Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1: A problem becoming a crisis?

Jose Mourinho

Manchester United slumped to three straight defeats before papering over the cracks with a measured display against lowly Northampton. The win will have done enough to lift the morale of the club high enough before Saturday’s clash with Leicester City, but if United is to have any success against the Premier League Champions, or at all, some serious questions need to be answered first.

Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 at United has a few main key aspects as yet. The first is the tendency of Paul Pogba, a holding midfielder in starting position, to venture forward in search of chance creation. The second is Wayne Rooney’s adjoining with United’s main man, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The wingers cut inside to provide creativity and fullbacks provide the width. Remember these elements, because they will return later in this analysis.

While many will try to identify United’s football so far, it seems very difficult to do so- moving forward, United’s options seem thrown together and relied on for individual talent instead of a tactical system in which certain players perform certain roles. The only conclusion one will hear from the United faithful is that the football is far more direct than it was under Louis van Gaal. The subsequently better attacking football is more due to the added individual quality of Ibrahimovic than the better play on United’s behalf.

The reason why United’s system is so difficult to identify is because it is seemingly being neutralized by players on the pitch. Mourinho’s typical system allows his players to take matches to teams with pressing football and 50-60% of the ball- United, so far, has none of said attributes. The problem stems from the players on the pitch and their inability to perform in compliance with Mourinho’s system.

It is hard to blame Mourinho for choosing Wayne Rooney off the bat because it is tough to determine whether it is even Mourinho’s choice at this point. All top teams today are able to play quick, possession-oriented football and counter-attacking football based on the opposition, but Rooney prevents United from playing either, slowing down the play and nullifying United’s intensity with the tendency to lose the ball and to show inability to keep up with the play of United’s other attacking footballers. Mourinho’s typical player in Rooney’s position is more of a number eight playing in an advanced role, coming deeper for the defensive midfielder to advance- think Oscar and Cesc Fabregas at Chelsea. Rooney, instead, joins Ibrahimovic up top and is unable to recover quickly enough to cover in defensive midfield.

While we aren’t sure about blaming Mourinho for Rooney’s selection, I can be sure that he wants Antonio Valencia and Marouane Fellaini on the pitch, and that becomes a problem. Fellaini, while he performs well individually, cannot pass the ball forward and attack without the space behind him being exposed. He isn’t suited to quick, possession-oriented football or counter-pressing. Perhaps he would’ve been suited to Louis van Gaal’s system at United, but the Dutchman didn’t give him the same positional discipline as Mourinho and was given poor performances instead.

Fellaini has played well, as has Valencia, but they negate United’s system as a whole. Valencia stretches very wide because of his weaknesses in central areas, but that creates a comparatively large space between him and Eric Bailly. The space between Daley Blind and Luke Shaw is much more reduced, which is why United has seldom conceded chances from the left. Also notice, though, that Valencia has been far more present moving forward than Shaw- his pressing need to provide width is causing him to move out wide and prepare to bomb forward.

That space subsequently needs to be closed by Fellaini, who steps in between Bailly and Valencia, or even between Blind and Bailly to help the Dutchman in the air. That wouldn’t be a problem in a 4-3-3 midfield if the second central midfielder covered the right channel, but because United plays 4-2-3-1, there is a massive gap between the midfield and defence. Notice the photos below of Watford’s two identical goals, one scored by Etienne Capoue and one by his substitute, Juan Camilo Zuniga.

The catch is that United played 4-3-3 in the first half and 4-2-3-1 in the second half. In both cases, Rooney failed to track the run of his man- in one case, it was arguably not his man, but Fellaini was pulled out of position by Valencia’s presence in a far wider area (in the first case, he’s in holding midfield, but in the second he’s exactly where I mentioned). Fellaini didn’t make a mistake, but he also didn’t succeed to the standards of Manchester United. I suppose, then, the title is a little bit of a misnomer- the problem is in United’s system, not formation.

Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera, and Morgan Schneiderlin presented the perfect solution against Northampton- a midfield three closing the midfield channels. Then, Valencia could play at right-back and all the midfield channels would be closed. The other solution would be to simply bench Valencia and play narrow fullbacks, but then a wider outlet would be needed in attack. My personal choice would be to stop picking Rooney, Fellaini, and Valencia, three players with very limited technical ability. Adapt the tactics for greater width and fluidity. Then, any of Schneiderlin, Herrera or Carrick would become interchangeable with Pogba, in a midfield three of any combination. Schneiderlin or Carrick can play deep and Pogba, Herrera, and Schneiderlin can play box-to-box.

There’s one more catch, though. Against Northampton, Carrick, Herrera and Schneiderlin set up in a 4-2-3-1 with the Spaniard at the tip of the triangle. That is the truth, though- against Watford, United’s defence and attack weren’t changed much by the switch in formation. The truth is that the minute formational details are irrelevant, as long as United’s shape can keep intact. If players who can keep United in shape to prevent goals and score goals, the formation becomes a weapon to bring the best out of players trying to evade markers.

To recap, United needs to do three things to fix tactical problems on the pitch. Firstly, use players who carry out a certain tactical plan, not those who show certain individual qualities and no adherence to the overall objective (or those, like Rooney, who offer nothing at all). Secondly, enforce a tactical system of attacking and defending that closes and exposes the channels. Mourinho is a master of adapting to opposition, but we’ve seen none of the sort at United. Finally, use the formation as a weapon, not a tactic- use it to get the best of the players, and not the best of the system. The formation should always be reflective of the players in the side and the tactical objective should be reflective of the players chosen to represent the side.

If this happens, United will be successful eventually- the individual quality is present, now the managerial quality is present, and all that is left is putting it all together. If not, though, a problem could quickly become another season of pandemonium.

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