After a year under the stewardship of Jose Mourinho the end of term report might read, “Whilst there has been significant progress there is still room for further improvements.” You could add to this that United have been somewhat schizophrenic; form and results have been inconsistent in the league whilst in Cup competitions consistency has yielded results. Put simply, United are currently a very good cup side but not good enough to challenge for the League title.
Success or Failure?
We would say “success,” given that we have won two major trophies and qualified for the Champions League. But our failure to make any significant league challenge means that it is only a qualified success, so we might add “must do better” to the report card. We have seen enough improvement in United’s method, though, to suggest that we are heading in the right direction. We might not be too far away from challenging for the title if progress continues.
What Mourinho has managed to do this season is to increase success levels – which can be measured by the number of trophies won – at the same time as changing our approach. In our view, more attention should be given to the reprogramming of United’s squad to a different strategic approach.
Reprogramming after the Van Gaal years
It is an often overlooked fact that during his two years in charge Van Gaal’s United conceded the joint lowest number of goals in the Premier league. Of those teams who were in the division across both those seasons, United and Arsenal both conceded 72 goals; United conceded 37 in 2014-15 and 35 in 2015-16. This is an amazing fact, given that few United fans would claim that United’s defence was particularly strong in this period. You probably wouldn’t pick it out as one of the strongest in the division and certainly not one of the strongest defensive units United have enjoyed in recent history.
Van Gaal achieved those statistics through a system that minimised the amount of time United had to defend. He did that by maximising possession. For most fans his side didn’t do enough with its possession, which resulted in many dull performances, but it certainly enabled the side to keep the goals conceded total down. Mourinho has changed United’s approach radically this year; we will explain how. But the interesting headline is that whilst United have had less possession, meaning that opponents have had more opportunity to attack us, the number of goals conceded has actually gone down rather than up. This year United conceded 29 goals and again you wouldn’t suggest that this is the strongest United defence in living memory.
Controlling the game through space, not possession
Jose’s United achieved that low goals conceded column by controlling space. Throughout his career Jose Mourinho has placed great emphasis on controlling space in the middle of the pitch. To do that he has usually focused on maintaining a strong spine and to be able to do that at United, Jose went out last summer and bought three players, Bailly, Pogba and Ibrahimovic who operate there, and another, Mkhitaryan, who can operate there.
Jose usually maintains a minimum three man midfield whichever tactical shape he employs. This ensures that his side is never overloaded in the central areas and whenever possible allows his side to overload the opposition. Jose will allow teams space in wide areas but not in the middle of the pitch. Staying narrow and compact in the spine means that United’s wide midfield players and attacking players tend to come narrow into the half-spaces in the defensive phase, and leaves space for our attacking full backs to stretch play on the break after a transition. This year Valencia on the right has done that and has earned fulsome praise from the manager. It hasn’t happened on the left, however, and this is an issue that we need to solve. More on that later.
Central midfield balance
The remarkable thing about all this is that during the season Mourinho sold or released two central midfield players in Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin. After their departures United really only had four primary central midfield players. To explain, by ‘central midfield’ we are referring to players who primarily play down the spine of the team, whether in a defensive or holding role or in an advanced role. We aren’t therefore including Mata or Mkhitaryan in that four, as they have tended to start in a wider position (even if -as indicated- they have often then come narrow). The four left were Carrick, Fellaini, Pogba and Herrera.
Jose Mourinho’s achievement in managing those four to deliver two trophies and achieve an upper mid-table league finish should not be underestimated, for whatever the various merits of those players individually, there are only four of them to fill three places and as a quartet they are somewhat unbalanced. Time is beginning to catch up with Michael Carrick and Jose used him sparingly. When he did play United had the option of playing a 4-3-3 which seems to give the option of playing Pogba in a more advanced position, which tends to bring out the best in him. Jose did not play Blind in that holding role, presumably because he lacks one of the key characteristics which Jose wants in any player playing in the spine: pace.
That takes us on to Fellaini who also lacks pace. He featured in a number of positions in the spine, sometimes as one of two pivots but more successfully further forward as one of the advanced midfield players and, just occasionally, as a number 10, when he would play in a very advanced role, almost as a second striker. The key thing about Fellaini is that he sticks to the tactical script and that is why managers like him irrespective of his technical flaws. This tactical discipline saw him often being introduced as a substitute in situations where United were trying to close out a game. Fellaini can be a bit of a liability when played near to his own goal as he is not the most nimble footed player and his clumsiness often sees him give away fouls around the edge of his own box. His lack of pace is also a factor in this respect.
