen as the solution to this as Pogba’s midfield partner Ander Herrera was better suited to pressing than protecting the back four. This formation includes a single defensive pivot in midfield; a position Michael Carrick has made a career of perfecting. The problem for United was that at Carrick’s age he was no longer able to perform at his best twice a week in what was an extremely busy season for United. With the signing of Nemanja Matic, United have an experienced player to fill in that single pivot role, freeing both Herrera and Pogba to operate in ways that better suit their skill sets. United’s wide men, however, all prefer to occupy central positions meaning the only width comes from the full backs leaving United vulnerable to counter attacks.

This is where the 3-5-2 shows its worth. In this formation the full backs are used as wing backs, providing the same defensive cover in wide areas and width in attacking areas as they have to in a back four for United but now they have the cover of an extra centre-back. This extra man gives them more license to get forward and also the ability to press higher up the pitch, forcing the opposition onto the back foot in their own half. In a 3-5-2 United’s false wingers will no longer vacating their responsibility in wide areas, as they will now operate as a free roaming second striker or no. 10. This suits Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata, as they are both equal parts creator and goal scorer. Alternatively, Mourinho could rely on midfielders Pogba and Herrera to create for two mobile strikers, which could be any combination of Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial.

When you look at United’s defensive personnel this formation only makes more sense. United currently have six senior players capable of playing centre-back with young Axel Tuanzebe also pushing for a place in the first team squad. Having so many options makes sense for United as there have been a raft of injuries at the position in the past but Mourinho’s decision to sign a sixth senior defender coupled with his refusal to allow one of his centre backs to leave, gives the impression that he sees 3-5-2 as a worthwhile formation for the team this season. Injured players, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw are both comfortable at left-wing back and Marcos Rojo would comfortably slot in at left centre-back.

First choice right back Antonio Valencia is built for marauding up and down the right flank, his current left-sided counterpart Darmian, isn’t as adept in attacking positions. Jesse Lingard started the UEFA Super Cup in that position due to suspensions to Eric Bailly and Phil Jones but struggled to make an impression in defence or attack. If there is any downside to United deploying the 3-5-2 formation, that may well be it.

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