Four wins in four competitive games isn’t a bad start, in fact it’s a very good start and consequently United fans are entitled to be pleased. With all due respect to each Premier League opponent however, United should have expected to win their first three league games even if the last three seasons has made us all aware that post-Sir Alex nothing is a given. Victory in the Community Shield was perhaps a greater achievement given that United were playing as Cup winners against the England’s current, albeit surprise, Champion Club.
In broad terms then United have done what should be expecting of them, no more, no less. But it is in the manner of the victories, the tactical plans and their execution that we should take greater pleasure. United fans crave exciting flamboyant football and many doubted whether on his reputation Jose Mourinho was the man to deliver this. We at www.manutdtactics.com always felt that in their own minds fans had set up a false opposition here. Mourinho’s teams are organised rather than defensive; on some occasions he may become more defensive in his approach than others, but all sensible managers will do that.
For us the optimism is partly founded upon this pragmatism, but also on a number of other factors. There will be far tougher challenges ahead than the ones we have faced so far, but the ground work being done at this stage of the season; the team building, is a worthwhile investment for future success.
The Transfer Window
Jose Mourinho has expressed himself as happy with the business United have done since his arrival. As a consequence there hasn’t been a last minute scramble at the end of the transfer window for once. This speaks of a manager confident in his own judgement who came in with a plan having assessed United’s squad from afar and has seen the club back his judgement.
Our confidence in the business the club has done however doesn’t stem from the early season performances of the new recruits, but from the fact that we have confidence in the nature of the changes made. From our perspective Mourinho has identified the key areas of weakness across the squad and done something about these issues. The key weakness was a weak and slow central spine. Mourinho has strengthened that spine with physically big, strong and quick players, all of high quality. Three of the four recruits will play all their football in that spine, with the fourth Mkhitaryan very capable of playing there as well.
The other big issue to be addressed was a character deficit in the squad. We have felt for a couple of years that the squad lacked leaders, winners who would galvanise those around them inspiring both by example as well as by exhorting greater effort in key moments from their teammates. Jose has added this as well.
This is a subject we have written about several times in recent years, often in relation to midfield balance. It isn’t just about midfield, but that is the key area in achieving a balanced approach. In broad terms Moyes was a defensive coach; his teams were structured and well organised with his midfield staying deep to provide defensive cover. In attack he was over-reliant on his wide players looking to develop overloads in wide areas and the delivery of plenty of crosses in quick transitions. If opponents sit deep this isn’t as effective as it should be with the home game against Fulham being the classic example of this. Van Gaal was an equally defensive coach, even if he would probably deny this. His form of defence was to dominate possession; if we have the ball the opposition can’t attack us and won’t have as many chances. This is true and statistically United’s defensive record last year was excellent. Van Gaal is famous for his 6-4 team split. That is 6 more static players maintaining a team shape and 4 players given more licence to attack. The 6 players are more defensive in outlook, even when they move forward, and move forward they did as United dominated the ball pushing the opposition back. The game then often became compressed into the opponent’s final third but without United ever seeming to go for the jugular. The compression denied United space in attack and effectively cramped the style of the four attacking players.
Mourinho’s approach is far more balanced and we would suggest that despite his reputation he is a far more attack minded manager than Moyes or Van Gaal. His teams don’t always sit deep and look for transitions and they don’t always push high looking to grind the opposition into submission. They sit deep and defend when they don’t have the ball and they push high and attack when they have the ball; but they do these things quickly which is the decisive factor. This requires good team structure and organisation, which is what Mourinho is famous for but it is not overly defensive; it is balanced.
This type of balance however does require a particular type of midfield player. What is so impressive about Mourinho’s start at United is that he has gone out and bought the players he needed to make this work. You got the feeling at times over the last three years that rather than do that our previous managers bought players or worked with those we already had and attempted to mould them into the players they needed to make their system work. To make his system work Mourinho needed rounded midfield players who may be better at certain things than others but who still possess to a good standard the full range of characteristics of midfield play. In recent years there has been a greater emphasis in the game on midfield specialist, but having more rounded midfield players gives you greater flexibility and balance in your play.
