Manchester United’s derby loss to Manchester City was earmarked by the clear misfit of Jose Mourinho’s chosen formation; 4-2-3-1, with the tactical needs of the match. In fact, it seems a 4-2-3-1 only ever worked at the highest level in the case of Jupp Heycknes’ Bayern Munich, the best squad of all time in 2013. Too often, both midfielders stay too deep and the side isn’t fluid enough to attack, exemplified by United last season or one midfielder breaks forward and creates space for the opposition to attack and isolate the deepest midfielder.
Football is about fluid transitions, and 4-2-3-1 doesn’t allow for that anymore, especially in United’s case, where the worst player on the pitch is the lynchpin of the side; Wayne Rooney. That being said, if you’ve clicked on this article with the hope of finding some Rooney bashing, I’m going to redirect you here, because his name won’t be mentioned for the rest of the article.
In each season since Sir Alex Ferguson left, United has purchased a big-money midfielder expected to lead United to world class levels. Of those four, Marouane Fellaini has been omitted, simply because I don’t believe he can reach that level in a United side where he is surrounded by technical brilliance. An honourable mention also goes out to Michael Carrick, who could warrant a starting place, but he won’t be around every week, and probably won’t be around next year.
Anyone looking at United’s midfield options knows it has to be Morgan Schneiderlin, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba in midfield- the other two, and eventually, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, could provide depth, and if one of the main three is deemed not good enough for the highest level, Carrick’s likely departure will make room for a sixth in the mix. For now, though, Herrera, Schneiderlin, and Pogba hold the ability to create a fluid, quick midfield of many attacking options, many defensive options and the ability to hurt any opposition with some in a few of the following shapes.
The most obvious shape of a midfield with Schneiderlin, Pogba and Herrera would be one with Herrera on the right and Pogba on the left with Schneiderlin in behind. Schneiderlin’s midfield abilities were limited by van Gaal because he didn’t have the license to roam forward, but with Herrera’s new tendency to drop deep and make plays, Schneiderlin could finally be an effective shuttler. Herrera and Schneiderlin would offer each other creative freedom, and all three could move forward as a unit (all have good recovery pace) but both would be able to work to create space for Pogba.
That brings me to the next shape, which would be a triangle that transitions the formation to a 4-4-2. With Pogba occupying the left channel, Anthony Martial could move to a striking area and Schneiderlin and Herrera would hold it together in midfield. The quick positional movements between Pogba, Martial and Shaw would force a defender to move in one of three directions, and this isolation could split defences.
With Herrera’s important new defensive responsibility, United has the tools to sit deep and break with pace. Pogba has the flair and technique, but he wouldn’t be able to do as much without the raw tenacity of Herrera and Schneiderlin. Schneiderlin could lead pressing movements, moving forward and leaving Herrera and Pogba to search out runs from deep. With Herrera, potentially, as the deepest midfielder, he could pick out the likes of Luke Shaw, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Antonio Valencia, who then have Martial, Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Schneiderlin to cross for. Mkhitaryan’s intelligence would even allow him to move deeper into midfield and help Herrera.
The grit and ball-shuttling Schneiderlin would have the midfield partners to begin to play his best football again while moving deeper and further forward simultaneously would ensure that Herrera can finally become the full, less lightweight, version of himself. Pogba, finally, would be the spark of brilliance, aerial threat, and physicality that Herrera and Schneiderlin seemed to miss last year.
At United, the potential for a world class midfield lives within three top talents who can bring the best out of each other. The only concern is that, and this will be the upsetting feature of the day, the odds of this midfield trio ever coming to fruition are next to zero. For reasons I said I would not restate, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United midfield may never reach their full potential.