Manchester United have endured a stuttering start to the season. Not through a lack of inspiration, or indeed talent, but as Mourinho has struggled to unearth his best system.
Since the 4-1 demolition of champions Leicester City – with the exception of the tactical stonewalling of Liverpool – United have seemingly settled on a free-flowing and exciting 4-1-4-1 system:
The system works particularly well when it utilises the disposable talent in the squad. Mata is finally being deployed in central areas, Herrera driving the ball from the back and Pogba being given the freedom to drift box-to-box – each key midfield player is deployed in an influential position.
The side’s fluidity is due to Mata, Rashford and Lingard’s interchanging movement. However, with summer acquisition Mkhitaryan now fit and raring to play, Mourinho faces a selection dilemma ahead of Sunday’s trip to Stamford Bridge and the forthcoming League Cup fixture with Manchester City.
With the similarity in Lingard, Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan play styles, this article will discuss the conundrum Mourinho has in choosing his midfield maestros.
Arriving from Borussia Dortmund for £26.3m in the summer, the Bundesliga’s Player of the season has only featured in 107 minutes this season due to injury. Nonetheless, the Armenian needs no introduction.
The fastest and most direct of the three, Mkhitaryan is almost unplayable when in form. Cutting in from a wide position, but equally capable of playing centrally, Mkhitaryan’s tantalising form consisted of 13 goals and 20 assists in 42 games last season. A nightmare in-between the opposition lines, with fast attacking link-up play, he’s an individual tailor-made for the current fluid system.
However the thigh injury he sustained in September has unfortunately stalled Mkhitaryan’s start to life at Old Trafford. With every player vying for a place, and Mata/Lingard playing so well, Mkhitaryan has to seize his chance – whenever it eventually comes.
Despite returning from injury last week, Mkhitaryan has already sat out of this week’s encounters with Liverpool, and more surprisingly Fenerbahce. But Mourinho’s caution is understandable.
After suffering from injury in the build-up to September’s derby, Mourinho rushed the Armenian back into the side.
However, to his dismay, Mkhitaryan’s lack of match-sharpness lead to the Armenian being completely overwhelmed, giving the ball away more than any other player before being substituted at half time in a game Manchester United heartbreakingly lost 2-1.
Now fit and raring to go, it’d be advisable for Mourinho ease Mkhitaryan back into the side; particularly given his fragility of confidence and fitness. With such a talented player seemingly forgotten, Mkhitaryan can prove to be Mourinho’s secret weapon in the forthcoming fixtures.
Here’s a reminder of what a fit, and in form Henrikh Mkhitaryan can offer:
Arguably the most technically gifted of the three, Juan Mata’s capability of scoring and assisting goals has earned him a mainstay in the side. After being inefficiently pushed wide in the van Gaal era, Juan Mata has taken up central areas this season and is seemingly back to his best – scoring two and assisting one already in the Premier League.
But statistics won’t pay testament to Juan Mata’s crucial contribution. His link-up play, awareness, vision and distribution have been sublime, bringing the best out of the likes of Pogba and Lingard. His ability to unlock teams in central areas has had a profound effect in the new system, and his movement in conjunction with Lingard allows him to sneak in between the lines subtly and undetected.
However, Mata has been previously criticised for his defensive contribution. Standing at 170cm, Mourinho has often substituted the Spaniard in the latter stages of the games this season due to his inability to defend set pieces.
Lastly – unlike Mkhitaryan or Lingard – Mata lacks pace, and is the least effective in a wide berth, making him the least rounded option.
Last out is academy graduate, Jesse Lingard. After dabbing his way into the first team last season, Lingard has since established himself as a first team regular. The Englishman is quick, cunning and has a tendency to score stunning and big game goals – such as in the FA Cup Final last season.
Arguably Lingard’s greatest asset is his chemistry with other players. His ability to link-up with Martial, Mata, Rashford and Pogba constitutes the quick, slick and exciting play with which Manchester United are typically associated. A typical Mourinho player, Lingard’s defensive contribution is outstanding, a player fully deserving of starting four out of the last five games. And at 23, his best years are still ahead of him.
However, he is the least effective of the three in central midfield as his distribution is limited. Although he’s brilliant at interlinking with teammates in tight areas, he cannot spread the play like Mata or Mkhitaryan. Put simply, Jesse Lingard – on paper – is the furthest down in the pecking order.
Although Mourinho will be cautious of throwing a rusty Henrikh Mkhitaryan back into the fold, currently his plan for reintegrating the Armenian back into the squad seem to remain unclear.
In theory, Mata should continue playing centrally, being given the licence to dictate games with his creativity and movement. Moreover, this would suit Mkhitaryan, as he could then play in his favoured wide birth, adding width to the play and cutting in. That seems to be the obvious option: fitting in two extremely talented, high-profile players into the line-up.
However, alternatively, I’d like to see Mkhitaryan utilised in midfield alongside Pogba, with Lingard played out wide. I believe the combination of Mkhitaryan and Lingard would add more flair and attacking dynamism, to the side, and with their direct styles of play, their interchanging nature would combine to a much greater effect.
Lingard, while superb – and arguably doesn’t deserve to be dropped – simply isn’t as good as Mkhitaryan or Mata at the moment, although he still has a very valuable role to play.
Mourinho will doubtless experiment with all three in the coming weeks – it will all come down to how the players combine on the pitch.
Written by Will Darby