After a nervous conclusion to the match, Manchester United managed to beat Middlesbrough 3-1 to secure fifth place in the Premier League for the first time in months. Capitalizing off Arsenal’s loss against West Bromwich Albion, United finally took their chance to move up the table through Marouane Fellaini’s header, Jesse Lingard’s wonder strike, and Antonio Valencia’s late goal to punish Victor Valdes for his mistake.
This wasn’t a game without lessons to learn, though. With twenty minutes remaining in the match, Jose Mourinho brought on a fourth centre-back in Marcos Rojo, and it almost invited too much pressure for Middlesbrough at the end of the match. Marouane Fellaini scored his goal and looked solid defensively, but left Michael Carrick wanting in terms of options on the ball. Finally, United stood to profit with three goals despite not having many chances, showcasing the counter-attacking ability of the 3-4-3 formation. This formation brought the best out of Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata and could do the same for many other players in the squad.
Jose Mourinho nearly bottled it
Credit to United, who managed to pull together to take advantage of the shortcomings of Chris Smalling- and to be fair, the Red Devils would’ve profited from a clean sheet if Marcos Rojo was fit to start the match in the Englishman’s place. However, Smalling’s error brought on a series of attacks from Middlesbrough that resulted from Jose Mourinho’s decision to deploy 6 defenders with only a two goal lead.
As a result, there was no relief for Manchester United- Michael Carrick carried the ball into midfield but had no passing options, exposing Marouane Fellaini’s shortcomings after the Belgian produced a solid performance. However, the planned substitution that only occurred after Valencia’s third goal saw Matteo Darmian come on to symbolize a third defender, proving that Mourinho didn’t quite see what we saw.
Instead of sorting a game by deploying seven defenders on the pitch, why not play five defenders and four midfielders? Louis van Gaal used to kill any football match at 3-0 with possession, and needless to say United finished almost all of said matches with a 3-0 lead. We’ve seen on countless occasions that possession is the best way to create low-scoring results, so why not recycle possession in midfield and put inferior opposition on the back foot to close out matches?
Marouane Fellaini needs to play further forward
Evidently, the decision to deploy Marouane Fellaini in a central midfield duo was more forced than chosen, as Manchester United lacked trusted options heading into the match (hopefully Paul Pogba will return after the international break). However, Fellaini showed exactly how he needs to be played in a midfield unit to be successful, proving what van Gaal did in 2015 to be particularly profitable.
Fellaini is useful in the defensive phase of play, just outside the box, and in the opposition box. In this sense, he isn’t a midfielder- he’s a forward occupying midfield areas. Fellaini can be used as a transitional outlet, changing the side from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-3 and losing markers to make room for wingers to pick him out with crosses. However, as shown late in the match, he can be found wanting as a traditional midfielder.
This is why, one may argue, Fellaini doesn’t warrant a place in United’s squad- obviously, there are far more attacking midfielders at the club. However, Fellaini is one of the most unique weapons in world football, and opposition defences don’t seem to know how to prepare to face the Belgian’s running into the opposition box. Fellaini was the only United player in the box when Ashley Young crossed, but still emerged victorious and headed home.
3-4-3 could be United’s long-term formation
Jose Mourinho deployed his side in a 3-4-3 formation again, dispelling the misconceptions about the system as United scored three times in the match despite being unable to dominate (Carrick and Fellaini pale in comparison to Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera). The formation resulted in free-flowing attacking football that allowed United’s inside forwards to perform their magic.
3-4-3 isn’t a formation used to add to a side defensively- that would be 5-2-3. Instead, this formation is used to create numerical advantages on the pitch- with three defenders and three forwards, United will attack and defend with up to seven men as needed, creating poor situations for the opposition defence by overloading key areas and turning the ball over.
The formation brings back bad memories, as Louis van Gaal’s defensive tactics turned the system into a calamity despite success with the Dutch national team. However, with Mourinho’s more balanced tactics, the use of inside forwards and three centre-backs can bring the best out of some of United’s best talents.
Daley Blind can finally play centre-back in this formation, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata were visibly freed by the changes in tactics, and the inside forward roles would also suit the likes of Antony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and potentially, Antoine Griezmann. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out Mourinho is using this system to allow Pogba to play in a two-man midfield and accompany Griezmann.
Manchester United has a lot of positives to take from the 3-1 win over Middlesbrough, most of which aren’t even stated in this article. For example, Jesse Lingard looks to be back at his best after an indifferent campaign, and Marcus Rashford terrorized Middlesbrough’s defenders on the night. Now, United’s players could stand to profit from an international break- the Red Devils and Jose Mourinho could use two weeks without any fixtures for the first time in what seems like forever.