At Wigan on Saturday Jose Mourinho chose a 4-2-3-1 for his first game as United manager and whilst it is foolish to jump to conclusion about his likely personnel preferences perhaps we can begin to form a few regarding at least one of his tactical plans. 4-2-3-1 has been Mourinho’s first choice shape during his last two managerial jobs and as he has used that shape at Wigan we can safely assume that this is likely to be the case again. That doesn’t mean he won’t use other shapes of course but it may be Mourinho’s base strategy.
What is interesting is that already after one game and with United fielding effectively a different team in each half we can clearly see differences between Mourinho’s use of this shape and that of Van Gaal’s.
Proactivity over Patience
The big difference on Saturday was that Mourinho’s side were far more proactive than Van Gaal’s. There were no long periods of square passing with the ball being endlessly recycled around the U-shaped from fullback through centre-backs and deep midfield players to the fullback on the other side. Instead Mourinho’s United seem intent on moving the ball through the centre of the pitch. Periods of patient possession, retaining control of the ball until the opposition loses concentration appear to be out, quick transition moves and riskier passes designed to ask searching questions appear to be in.
Central Midfield Three
That United were able to play this way was largely down to the way United’s midfield three played. Those three comprises two deeper players and a number 10. Of the deeper players one tended to stay deeper allowing the other to push on. The player pushing on is crucial in forming a link through the spine and ensuring that the front players don’t become isolated. That player in a 4-2-3-1 is often referred to as a shuttler and is the player who creates the link and balance in a 4-2-3-1, he’s almost a box to box midfield player of old and without him the formation can become overly stratified and cautious. When both defensive midfield players stay deeper we get the sort of rigid and ineffective play we saw last season.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect at Wigan was that the player performing the shuttler role alternated. In the first half it was just as likely to be Carrick as Herrera and in the second just as likely to be Pereira as Herrera.
With the central midfield three staying fairly tight to each other the tendency can be for a fairly narrow pattern of play. In this team shape to avoid this you need your full backs to get forward and provide attacking width. In the first half this didn’t happen as well for United as it might have done. Luke Shaw had a solid but unspectacular game which is fair enough after such a long injury lay-off. Fosu-Mensah was equally subdued. Memphis was disappointing on the left and whilst Lingard had one or two good moments it was when Mkhitaryan drifted wide that to the right that there was genuine attacking menace on that side.
In the second half Blind at left fullback was conservative in his movement but on the right Valencia made a more significant contribution and stretched Wigan. The movement of the front three behind the central striker was a plus in the second half but they all came fairly narrow so it needed the fullbacks to contribute more. When Young whose movement was really good did find himself in space his play was ponderous; he was slow to pass or shoot and by the time he did the space had been closed down.
The Number 10
In many respects this role is as crucial to the 4-2-3-1 as that of the shuttler. If the shuttler provides balance and a link between the deep midfield and forwards, the number 10 provides balance and a link between these areas as well, it’s just that he’s starting from a higher position. Mkhitaryan seems to tick all the boxes for this role.
United’s two number 10’s at Wigan Mkhitaryan and Mata
Where does this leave others? In this game Mata was the second half alternative. His play was certainly more ponderous that Mkhitaryan but his positioning was just as accomplished. The big difference was that the new man seems to instinctively now what to do when he gets the ball whereas Mata seems to need a split second to work it out and that inevitably slows things down just at the moment when you want to quicken things up. The other difference is that Mkhitaryan is clearly a much quicker player over the ground as evidenced by one forceful first half run. The new man could be a significant signing.