Herrera appears to be everybody’s favourite player right now. He has had an excellent season under Mourinho and his tactical intelligence and discipline were reasons why Mourinho was able to make his midfield function as well as it did. A naturally busy player, he can play as part of a single or double pivot, although this is a role he has learnt rather than one which comes naturally to him. His talents, though, would be given greater expression further forward where his neat play would seem to suit a role between the lines. When he has played as one of a double pivot he has tended to be the one sitting deep as Pogba on the other side has shuttled forward. They can’t both go because somebody needs to hold the fort, but that sitting role seems to be a waste of Herrera’s energetic approach.
Pogba is in our view United’s only undeniably world class talent. Last year his performances were far better than most people have given him credit for. But he needed time to settle in and develop an understanding with those around him. His ability to fully exercise his immense talents was compromised by the lack of balance in United’s midfield. In short, Pogba was often too deep. This was a necessity; a requirement of the often used 4-2-3-1 with the other players available. Playing a role as a pivot is again not natural to his game and it is something he had to learn through the season. He did remarkably well when asked to play that deep role, but it doesn’t make the most of his talents. In order to play him further forward and give the option of being able to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 really effectively, United need to buy or develop a top class defensive midfield pivot as an alternative to Michael Carrick. That isn’t necessarily a replacement for Carrick as signing such a player could actually prolong Carrick’s playing career.
This year United have generally alternated between use of 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 formation. In previous years we have offered a chronological review of United’s changing strategy and team shape through the season. We didn’t really do that last year because Van Gaal nearly always employed 4-2-3-1 and his methods didn’t really change significantly throughout the campaign. We aren’t going to offer a chronological review this year either because Mourinho’s methods changed from opponent to opponent rather than phase to phase, but there were a number of phases which we will look at briefly later.
United’s formations from the home league victory against Leicester City – 4-3-3 in the first half and 4-2-3-1 in the second half
Unusually for Jose he also occasionally used a three at the back strategy on occasions this season. But this was the season of three at the back, with Chelsea employing that strategy and becoming the first side in living memory to play that way and win the English title. At various times Manchester City and Arsenal also tried this approach but for United it was only employed on a handful of occasions in order to counter specific opponents. Specifically they were against Rostov in the Europa League and Chelsea in FA Cup and Premier league. Whereas Chelsea tended to play a 3-4-3, when Jose used a three man strategy it was a 3-5-2 usually with Darmian as a third back and maintaining an extra man in midfield to avoid the central overload. It usually worked, but the approach was undermined at Stamford Bridge when Herrera was dismissed.
Usually, however, it was a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 with the main difference being the direction of the midfield triangle. In a 4-3-3 it pointed back with a single pivot of either Carrick or Herrera and in a 4-2-3-1 it pointed forward with a double pivot and a single number 10. In a 4-2-3-1 there was far more variation in who played where, almost as if Jose was picking players in positions to address opponents’ characteristics of play.
This is a bit of an issue. For a 4-3-3 to work in the classical manner the wide attackers need to stay wide to stretch the opposition’s defence out across the width of the pitch. Jose Mourinho favours narrow wider players, again to try to control the central areas. At Chelsea in his first spell he asked his wide attackers (often Robben and Duff) to drop deep and narrow and then expected them to sprint forward into whatever space was available, either in the channels or in the wide areas. When United have played a 4-3-3 this year that has also been the pattern although without the same levels of success. When he has played a 4-2-3-1 he has asked the two outside players in the three to drop deep in the defensive phase to change the team shape to something close to a 4-4-1-1, often with Fellaini as the one behind the central striker. Defensively this works but it is in the attacking phase where it hasn’t gone quite so well.
4-2-3-1 has been the tactical vogue for many for some time now, and is often coupled with the use of inverted wingers, a right footed player on the right and a left footed player on the left, both cutting inside to pass or shoot rather than outside to the bye-line to cross. The players United have employed in these areas haven’t always conformed to that right/left foot orthodoxy, but the players in wide areas have tended to cut inside, making United’s attacking shape quite narrow. This hasn’t worked out well because the centre has become crowded, with little space available in this area in the final third. United’s movement with Rashford, Mata, Lingard and Mkhitaryan all starting wide and moving narrow hasn’t created the clear cut chances that United needed to score enough goals.
