3-5-2 should be the way forward for Manchester United
Tactical evolution is one of the most important factors in modern football. The ability to tactically counter each and every opposition’s greatest threats, exploit weaknesses and maximize a team’s ‘X’ factor. It is something that is essential for every manager at the highest level of the game.
Jose Mourinho at Manchester United accidentally (or intentionally) stumbled upon a similarly engineered system under dire circumstances at the back end of last season.
On 23rd October 2016, Jose Mourinho endured one of the worst fixtures of his senior managerial career. He experienced 90 minutes of sheer pain and torture in the hands of a team that went on to win the title, 90 minutes during which the champions-elect breached his sleepwalking defence four times. To add insult to injury, the fixture was held at Stamford Bridge, where the Portuguese win three titles with the Blues and is their greatest ever manager.
In a season that raised questions about his ability as a manager and leader, Jose Mourinho struck back the way Jose Mourinho does – ironically in the reverse fixture. While their performance at Stamford Bridge was comfortably one of the worst in many years, the one fixture that stood out the most was United’s 2-0 win against Chelsea at Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho's 3-5-2
Mourinho, in his most pragmatic fashion, set his team up in a set up to nullify his opponent’s greatest threats and maximize his side’s impact.
Manchester United was organized in a 3-5-2. Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard lead the line with their pace and movement wreaking havoc in Chelsea’s third of the pitch, a dogged midfield of Ander Herrera, Pau l Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia providing width as the wing backs, and Marcos Rojo, Eric Bailly and Matteo Darmian guarding David De Gea’s untroubled goal.
This match, though, produced one of the finest man-marking performances on the season from Herrera. The Basque marked Chelsea’s most dangerous threat, Eden Hazard out of the game.
This formation enabled United to play fluidly and put up a more efficient showing to wreck the champions at home. This, of course, could also be seen as one of the only few performances that could highlight this impact.
That was until they completed pre season over the last one month.
US tour was largely successful, but more in terms of their tactical evolution rather than results. The new arrivals Victor Lindelof, Romelu Lukaku, and most recently Nemanja Matic have slotted into their positions quickly, with the Swede albeit looking a bit shaky at times.
They fielded a very similar 3-5-2 set up constantly during the tour, to very good effect. United look a lot sharper in possession and lightning fast on the counter, particularly with Lukaku’s and Rashord’s mobility making a difference up front.
They went on to win 7 of their 8 games, with the players looking more comfortable with the experimented formations.
Tactically, this formation enables the side to be more clinical play in the final third with two forwards while not compromising on any width. In Matic, United now have an experienced holder to unleash Pogba and Herrera to roam in the attacking third. Lukaku likes to have the ball at his feet but is comfortable playing on the counter, another element that backs this setup.
Valencia and Darmian (presumably a starter until Shaw returns) have a history of playing as wingers or wing backs and are very well capable of marauding the flanks, particularly the Ecuadorian. But also having played a lot at full-back, they are had a very good season with United conceding only 29 goals in the league, bettered only by Tottenham’s 26.
Shaw would flourish as a wing back should he remain fit consistently, as most of the Englishman’s criticism pertains more to his defensive side rather than offensive.
The wing backs aided by Pogba and Herrera through the half spaces is a fiery prospect while the forwards (Anthony Martial, Rashford, Lukaku and Henrikh Mkhitaryan) possess electric pace up front. Juan Mata offers a different option as a second striker as well.
There are defensive concerns, though, until they find a consistent back three to sustain their shape. Lindelof’s initial impression looked susceptible to being dragged out of position often, although it might be too early to judge the Swede. But the former Benfica man looks more comfortable when playing in a back three, which is ironic considering he has never played there before.
Their defensive stability will only grow now that Matic commands the midfield, over the course of time. Lindelof, Bailly and either one of Smalling, Blind or Jones will be the likely choice.
Lindelof should he adapt to the English surroundings will provide a good outlet in possession from defence, as he has largely made his name in Portugal with his ability on the ball. He had an impressive 90% pass accuracy and completed more passes than any defender in the Portuguese top flight.
Pogba going forward in his preferred role is a crucial factor. The Frenchman played a few roles last season to varying effects but would hope to pick up right where he left off at Juventus. He played on the left of a midfield three as a dangerous box –to-box midfielder. He was the most creative central midfielder in the Premier League last season having created 53 chances.
Herrera had a mix of good defensive and all action showings but can benefit from Matic’s arrival as he will be able to progress forward more regularly.
Lastly, a word on how this will impact Romelu Lukaku’s game. The Belgian is a fast runner and strong on the ball, but has quite a bit to work on his game when to avoid being completely isolated. He did carry an occasional tendency of fading out of games at Everton.
That will improve when part of a two pronged strike force higher up the pitch. Rashford or Mkhitaryan are capable of being a foil to the former Everton man’s pace and power with their intelligent running and movement dragging defenders away.
Even considering their natural ways of playing, Pogba's favourite move is a diagonal ping from deep on the left-hand side into the forward right channel, which will sit well with Lukaku as he has a very frequent tendency to roam that channel. Their chemistry should be something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
With Pogba pulling the strings from midfield and Herrera’s tenacity, it is would potentially cure United’s problems with scoring goals last season in a set up with two forwards.
United do seem to have the personnel of the right profile to pull off a three-man-defense, which is predominantly one of the formations in vogue at the moment, with many high profile teams opting to set up with.
Jose Mourinho’s squad is now fitter and sharper, and the new additions have certainly looked to improve the team. Their unit does look the part for a 3-5-2, and it is bound to be one of their go to systems in the next season. Also, the added factor of extracting the best out of certain creative players in the team.
“It is more about evolution of the team than anything else” is what Mourinho said during his trip to the US. With the right mentality and rotation, the 3-5-2 could be the way forward for the Portuguese and United.