The classic example of this is Paul Pogba, who for www.manutdtactics.com is the key signing in Mourinho’s team building to date. Pogba is naturally a more attacking midfield players but he has enough defensive guile and understanding to be considered a box-to-box player. At Juventus he evolved into the teams driving attacking force from the centre of the pitch playing in tandem with another advanced player and with a more defensive midfield player behind. It’s probably wrong to characterise the deeper midfield player as a defensive midfield player; he was generally a deep playmaker as well as a defensive screen, but his more static positioning gave Pogba and others greater licence and positional flexibility.
Pogba is still settling into the current United team structure which is in itself still evolving but already he looks an important asset to the team. The issue is how United will get the maximum out of him. To date Pogba has operating in a central midfield two alongside Fellaini.
Fellaini picked up an injury at Hull but up to that point had made an excellent start to the season. In the short term United will need to adjust and address Fellaini’s absence but the long term question is whether the player can be more than the defensive screen, can he become the deep playmaker? Playing as a defensive screen is a new role for Fellaini and we have questioned his suitability for this role in the past. To be fair to Fellaini he has performed the role well this season so maybe he is a more flexible player than we have given him credit for. But is it a leap of faith to expect him to develop the range of passing needed to balance the defensive role with a more creative contribution. The player most suited to that role still appears to be Carrick or potentially Morgan Schneiderlin; if Mourinho can make Fellaini a neater, more nimble and disciplined defensive screen can he make Schneiderlin a less cautious, more creative deep playmaker?
The challenge for Mourinho coming into the club was to maintain United’s strong defensive record whilst making the side more adventurous. You could make a case for the idea that Van Gaal’s greatest achievement at the club was creating a strong defence despite the lack of an outstanding centre-back. Mourinho obviously identified this area as a potential issue as his very first signing was a centre-back in Eric Bailly.
So far Bailly has been excellent and whilst young with hints of rawness he has shown all the signs that he is exactly the sought of centre back United have needed in recent season.
Last year Chris Smalling and Daley Blind had very good seasons. Smalling was still prone to the occasional lapse in concentration and he was never as physically dominating as he could and should have been and Blind’s lack of pace and ability to withstand a physical onslaught was an issue, but United had the joint best defensive record in the division. This though was to a large extent down to the fact that the pair were protected by two fairly static defensive midfield players and an overly cautious approach. Take that protection away and they did not look quite so solid, (as in the league game at Arsenal).
In signing Bailly Mourinho seems to have addressed this issue. The new man is big, strong, quick, athletic, decisive, (if slightly impetuous at times) and brave. These qualities are all the more significant as they complement Blind’s. We at www.manutdtactics.com have always been of the view that centre backs should be judged in pairs. Blind isn’t quick, he is big and strong but he isn’t an aggressive dominating player; he makes up for that with his reading of the game. So far Bailly has received three man-of-the match performances but on at least two of those occasions Blind has delivered better defensive statistics than his partner. Judging them as a pair, Bailly’s more aggressive approach seems to allow Blind to play to his own strengths to a greater extent in a way that his partnership with Smalling maybe didn’t.
The presence of Fellaini ahead of the pair is also a factor. His physicality in challenging for a ball played forward from a transition allows Blind, and Bailly as well at times, to sit off and cover rather than challenge. It also allows Valencia and Shaw to push on providing attacking width. So far it has worked well; so well in fact that when we asked whether it would be worth considering moving Blind to a defensive midfield role because of the recent injury to Fellaini many people rejected this idea on the basis that the defence now looked so strong. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the season to date is the current mood around Old Trafford. Of course this feeds off the good start and has generated a sense of renewal amongst fans and seemingly players as well. You can’t manufacture this as was demonstrated by the attempt to do so at the start of Van Gaal’s tenure with the whole “Re-United” marketing exercise. This feels more real. In part this is because the fans can see a more dynamic form of football emerging but they can also see a developing team spirit. The players seem to be enjoying themselves and the new and old players seem to be getting on so well. Of course there is the developing “bromanace” between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba but it is as much to do with a sense emanating from the squad that the club is heading in the right direction and that we are building something.