What it should have done, however, is create space out wide on the overlap for fullbacks. On the United right United have had more success here (as alluded to earlier) with Valencia, a converted winger at fullback, judging precisely the correct moment to storm forward. the left it hasn’t worked so well. This explains Jose’s contrasting reaction to the performances of Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw. Valencia wants to get forward at every opportunity, he is the benchmark lauded at one point this year by Jose as the best full-back in the world. Shaw, on the other hand, has received criticism for not knowing when to get forward. Shaw hasn’t been censured to any great extent for his defensive prowess but rather for his attacking contribution. We would hope that Shaw can adapt; his attacking urges seemed stronger before his horrible injury. Mentally he may not yet have fully recovered.
Jose has tried Rojo, Blind, Darmian and Shaw on the left. None of these players has got it right, which is surprising in the case of Shaw, who has more of a natural tendency to surge forward than the others. Maybe the others are concerned that they do not have the pace to recover their defensive position when the attack breaks down. This shouldn’t be a concern to Shaw.
Crossing from both sides has again been poor.
There is a balance to be struck here in respect of all these issues; they are interrelated, but a defensive pivot appears to be the key. If United had a quick, mobile defensive pivot, it would allow them to retain attacking width, whichever basic team shape they employ. If this involved wide players staying wide in a 4-3-3 then the two advanced midfield players could push forward in the half spaces to maintain a link to the single central striker, ensuring that he does not become isolated and that there is more than one target in the central area when crosses have been delivered. The defensive pivot could stay deeper to protect the central area in front of the defence and allow one or other of the fullbacks to push higher in support. This would potentially provide a good width to the attack and in so doing should create more space in the attacking third. This would prevent the play becoming congested as it has often this year. Do United currently have the right sort of wide players to play this way?
The alternative is a 4-2-3-1 with inverted wingers coming narrow and fullbacks attacking. One of the two pivots could then advance in the attacking phase to supplement the attack with the fullbacks overlapping as the inverted wingers come inside. This is only possible with a highly mobile pivot to sit in front of the defence and ideally two of this type. Herrera, whilst not ideally suited to that role, could do it, but you feel that United need a more accomplished specialist alongside him if that is to really work. Carrick can still do this at a push but as time moves on his ability to do so week in week out will reduce.
The Story of the Season
United started the season brightly with three straight wins before crashing down to earth with a defeat to Manchester City in the first derby game. The pattern of United’s game was still evolving at this point but a couple of things were evident right from the outset. Firstly the team structure and shape in the defensive phase was generally very disciplined. United usually sat deep when the opposition enjoyed any periods of possession. They defended from the front with wide attacking players dropping deep into the half spaces to block space in the channels. United were defending in two lines, four at the back and five in front of them. The other feature was that on winning the ball United sought to move it forward far more quickly than they had done under Van Gaal. Often this meant playing the ball toward Ibrahimovic who had usually stayed higher than everyone else whilst still dropping deep enough to ensure that he was not isolated. Ibrahimovic’s declining mobility as a striker was a feature as the season wore on but at this point he was quite mobile and perhaps played his best football of his United career in the opening few months of the season.
After the defeat to City, United went through a period when they didn’t seem to be able to get into a rhythm. United lost again in the next game at Watford and whilst they performed well in defeating champions Leicester City convincingly at Old Trafford and holding Liverpool (who were in good form at this point) to a 0-0 draw at Anfield, the convincing defeat at Chelsea seemed to confirm that as a work in progress United were unlikely to be able to seriously challenge at the top of the table.
This was confirmed though the next phase of the season – the three months running up to Christmas – when a series of frustrating draws saw United often dominate opponents but fail to score or score enough goals to secure the win. By Christmas the main characteristics of Jose Mourinho’s 2016-17 United were clear for all to see: well organised and solid in defence, but seemingly lacking the guile and clinical cutting edge in attack.
After Christmas, United never seemed to be able to get close enough to those teams above them in order to challenge for the title or even make an impression on the top four. Still difficult to beat and with a 25 game unbeaten run they were always able to just about keep in touch with the sides above them but drawing 12 of those 25 games meant that they did not make a meaningful impression on the top four places. Perhaps as a consequence, in the second half of the season United’s focus seemed to move towards the Cup competitions. The record books will show that they won two of the three Cups available and they did well in the FA Cup as well until their efforts at Stamford Bridge were undermined by Herrera’s dismissal in the quarter-final.
At the end of the season United’s focus was wholly on the Europa League and, although the defeats at Arsenal and Tottenham were to accomplished sides above them in the table, one would like to think that had the league been the main focus at this point United would have produced stronger performances in those games.
