Tales from the Touchline: Tactical Review of United’s Season

So it’s that time of the year again. No, I’m not talking about Halloween or Christmas; those are rather more joyous occasions. It’s the time of the dreaded international break; two weeks when club football comes to a shuddering halt, leaving football fans struggling like a smoker who’s been told he just had his last cigarette. As people try to find meaning from their ordinary lives to try and fill this void, what better time than this to review Manchester United’s season from a tactical standpoint? We take a look at some of the prevalent themes in how United have been playing over the last month or so, which has admittedly not been the greatest for fans of the Red Devils.

Paul Pogba’s importance cannot be overstated

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. In the case of Paul Pogba, it’s nearing “surprise proposal when he returns” levels of nostalgia, as both the United team and the fans have been crying out for the Frenchman’s return. With good reason too; Pogba has missed United’s last 12 games in all competitions, and while United have only lost two of those games, the sharp drop in creativity and attacking output in his absence has been extremely damaging. This is borne out by the statistics as well: United are creating less than half the number of chances per game without Pogba in the team, from 14.8 to just 7 per game. Big chances per game have dropped too, from 3 to 1.6, as have goals/game by the same number, 3 to 1.6. But we don’t need statistics to tell us that; even a casual observer can make out the difference in United’s style of play since Pogba’s injury. While Nemanja Matic and Pogba were bossing midfield earlier in the season, now United are being outclassed in that area, most recently evident in the 1-0 reverse at Stamford Bridge. Ander Herrera and Matic sit a little too deep, with neither of them pushing up to support the forwards. Pogba’s ability to break through opposition lines, using his superb dribbling skills and physicality, is being sorely missed against defences that sit deep. United’s attackers are also suffering from a lack of quality service, with Romelu Lukaku now on a seven-game scoreless streak. This is a direct result of Pogba’s absence, with neither Matic nor Herrera capable of providing that extra touch of quality to United’s passing. While Michael Carrick may have been able to remedy this to an extent, Pogba’s unique skill set means that his expected return after this international break cannot come soon enough.

United lack a quality #10

This was supposed to be Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s season. The Armenian endured a nightmare start to his debut season at Old Trafford last year, most infamously being hooked at half-time in his first Premier League appearance, against Manchester City no less, and then failing to make even the matchday squad on multiple occasions. However, come the end of the season, Mkhitaryan had managed to establish himself into the United team, most notably scoring a number of crucial goals in United’s successful capture of the Europa League. It was hoped that a year of assimilation and understanding of the Premier League would allow the Armenian schemer to finally show the gifts that had crowned him the Bundesliga Player of the Year in his final year in Dortmund. And boy, did he start off with a bang. Five assists in the first three games of this Premier League season had fans dreaming of a spectacular season from their #22, who was playing in his favoured role behind the striker as well. Eight games since, and he’s still on five assists. His form has dropped off a cliff, and while a lot of it has been down to Pogba’s absence, the Armenian is not doing enough to make up for it either. He has been anonymous in recent games, whether on the right or in the #10 role, losing possession too easily, and not doing enough defensively either. Jamie Carragher said that United “were playing with 10 men” against Chelsea, and while that is a tad harsh, it is true that Mkhitaryan’s inability to affect the game in any way did hamper United. This is part of a wider problem at Old Trafford: the lack of a quality playmaker. Juan Mata has been played on the right, where he has been his usual busy, probing self, but has not provided enough ingenuity. Jesse Lingard is many things, but a #10 he is not. This has contributed to an overall lack of creativity from United this season, and one must hope that Mkhitaryan is able to take up this burden sooner rather than later.

Back three an option for biggest games

Jose Mourinho is often called a pragmatist. However, that classification is slightly misleading; a pragmatist is someone who would do whatever is necessary to win. Mourinho, on the other hand, is wedded to his safety-first approach, especially in big away games, making him no less of a dogmatist than messrs Guardiola or Klopp. While this has been frustrating to watch for United fans, one positive that can be gleaned is that United have not looked too shabby with a back three. Mourinho first tried the formation in the Super Cup game against Real Madrid, and has used it in the Champions League, Premier League and League Cup this season. It does add another string to the bow tactically, and United’s defenders have looked largely comfortable playing in the system as well. The games against Spurs and Liverpool were probably United’s best defensive performances of the season, and both had United playing a version of a back three. Phil Jones has been the standout at centre-back, whether in a back three or four, while Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling have also adjusted well whenever they’ve played in the system. It suits Valencia and Young as well, and as seen in the game against CSKA at Old Trafford, when used with wingers who stay wide in a 3-4-3, it can be devastating, as Martial was off the left that night.

While the system has seen United struggle offensively, the hope is that the team can marry this defensive solidity with greater attacking impetus to be able to come away with more than what they have from the big games so far.

Time for Rashford or Martial to play centrally?

Romelu Lukaku had a blistering start to his United career, failing to score in only one of his first seven league games. Allied with a goal against Madrid in the Super Cup, and three in two Champions League group games, it seemed as if the Belgian would be a runaway hit at Old Trafford. However, he does not have a goal in over a month now, his last coming in the 4-0 rout of Crystal Palace on 30th September. Again, he has suffered from a lack of service, which is a direct result of Pogba’s absence, but it is also true that he, like Mkhitaryan, is not doing enough himself either. Lukaku has been static too often this season, making him easy to defend against, as his first touch, while improved, is still unreliable enough to allow defenders the opportunity to nick the ball off him. His powerful frame and pace are extremely conducive to him making runs into the channels, and he set up the consolation goal for Rashford against Huddersfield in this manner, barrelling into the right-hand channel before crossing accurately for the Englishman. In light of his recent struggles, it may be time for Mourinho to try Rashford or Martial centrally. While Rashford has played as part of a two with Lukaku this season, he was still quite wide on the left in those games. Both Rashford and Martial made their name playing centrally, have pace to burn and are competent finishers. Their experience playing out wide will help them as well, and it may be time to give Lukaku a rest and try one of United’s two blistering young forwards in the role instead.