Obviously the signing of Zlatan and Paul Pogba, two internationally significant players inspire confidence. They aren’t the sought of players who will sign for a club that is prepared to settle for mediocrity and this in itself generates a belief. The other new signings, Mkhitaryan and Bailly might not be star names on the same level, but their abilities are clear for all to see. At the end of the Sir Alex era it felt for a number of years like the club was treading water and tinkering, shopping for players who might become a success, looking for bargains whose value might increase and whilst Van Gaal may have tried to bring in players of the highest quality it felt like we were signing them because circumstances made them attainable, (Di Maria – face no longer fitted at Real, Falcao – injury and Schweinsteiger – injury and age). Now United are signing high quality players not because they are available but because they fit “the profile” in the words of Mourinho of the players we need. How can that not inspire confidence?
Elephant in the room
In all honesty this isn’t that much of an elephant in the room because everyone seems to be talking about it; where does Wayne Rooney fit into this team. For Mourinho the answer is at number 10, a deep forward not too distant from goal rather than an advanced midfield player, the thinking being that from here he can still deliver a reasonable goal return. Many fans however are becoming impatient with Rooney and a perception has developed that he is restricting the teams flow in the final third.
There is some truth in that if his recent performances, notably at Hull are anything to go by. But there is a paradox here. Statistics tell us that Rooney is creating plenty of chances for those around him. In the Hull game he created five goal scoring chances and has delivered the most assists, two, of any United player this season. He has created eight goal scoring chances in total in three Premier League games to date.
So what is the issue?
The issue is that Rooney seems to lose the ball quite a lot and tends to slow attacking moves down. Rooney is a forward; he will soon be United’s record goal scorer and as such he naturally thinks like a goal scorer. Rooney has always had to adapt his game to a variety of roles and has been regularly played out of position to accommodate others throughout his career. He has complained about this at times and even asked for a transfer on occasions because of this, something for which some fans will never forgive him. Over the last few years he has had to adapt again and this time it has taken him longer to adapt. He hasn’t adapted fully yet.
The issues for Rooney are tempo and creativity. United are playing at a higher tempo than in recent seasons now but Rooney’s hesitancy on the ball makes him appear slow. To address this Rooney needs to work on a number of things. In general Rooney’s play needs to be more dynamic, he needs to be dynamic and alert in his thinking and movement. He needs to anticipate the game situation quicker than he is doing at the moment. Rooney is unlikely to ever have the higher level of creative vision of an advanced midfield player and he is never going to be the quickest player but alertness and anticipation can compensate for these factors. More than anything Rooney needs to think quicker and know what he is going to do with the ball before he receives it.
The other issue is that because he is playing deeper and in a role where creating for others as well as taking goal scoring chances is expected it often feels like Rooney is trying to do one of these two things every time he gets the ball. The lesson is to pick your moments. Often he will receive the ball and hesitate for a split second as he looks for the killer action, (a pass, a run or a shot), which is long enough for the opposition to close him down. He needs to accept that a game changing moment isn’t always on and simply play a simple pass and then look to go again.
The final factor to consider is his movement and this is where we at www.manutdtactics.com feel that he is often unfairly criticised. He doesn’t always get it right but he should not be discouraged in this. Rooney is playing in a more crowded area of the pitch now where space is at a premium. Other players are converging on his starting position, whether Ibrahimovic is dropping deep, Pogba pushing higher or Martial and Mata cutting in. Rooney then has to move in co-ordination with these players or he will end up with the ball and a lot of players close to him and no obvious pass available. The danger is that he just moves deeper to avoid this situation, which is his natural tendency given that he is a forward who has started most of his career up front. That is appropriate on occasions but he should also move higher and wider as he did at Hull to deliver the assist for Rashford’s extra time winner.
Most people have made their mind up about Rooney, some love him some loathe him, but often people rush to judge him based on their pre-considered view. The truth is somewhere in the middle; there are aspects of his game that are making a valuable contribution and there are aspects that are not quite working. The beauty of the situation is that with Mkhitaryan and Mata available United can mix it up, Jose does have options.