Jose Mourinho has undoubtedly improved Manchester United in his two seasons in charge. The club has made a better fist of the transfer market, while successfully clearing a lot of deadwood from the squad. United’s defending has improved, while those who say that Mourinho does not improve individual players a la Pep Guardiola need only look at Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young as examples. Nevertheless, their remains a significant millstone around Mourinho’s neck: the need, or rather the expectation for United to play attacking football. The Portuguese has never been known for setting up attack-minded sides, so while it is a little fruitless to expect a leopard to suddenly change its spots, there are quite a few structural issues with the way United played last season. Paul Pogba’s success for France at the World Cup has shone the spotlight on Mourinho and his tactics for the upcoming season, and we will take a look at the ways in which Manchester United’s manager needs to change his playing system in order to get the best out of a talented group of players.
Increase the tempo of United’s passing
On the face of it, United were decent in possession last year. The side averaged 53.9% possession during the 2017/18 Premier League season, with a pass accuracy of 83.6%. Those numbers look respectable enough for a top side, but it is when you dig deeper that some of the issues affecting the Red Devils’ attacking buildup start to come out. Firstly, United made only the sixth-highest number of passes in the league last season, with all of the other ‘Big Six’ teams (Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea) ahead of the club. While simply making more passes than the rest is no indicator of attacking success or efficiency (Arsenal made the second-highest passes but finished sixth), it does point to a possible issue with the speed at which those passes are made. Indeed, when one looks at passes per minute (PPM) and compares United’s numbers to those of their rivals, this suspicion is confirmed. United averaged 11.87 PPM in the Premier League last season, lower than Tottenham (11.91), Chelsea (12.1), Liverpool (12.33), Arsenal (12.86) and Manchester City (13.84). This demonstrates that the passing tempo was slow, which contributed to United failing to break down deep defending sides, as the sort of rapid exchanges that would open up space were rare.
Sort out the midfield balance (and Paul Pogba)
A contributing factor to this was the lack of balance to United’s midfield. Mourinho usually set up the side in a 4-2-3-1, with Nemanja Matic as the solitary holding midfielder and Paul Pogba beside him. Jesse Lingard grew into a sort of quasi-playmaker during the season, shuttling between the number 10 and number 8 roles, but the United midfield would usually be quite imbalanced, with massive spaces between teammates which would hinder opportunities for quick link-up play.
Only when United played with a 3-man midfield, either in a 4-3-3 setup or with a back three, did the system look a little more convincing. Even then, it was more than just a case of playing three men – any three men – in the middle. The system usually fell apart when Marouane Fellaini played, for example.
A trio of Matic, Pogba and one of McTominay or Herrera looked like the most balanced option for United last season. This transfer window has seen the arrival of the Brazilian maverick Fred, who should, in theory, improve this particular area further. Matic, Fred and Pogba would be an even better fit, possessing strength, skill, creativity as well as enough defensive nous and cover for the centre-backs. Mourinho needs to resolve whatever issues he may have with his French World Cup winner, as Pogba is key to making United a more progressive and attacking unit. Fred’s arrival was supposed to be for his benefit; the Brazilian is not intended to be Pogba’s replacement, and United and Mourinho would be wise to understand this distinction.
Create more chances
This goes without saying and is an obvious result of United’s lack of midfield creativity over the last few years, but Manchester United really need to create a lot more chances if they want to be in the running for the top prizes. The numbers reflect this as well – United’s xG average in the league last season was 1.71, once again lower than Tottenham (1.79), Arsenal (1.91), Liverpool (1.96) and Manchester City (2.23)
Romelu Lukaku was an isolated figure last season, literally feeding off scraps; it is a wonder that he managed 27 goals across all competitions despite that. Alexis Sanchez struggled after his January arrival, but a first pre-season holiday since 2012 should ensure that he starts the season fresh and sharp. Add Rashford, Martial, Lingard and Mata to that mix, and United have a capable set of forward players who can both create and finish chances. The problem lies in the supply line; the issues mentioned above contribute to a severe lack of creativity and therefore a paucity of clear-cut chances.
A related problem is the right flank. Jose Mourinho has quite rightly identified the right-wing position as an area of weakness in the United squad, and it is easy to see why. The club does not have a single natural winger in the squad, and it was usually Juan Mata or Jesse Lingard who played there during the season. Neither considers themselves to be wide men, and both prefer to play in central areas, with the result that they would look to move in off the touchline, depriving United of width and therefore making it easy for opposition defences, because they would have to defend a smaller area.
Mourinho does not look like getting his wish for a winger granted before Thursday’s deadline; in such a scenario, it is up to him to use the squad at his disposal and remedy the problem. One solution is to play Sanchez off the right, as this would open up a spot for Martial or Rashford as well as allowing the Chilean to use his pace and directness to stretch opposition defensive lines. United do have a potential star in the making in Tahith Chong who could play there, but at 18 years of age, he is still far too young to be entrusted with the responsibility.
In summary, United and Mourinho’s issues stem from the midfield. There had been a lack of tempo to the passing and a woeful imbalance to the midfield structure throughout last season, both of which should be remedied by Fred’s arrival. Paul Pogba needs to be used a lot more intelligently and in tandem with the Brazilian, while United’s lack of attacking vim can be solved by this as well, along with a potential positional shift for Sanchez. Time will tell if Mourinho manages to fix any or all of these problems, but if left unchecked, they threaten to derail United’s campaign from the very beginning.