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Manchester United’s back three formation: winners and losers

In their last two games, Manchester United ditched their usual formation and lined up with formations previously unused since Jose Mourinho’s appointment. In their Europa League match away to Rostov they lined up in a 3-5-2, and in their FA Cup defeat to Chelsea at the weekend, they started with a 3-4-3, tailored to man mark key opposition players.

It is entirely possible that the formation change was simply Mourinho’s way of countering Chelsea and nothing more, in fact, that might just be the case, but if United’s performance against Chelsea prior to Ander Herrera’s sending off is anything to go by, there is potential in this system. United played with immediacy and aggression, and they kept the defence tight. But a change this big would affect many players in many different ways. Some could stand to benefit from it, either jumpstarting a lagging spell or to improve further, while there are others who would have to redouble their efforts to fit in.

Here are the winners and losers of a United back three:

Winners:

Marcos Rojo

Rojo’s spell at United has been pretty hot and cold. He’s clearly best at the centre of defence, but his ability to play left back has gotten in the way of him playing there at times. One game he could be blamed for a goal and making reckless challenges, and the next he could put in a performance worthy of the number on his back. But in the two games United has played with three in defence, Rojo has placed himself much more in the latter category.

That left-centre back role in the back three is tailor-made for a player like Rojo. It highlights the qualities that managers see in him as a left back without isolating him against tricky wingers,  and placing him wider lessens the risk of recklessness. Rojo has largely been a defensively intelligent players with the mobility traditional centre backs lack, and it seems like this system has enabled him to showcase that more.

Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw

A switch to wing back would be a great opportunity for both Shaw and Valencia, as both players excel in going forward and assisting the attack. Valencia has been one of United’s best players this season, with his attacking contributions and boundless energy the main reasons why. A switch to wing back gives him more freedom to do what he does best, as well as giving him added protection in defence.

Shaw, on the other hand, has had a much more difficult season. Coming into the season having not played a single game for the better part of a year due to injury, he failed to cement a place in the first team and has since found himself on the outside looking in. However, before his injury, he was arguably United’s best performing player. He was trusted by then manager Louis van Gaal to roam forward, sometimes making his way into the opposition penalty area. His injury robbed United of this influence and they did not recover, but a switch to wing back could bring the best out of him once more.

Paul Pogba

It’s no secret that Pogba is an immensely talented player, and he has shown that in a good number of games since his return to Old Trafford. But that doesn’t mean he has escaped criticism, far from it. And even though a lot of it is unwarranted, due to the media obsession with his price tag, he still has some way to go to even replicate his form at Juventus. And so, what better way to try and do that than to replicate the system that got the best out of him back in Italy?

Pogba rose to prominence playing in a midfield three in front of a back three, with Andrea Pirlo as a screen in front of the defence and an energetic presence in Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio completing the midfield. United played a similar system against Rostov last week, and while, granted, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini aren’t exactly Pirlo and Vidal, it’s a start. A back three relieve Pogba of much of his defensive duties, his weakest area, and frees him to drive forwards and support the attack.

Losers:

Juan Mata

Following Mourinho’s appointment, there was doubt over whether Mata would be seen as a  first team member, due to how their last time together at Chelsea ended. There was even talk of Mata being sold. He has since silenced his doubters by becoming one of the team’s most important players. He has played all but five league games so far this season and has even been trusted with the captain’s armband. However, that may stand to change should this new system be adopted.

A change to either formation reduces the attacking positions on the pitch and puts Mata in direct competition with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who himself has become a major player. Indeed, in the two games United have played with a back three, Mata did not make it off the bench. A change to a back three formation locks Mata in constant battle with Mkhitaryan, and at the moment, he’s trailing.

Chris Smalling

While fellow defenders Rojo and Phil Jones have taken to the formation change well, Smalling has not taken advantage of the new system. Smalling has been played in the centre of the defensive three, a position was normally taken up by the defender most adept with the ball at his feet, and Smalling has looked uncomfortable in the role. He has been far from his best so far this season, and the formation is not helping.

If Mourinho decides to start using this system more regularly, he would have to bring in another defender, and Smalling’s name would be first on the list of players to be replaced.

Daley Blind

Blind is a player that could suit a back three very well, but considering how he has been used recently and the competition at the club, it’s more likely that this change would do him more harm than good.
Blind has shown in the past 18 months that he is a very capable centre-back, despite his physical limitations, as his intelligence and composure makes him the right type of player to hold a defensive line, and add to that his passing ability and you get someone who’s a good fit for the centre of the defensive three.

However, Mourinho has been reluctant in playing Blind in central defence for a while now, with his last appearance in the position coming last November. In this system, Mourinho is much more likely to play Blind at left wing back, as Shaw has yet to fully return to the first team fold. Once Shaw starts firing, though, Blind is looking at only playing the backup role.

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