Manchester United’s new 4-4-1-1 system has brought two wins, five goals, and two clean sheets, and therefore, it is likely that Jose Mourinho will continue to deploy the side in the formation with the hope of better football and qualification for Champions League football. One of the key components of the system has been the use of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, one of United’s marquee summer signings, behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic as somewhat of a second striker.
Mkhitaryan running beyond Ibrahimovic has helped the Swede massively, especially when he drops into deeper areas, but there will need to be alternatives to the Armenian if United is to make the formation successful for the rest of the season. Three players fit the bill very well, and I could see any of them playing behind a striker and being very successful in the Premier League.
Ideal Scenario: Juan Mata
Juan Mata is the most obvious candidate to slot in behind the striker for United, as he shares many common attributes with Mkhitaryan. With silky passing ability, fantastic creation of space, and an array of technical qualities, Mata remains one of the finest footballers at Manchester United, as he has shown on many occasions this season.
Perhaps Mata doesn’t have the same pace as Mkhitaryan, but he seems to be more clinical in front of goal, which is an attribute he developed since moving to United. He has already scored nine goals this season, the second highest at United behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Under Louis van Gaal, he also gained a level of defensive responsibility, making him a better player for the incoming Jose Mourinho, and as a result, Mata has been one of United’s best players this season. If Mkhitaryan isn’t around, Mata commands a place behind United’s main striker.
Expected Scenario: Jesse Lingard
Jose Mourinho, known for his defensive tactics, would likely decide to deploy Jesse Lingard in an energetic role behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic in United’s 4-4-1-1, which seems poor on the surface, but in reality, could be very effective for the Englishman. He has shown on many occasions that he doesn’t thrive in wide areas, not great at beating a man or passing the ball, but his greatest strength is running off players and quick passing movements. Playing behind the striker, Lingard would be able to show his true qualities.
Developing his finishing of chances, Lingard could even be a long-term player in the position, offering an alternative option to most second strikers in world football. The ability to defend and cover for wide players who would likely stay forward could be a massive asset for United. The role is very technical and Lingard will have to grow into it, but I believe he has the necessary qualities to become a (slightly downgraded) alternative to Mkhitaryan as a footballer in general.
Unorthodox Scenario: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Many people have noticed Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s tendency to drop deep and try to pick up the ball in slightly deeper areas. Holding up the ball for Marcus Rashford, though, United could have the best blend of experience and raw talent in a European strike partnership. Ibrahimovic’s hold-up play would b perfectly matched by Rashford’s running into space, reducing the reliance on the Swede to use his limited pace to run between the lines.
Instead, the goal of the match would be to create space for Ibrahimovic by forcing the opposition to cope with Rashford, allowing the Swede to become a threat from long range. This would work particularly well against sides with defensive midfielders who lack physicality, forcing them to cope with the threat of Ibrahimovic for the whole game. If used correctly, this could become an unpredictable tactical weapon for United.
Juan Mata is the obvious alternative to Henrikh Mkhitaryan behind a striker, but in choosing Jesse Lingard or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United could find tactical versatility and an element of unpredictability, which has been scarce in the years post-Ferguson. However, one would hope Mkhitaryan doesn’t need to be replaced for the end of the season, because he has been simply fantastic since signing.