Thankfully things went pretty well last year so we don’t need to start this piece with a look at a change to the manager and his coaching staff and can instead look at players arriving and leaving and potential changes tactically. That is a blessing as in three of the last four years that hasn’t been the case.
At the time of writing United have brought in three new first team players and let two and a half established first team players go, (we will explain what we mean by that half). At the end of last season Jose identified his wish that United bring in four new players to give his squad balance and options. We know the key areas he wanted to strengthen because we can see who has arrived of course, but also because recently he has been explicitly clear about the area outstanding; he wants a forward who can “play through the wings”. With the transfer window running through to the end of August we would anticipate United being active in the weeks to come, Jose may still get his fourth man.
At the time of writing the departures this summer are Wayne Rooney who has returned to his boyhood club Everton and Adnan Januzaj who has moved to Real Sociedad after his loan last season at Sunderland. In addition to this pair the half is Zlatan Ibrahimovic who made a massive impact last year.
Wayne Rooney made a huge contribution to United over many years and whilst he was not always the most popular player amongst many United fans he leaves as our all-time record goal scorer. He won every major honour at the club including 5 Premier League titles and the Champions League. It is primarily his two transfer requests submitted during the later years of Sir Alex’s tenure that has negatively influenced many peoples view of him. Views on those requests however have to be balanced against the Ronaldo years when Rooney regularly played out of his natural position and adapted his game to accommodate others and that at a time when he was arguably in a formative stage of his career. You could make the case that if his footballing development needs had been the primary focus at that time he would have become an even better player. Did he sacrifice his potential for United’s needs? Yes.
In our view it is a sadness that he has remained at the club for so long when he has clearly been in decline and has struggled to find an appropriate role in the side in recent years. But that isn’t to say that he can’t be a success at Everton. Rooney is at his best when he has fire in his belly and a point to prove. If the move back to his boyhood club can reignite that fire then he can hopefully enjoy an Indian summer to his career. Good luck to him, we wish him well for all he has helped us achieve.
Adnan Januzaj was the highlight of the Moyes interlude. He burst onto the scene in that difficult year being the one genuine ray of sunshine as United struggled to adjust in the post-Sir Alex gloom. Since then he has failed to fulfil the promise we saw in those first few months of his senior career. Januzaj has talent, the question is does he have the application to make the most of it? There have been rumours of a lack of drive and focus and of him being led astray by off the field influences. After a spells out on loan, one for half a season at Borussia Dortmund and one last year a relegation season at Sunderland he has secured a permanent move to Real Sociedad. Hopefully the move can reignite his career although given that his chances of a future at United have been in steady and gradual decline for some time one would have thought the penny would have dropped before now.
And so to Zlatan, only one name needed; a bit like Eric really and similar in other ways given that he brought a larger than life characterful conviction to the club just by his own presence at a time when that is exactly what United needed. We aren’t suggesting that he will be seen as anywhere near as significant figure in United’s history but he did contribute something last year which was massively significant in helping us achieve what we achieved.
Can he ever be considered a half? Of course not and we are counting him as the half in the two and a half players who have departed simply because he hasn’t quite left yet. Zlatan of course is injured and until fit he can’t really move on. United have not exercised the second year option in his contract and so he is free to leave but he is still using the club facilities to speed his recovery and whilst he is unlikely to be fit in the early months of the season we would not be completely surprised if mid-season, when fit he trains with the squad and given that he is still a very good player is adjudged to have something to offer United re-register him; he then may feature again in a red shirt.
At the time of writing United have moved to strength central defence with the signing of Victor Lindelof from Benfica, in attack with the signing of Romelu Lukaku from Everton and most recently in defensive midfield with the arrival of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea.
United have a significant number of central defenders, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind and of course last summer they added Eric Bailly to that cohort. So why add another? The simple answer is that with the exception of Bailly who had a very good first season none of these players has managed to secure a regular starting place on the team sheet. In part this is because none of them have performed solidly consistently but also because most of them (with the exception of Blind) have suffered frequent injuries.
22-year-old Victor Lindelof should be seen as one for the future. At 6’2” tall he is a big athletic player but a defender who is confident on the ball. In Portgual he showed himself to be a solid reliable defender as Benfica won the league last season but he will certainly need time to adapt to the Premier League. He has had a few difficult moments in pre-season but we would back Jose to develop him. Predominantly a right-sided player most people expected Jose to sign a player to play alongside Bailly, but he is also predominantly right sided as well. It will be interesting to see how that works.
At the start of the summer all the talk was of Antonine Griezmann and then after he had committed his immediate future to Atletico Madrid the talk turned to Alvaro Morata. So the signing of Romelu Lukaku was a surprise to many. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been as the player exactly fits the profile of a Jose Mourinho centre forward.
Another big strong player Lukaku can operate as a target man but can also offer pace running in behind in a way that Zlatan can’t really anymore. Lukaku’s forward movement is excellent and whilst he has been criticised in the past for chances missed he still scores plenty of goals. Mourinho likes a forward who has a big enough physical challenge to occupy the oppositions central defenders but at the same time can use pace to pull them out of position, making space for others. Lukaku can do that so this should be fun.
