After countless experimentations with a 4-3-3 midfield, trying to bring out the best of Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera, Jose Mourinho discovered that the midfield setup wasn’t making as much of an impact as the plain quality of these two players. Pogba and Herrera have been two of the best, if not the two best, midfielders in the Premier League this season, complimenting each other perfectly in the process.
The issue stemmed from the fact that it seemed both Pogba and Herrera were too high up the pitch- Pogba was being marked and, instead of playing a tactically disciplined, driving midfield role, he was often tasked with finishing the final chance and clinical football in front of goal. Herrera was excellent, but his defensive football was too good for a player in a creative role. Fundamentally, Michael Carrick became increasingly less required between the lines, as Herrera was extremely effective defensively, but removing Carrick from the side caused tactical capitulation. Why? The answer is simple.
Herrera is an incredible destroyer, and one of the best passers in the Premier League, but once he got on the ball, he didn’t have the same type of pass as Carrick- Herrera moves the ball out of his feet much quicker, which has proven important for United, but he doesn’t provide the same range, stemming from his football background. The Spaniard’s football is based on quick interplay and movement, which works very well with this United side, but not when he’s a single pivot.
Add Pogba to the mix, though, and suddenly, United’s midfield becomes incredibly fluid. While the world’s most expensive player looked very good in a midfield trio, it seemed as if his role was solely created to justify his fee, forcing him to be involved in goals and assists when that should be a bonus of his game. Now, Pogba is able to defend, and completely control the game, while also moving forward and getting involved in the attack.
Releasing the burden of only having two in midfield is Henrikh Mkhitaryan, in front of these two world class midfielders- completing the setup is an incisive, completely rounded, mercurial player, capable of producing excellence in front of goal, but also working very hard defensively. Mkhitaryan’s presence in this midfield releases the burden on Pogba and Herrera to get forward, allowing them to relax and completely control the game.
These three players are all among the best in their positions in Europe, without doubt- all tactically versatile, all stunningly well-rounded, and capable of winning matches on their own. Producing various midfield shapes, Herrera, Pogba, and Mkhitaryan can shred opposition defences in various tactical shapes.
The only potential weakness of this midfield is the reliance on Herrera and Pogba to always play well, though they usually live up to the billing, creating a massive man advantage in attacking areas of the pitch. Playing two midfielders would typically congest the central areas, but the addition of Mkhitaryan instead makes it a form of domination in all areas of the pitch.
The best part of the setup, though, is the setup it creates for the future- this midfield system could survive the long haul, and bring out the best football from an array of talents, finally moving United on from Michael Carrick.
Andreas Pereira, likely to return from loan this summer, plays a very similar role to Mkhitaryan, and Antoine Griezmann shares similar work rate and incisive pace to the Armenian. Pogba is an irreplaceably special footballer, but if he is to be rotated, signing a powerful central midfielder in the summer, along with Timothy Fosu-Mensah, would create longer-term implications for the setup. As for Herrera, he can be switched with the same breed of midfielder, in a setup that prioritizes work-rate instead of possession for the first time in years.
With the right additions, this midfield setup is the first of United’s in a while that can genuinely reach the pinnacle of football. While the rest of United’s side hasn’t yet reached this point, United seems to finally be creating a midfield rotation with options, but also effectiveness, at the highest level. Herrera, Pogba, and Mkhitaryan are three template world class midfielders who represent the potential of this midfield for years to come.