It is no secret that Jose Mourinho has built one of the most physical starting eleven’s in the Premier League. New signings Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, 6’ 3’’ and 6’ 4’’ respectively, have added to United’s physically imposing side. Being a taller, stronger team can affect the game in Manchester United’s favor in multiple ways. Obviously, set pieces are the clearest way that height and strength can impact the game. However having a striker who can hold up play with his strength and a midfielder who can dominate aerially are also advantages which United now hold over their opponents in a majority of games.
This season, Manchester United look far more of a threat than they have in the past from set pieces. In each of United’s first two Premier League games, they have scored goals resulting from set pieces. Against West Ham, Henrikh Mkhitaryan whipped in a brilliant ball from a free kick which Lukaku expertly guided past Joe Hart. Lukaku used his strength and height to get ahead of defender Arthur Masuaku and rise to get a glancing header towards goal. Then, against Swansea City, Daley Blind hit a perfect out swinging ball which Paul Pogba rocketed toward the goal. Although Pogba’s effort was parried onto the bar by Swansea goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, Eric Bailly was on hand to put in the rebound for United.
The key part of these two goals was the timing. Lukaku’s goal against West Ham came as United’s second, and allowed the game to be put away, a task which United failed to do frequently last year. Bailly’s goal off the corner against Swansea came right before half time to put United ahead, in a game which they had been frustrated in prior to the goal. This cutting edge off set pieces will continue to be important for United when they are struggling to break their opposition down in open play.
Their height advantage also allows them to be dominant on defensive set pieces. With United’s defense looking solid, opponents will be looking to capitalize off free kicks and corners. With Matic, Lukaku, Pogba, and Bailly as defenders on set pieces, there will be few teams in the league who will be able to outmuscle the core of United’s big men. When holding onto the game, Mourinho also tends to bring on Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini adds another huge player in the midfield. When teams look to resort to long balls to break down United, a midfield of Pogba, Fellaini, and Matic will surely be able to cope with the aerial bombardment and see out games, which United failed to do last season, one of the reasons they were not able to finish higher in the league.
Set pieces are an area of the game in which games can be won or lost. If United are able to continue to abuse their physical capability when coming up against bigger teams when chances are limited, the results could be incredible. Having the ability to consistently defend set pieces conceded and be threatening from offensive set pieces is something lacking from other teams challenging for the title, and United should look to continue to exploit their physical advantage to separate themselves from other potential title challengers.