It’s difficult to predict exactly what we’ll get from Manchester United this season. Jose Mourinho has been very confident when discussing his team’s chances for success, and the purchases of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and Paul Pogba have electrified the club’s fanbase ahead of United’s first game of the season against Bournemouth on Sunday afternoon. Fans expect better from the club this season, that much is certain, but what sort of football will we see, and how will Mourinho set this United side out?
Sunday’s Community Shield victory over Leicester City featured a 4-2-3-1, with Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini offering a fairly immobile midfield duo and Wayne Rooney slotting in behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. It worked, to a certain extent; United’s 2-1 victory wasn’t a vintage display, but as Mourinho made substitutions, his side looked more functional and more threatening as the second half wore on.
One of the big issues with this formation in the long term is that it requires Rooney to be in good form in order for it to succeed. Whilst the United captain was the club’s second highest scorer last season, he only managed 15 goals. Granted, a good chunk of his 41 appearances were in midfield, but this formation requires extra emphasis on him to control the ball well, to link up effectively with those around him and create, all of which he’s failed to do consistently in recent years. It also drags Pogba into a deep-lying midfield duo, which doesn’t play to the Frenchman’s strengths, namely his tenacity, power on the ball and pace.
The 4-2-3-1 is designed to include Rooney, but if it doesn’t help the club’s record signing, a man of 23 years and incredible potential then it can’t be used each week. The 4-3-3 may make Rooney the fall guy but it’s almost certainly a better fit for United as a team.
It opens up options in central midfield, for a start. Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera, two players to fall foul of Louis van Gaal during his last season in charge could easily slot in alongside Pogba and either work in tandem with him or, in Schneiderlin’s case, sit a little deeper and clean up behind them. Pogba would have licence to roam and connect with Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front, which is a mouth-watering prospect, make no mistake.
Whichever formation Mourinho chooses, his defence and his wide men will likely remain unchanged, but it’s the centre of his side, and its ability to connect with attack that will define United’s success this season. Considering how Van Gaal struggled to make the two meet last season, and given Rooney’s less-than stellar form over the last few years, the hope is that Mourinho can get a tune out of the former Evertonian or will be forced to make a very difficult decision regarding the selection of a bona fide club legend.