United’s other signing this season is Nemanja Matic. United have tried and failed to sign a defensive midfield pivot as an eventual successor to Michael Carrick several times in recent years and each time it hasn’t quite worked out. Matic is more of a defensive player than Carrick of course but he still has a good passing range. The defensive midfield screen has perhaps been the key position in all Mourinho’s sides and his priority in this position has always been a player like Matic.
That player is a solid intelligent player who reads the game, controls space and does the simple things well to screen the defence. Jose likes this player to have sound judgement to know when to step in to break up opponent’s attacks at key moments and then move the ball away to other players who have greater licence to take the game to the opposition. The player is essentially about control and so this might be the key signing of the summer. The intention in signing Matic is to establish a solid base to the midfield that will free others, most obviously Pogba and give them greater licence to attack. Mourinho knows Matic from his time managing the player at Chelsea and of course Matic knows what Mourinho expects of him so we would hope that the player would settle in quickly in this role.
Trying to second guess how Mourinho will set his team up this year is almost impossible. Key features of his approach will remain but everything else is up for grabs. This is illustrated by the pre-season games where he has not only changed personnel from half to half to give everybody game time but frequently changed strategy from half to half.
Mourinho will continue to adapt his approach to counter the opposition and in that sense he is a reactive manager rather than one like Van Gaal whose approach is determined by a strong pre-determined philosophy. Perhaps the most obvious example of that was the Europa League final victory over Ajax. They stuck to their game plan, Jose adjusted his approach to counter them and won. He was widely criticised in some quarters for that but he won the trophy, qualified for the Champions League and so took another step towards the ultimate goal of re-establishing United amongst the high achievers in world football.
So what are those key features? Mourinho likes to control the spine; the central areas between the goals. To that end he will always maintain a central midfield three but he has also since his arrival as our manager bought any number of big tall powerful players to play in the spine and that is also a key part of his strategy. He also looks to control space and a key part of that this season will be the signing of Matic. Matic role will be key in maintaining team shape as well as sniffing out danger and seeking to shut it down early.
United didn’t score enough goals last season to mount a serious challenge for the league and this is an issue Mourinho will look to address. In signing Lukaku he is looking to not only incorporate his scoring contribution (in one sense Lukaku may only replace the quantity of goals Ibrahimovic might have scored) but by occupying defenders to free up those around him creating opportunities for them to score more. United need to look to add 30 goals to their league total which would mean in addition to Lukaku’s goals a contribution of an additional 10 goals from at least three advanced midfield players or a second striker contributing a sizeable number himself. That would require one or both of two things and we have seen evidence of both in pre-season.
The first is a two up front strategy, the second is better combination play in and around the opposition box. In pre-season we have seen several two up front combinations; Lukaku and Rashford, Lukaku and Mkhitaryan, Rashford and Martial and even Lukaku and Mata, Jose has tried a number of options suggesting that this is under serious consideration. Then again as is often the case with Jose he could have been just trying these options with the forthcoming Super Cup game against Real Madrid in mind having decided this is the strategy to use against that particular opponent? Frequently this two striker strategy has been linked to a three at the back approach which would suit United’s situation given the plethora of central defenders available as highlighted earlier but also allow Mourinho to keep three in central midfield. The key to the success of this strategy would be to get the right combination of centre backs; United have enough centre backs for this, but do they have enough top quality centre backs? He did use this strategy last year on several occasions, (notably against Chelsea and Rostov) and it is of course the vogue after Chelsea success with the strategy last year but we think whether he will use this more often will depend more on whether he judges it as giving him the best chance of restricting his opponent whilst also getting the best out of his own players.
Varying tactical strategies in pre-season – three at the back against LA Galaxy and a back four against Manchester City
That is an aspect of Mourinho’s managerial style which is often overlooked and in a sense is the one which has driven this summer’s changes. Mourinho adapts his approach to utilise the strengths of his squad but he wants a balanced hand to give him as much flexibility as possible to do that as well as being able to adapt to counter the other team. Is his tactical experimentation in pre-season then about countering an opponent or finding a way of getting the most out of what he has got? We would say both and so another important factor in determining this seasons tactical plans will be the emergence of young players. Widely criticised before joining United for not giving youth a chance Mourinho gave more game time to teenagers last season than any of his rivals and we would expect Tuanzebe, Demari Mitchell, McTominay and Andreas Pereira to come into the picture here as did Rashford, a year or so ago and so a little further ahead of those players. It looks lite Tim Fosu-Mensah, another promising youngster, will go out on loan.
Tuanzebe, Mitchell, McTominay, Andreas Pereira, Fosu-Mensah and Rashford – the youth of today
In respect of better combination play in the final third United performances in pre-season have suggested that they have been working on this in their training camp. We have previously picked out some of the features of play to improve this aspect of our game in an earlier article which you can read here http://manutdtactics.com/?p=8078, but we would add to this that Lukaku perhaps has a key role to play in this. As a big strong presence in this area of the pitch and as touched upon above his work should occupy defenders and create more space for others whilst the astute the controlling presence of Matic further back should allow other greater licence and flexibility to push forward and attack.
That bring us to Paul Pogba, and another way of reading this summer changes. That would be that it all about ways of moulding a side to make the most of his prestigious talents. Let’s hope so.