The other feature of the season was a number of standout tactical masterpieces. The games late in the season against Chelsea in the league at Old Trafford and Ajax in the Europa League final stand out, but even earlier in the season Mourinho had demonstrated that he still has what it takes to outfox an opponent in a one-off game. What those performances demonstrated was that Jose still had it in him to compete tactically but also that he had a tactically astute squad that was disciplined enough to carry out his tactical plans. This, together with the success in terms of trophies won and the sense of happiness and team spirit around the squad suggests that here is something good to build on.
Whatever tactical strategy United employed, they simply didn’t score enough goals last season. In fact they were around 25 goals short. Here are some shocking statistics.
Chelsea scored 85 goals, Tottenham scored 86 goals, Manchester City scored 80 goals, Liverpool scored 78 goals and Arsenal scored 77 goals. United finished 6th and scored 54 goals, so they were at least 23 goals behind any team above them in goals scored and 32 goals behind the league top scorers, (Tottenham) and yet, despite all this, United created more chances than champions Chelsea. Put simply, United did not take enough of them – recording a pitifully low chance-conversion rate of 12%.
Between 2nd October and 4th December 2016 United played eight league games and in those eight games United had 133 shots, scoring just 7 goals, meaning that only 5.2% of their shots resulted in goals. That is shocking. United drew six of those eight games and were nearly always the team pushing for the win.
United simply need to be more clinical in front of goal.
Overcoming the low block
In many of those games in the autumn United played sides which basically set up to defend in a low block; they parked the bus. Breaking down a team in that sort of scenario is not a new issue for United; Van Gaal’s United struggled with this. Perhaps the forward players just haven’t adapted; are they capable of doing so?
In the past when writing about this issue we have pointed to the issues of tempo, passing and pace, along with the general slow rate at which United have moved the ball into the final third. We don’t feel these factors are the main issues anymore as United tended to move the ball forward more quickly this year. The issue has been more to do with the quality of United’s play once in the final third. Once again, we would point to a lack of attacking width and the problem of the play being compressed into a crowded narrow area, but there has been more to it than that.
Mourinho tends to play a single, big strong and quick central striker to occupy central defenders. This year that has been Ibrahimovic; with the Swede injured and likely to leave, United will need to sign at least one replacement for this role. He surrounds the striker with quick and nimble footed players who can buzz around him. Those players haven’t buzzed around well enough this year. There has been a lack of coordination and control in our attacking endeavours.
The accuracy of passing has not been of a high enough standard in the final third. Passing has been inaccurate – fired either straight to, or behind, rather than in front of a player. This costs players time and puts them under pressure when they receive the ball. It means that they have limited time to get their heads up and see team mates or chances. United’s first touch in the final third has also been poor, with the ball often bouncing a few yards away from the receiving player. Again, this means players don’t have time.
Movement off the ball has been very mixed – sometimes good, but at times uncoordinated. Players are often static, offering little movement and, critically, have not been moving as they receive the ball. Too much of United’s play has focused on trying to get through a mass compressed defence rather than simply trying to move teams around to create either space or a shooting opportunity from the edge of the box by pulling people out of shape.
This has all meant United have often created half chances rather than full, clear-cut chances.
So where do we go from here?
We don’t want to be overly negative; in many ways United have improved significantly this year and have won two major trophies. They have a strong team structure and a resilience which makes them difficult to beat. They also seem to have a good team spirit and the success on the field will give them collectively a belief in the manager’s methods. That is a solid foundation. They are a very good cup side and in a cup scenario where your opponent needs to offer something more than only a defensive strategy to progress, United have shown themselves adept at out-thinking and out-manouvrering teams. To progress further, however, they will need to develop a method of overcoming teams who set out to minimise the effect of our attacking efforts.
That would seem to suggest that United need to find a method that will make the most of the attacking talents available to them. Or, put another way, get their better players playing in the positions where their talents can make the most impact. The most obvious issue here is to build a team and team shape where Pogba can play further forward and where United make clearer cut chances. Is that a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1; whichever formation, how will Jose use those basic shapes?
In truth Jose will almost certainly employ a variety of shapes and strategies as he is a reactive manager who adapts his methods to counter opponents. At various times throughout his career, he has been criticised for this, but it is something which has seen him win more big matches than he has lost and delivered significant victories this year against Chelsea and Ajax. Jose has a plan B when often others often do not. Klopp, Guardiola, Wenger and Conte have often been criticised in this respect; if it is fair criticism then Mourinho’s flexibility should be a useful weapon against them in the years ahead.
The progress made in moulding his team to defend in a different way and effecting that shift at the same time as managing to win two major trophies and qualify for the Champions League suggest that United are moving in the right direction. United under Jose Mourinho are still a work in progress, but the signs look good.