August 17, 2017
Jose Mourinho stated that he wanted four signings, but he would settle with three, declaring that his fourth would be a winger to add to United’s attack. Watching United’s performance against West Ham, it became easy to understand why the two-time Champions League winner would just as simply settle with three signings.
United’s scintillating attack put four past West Ham as Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford were all involved in the goals and Juan Mata impressed throughout. Four options have already staked their claim for three places in United’s 4-2-3-1 formation that seems likely to become a 4-3-3 with only two.
Already, those four options would seem enough, but what makes them even more exciting is the fact that there are even more options at the club. Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira didn’t even feature against West Ham, while wildcard players who could become prominent later in the season remain on the back burners.
Analyzing the strengths of each of these players, it becomes clear that United have quality in-depth available regardless of who may join United in the next fifteen days. Mkhitaryan, Martial, Mata, Rashford, Lingard, and Pereira all have a part to play in United’s attacking midfield before other options who are already at the club are even considered.
Mkhitaryan needs to be the talismanic figure in his second season at the club after an inconsistent adjustment campaign. However, the fact that he is known for struggling to adapt when moving clubs and his great form against West Ham point to the fact that he could be ready to lead United’s creative crop.
Mkhitaryan provided two assists after five key passes and three dribbles against West Ham, even somehow completing 90% of his passes. The excellence of new signings Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic allowed Mkhitaryan to move under the radar, which could prove important as the pressure stays off the Armenian.
Able to play across the attack, Mkhitaryan is an excellent passer, dribbler, set-piece taker, a hard-worker in attacking midfield, and most of all, he creates goals, even when he isn’t playing well. He promises to be involved in a goal every match this season, which, if he can achieve, will place him among the best attacking midfielders in world football.
Despite not starting United’s opening Premier League match against West Ham, Martial came off the bench and had an instant impact, scoring a goal and assisting another to seal the win for United. Martial was one of United’s best players during pre-season, which raises questions about why he didn’t start either of United’s first two matches when almost every fit player expected to play many matches this season started.
However, if Martial continues to produce cameos similar to the one against West Ham, it won’t be long before even Mourinho’s bizarre isolation of the Frenchman will be forced to end. The Ivan Perisic saga showed that Martial remains vital to Mourinho’s long-term plans even if he hasn’t fully adapted to life under the Portuguese manager, who values tenacity in every position on the pitch.
It’s easy to understand why this is the case. Martial’s dribbling ability and balance when committing defenders can only be comparable to Eden Hazard. This allows him to create something out of nothing, and combined with his world-class finishing ability, he can rise to heights that few players currently at the club can reach. He also seems to be developing a left-footed cross, which would make him one of the most unpredictable, exciting players to watch in European football.
Martial needs to rise above challenges to hit a world-class level, which he showed he could do last season despite having personal, fitness, and tactical issues. He’s the only true source of width currently at the club, where he should have the better part of the next decade to take a step up from the already monumental level at which he can play football.
Dipping under the radar due to the storylines surrounding United’s other stars, Juan Mata was the most consistent of United’s attacking midfielders by far, hitting double figures despite not being a starter and rightfully earning his place in the Starting XI for the Europa League and EFL Cup Final. Mata’s adaptation to life under Jose Mourinho came through a series of evolutionary changes he made to his game under Louis van Gaal that allowed him to adjust to the modern game.
While many attacking midfielders who cannot play out wide have struggled as most elite sides deploy either three central midfielders or two strikers, Mata worked hard defensively and developed his game to become somewhat of a wide poacher or central midfielder, a player who adds fluidity to the side while also being clinical at scoring and assisting goals in the box.
His technical ability makes up for his lack of physical threat, and it is unrivalled at United in terms of both ability and consistency. Mata is a great finisher, an excellent passer, can make decisions during the quickest splits of seconds, and control a ball regardless of its position. He should be an asset to United well into his 30s as he aspires to finally win the Premier League.
There isn’t much else to say about Marcus Rashford; a player who capitalizes on opportunities, works hard, and continues to develop both physically and technically is destined to be in the matchday squad for every match. Rashford’s new-found physical prowess and his well-known pace made him an option out wide, where he was excellent against West Ham.
Rashford could function as somewhat of a second striker from either wing, making runs toward the penalty box as Mkhitaryan drifts with the ball and effectively transitioning United’s formation to a diamond, but he needs space to perform at his best. In matches where United play against tight defences, he will struggle unless he is played as a natural striker because he doesn’t have creative abilities.
Lingard has been heavily criticised because he failed to kick on in his second season after a promising start under Louis van Gaal, with many questioning whether or not he has the ability to make it at Manchester United, but the truth is, he has been important to United due to his ability to play in roles that do not suit him without qualms.
Against Real Madrid, he played as a wingback, while he spent most of the last season as a winger. We saw in matches against Chelsea and under van Gaal that he should be deployed in central areas, but due to great depth in those positions, he may not receive as much time centrally under Jose Mourinho.
However, Lingard should still improve a lot and become a player who can hit double figures for United in the coming years. His movement is excellent, he has the positional nous and is excellent in possession; he just needs to develop composure in front of goal when his clever runs result in a chance.
After an excellent loan spell at Granada, Andreas Pereira has earned his place in Manchester United’s squad, and while Jose Mourinho has used him in a central midfield role during pre-season, he would be more suited to playing further forward if 4-2-3-1 is the formation of choice.
This is because, alongside his superb technical ability and awareness of space, he is also a very good player around the box, and could easily hit double figures in both goals and assists by the time he reaches his prime. Expect Pereira to slowly find his feet in matches this season to become an option for United in a variety of positions.
Many United fans are opposed to the use of Marouane Fellaini, but used in attacking midfield, he has never done anything but his job at Old Trafford. Fellaini is an excellent outlet for goalkeepers and defenders to relieve pressure when United is playing superior opposition and will be important for United until Mourinho’s men can play football to the same level as every side in Europe.
There is also the possibility of re-signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player who would add a significant amount of power to United’s finishing ranks for the second half of the season. Ibrahimovic’s injury allowed United to move on and sign Lukaku, which could be a blessing in disguise, but with the spotlight on another player, Ibrahimovic could finally play the part needed to find success in Europe’s top tier.
One of Martial or Rashford should always play as they are considered the pace outlets in the side, but equally, Mkhitaryan and Mata are the most creative players at the club and should occupy another position in the side to ensure United can create chances in attack.
Don’t write off the likes of Lingard, Pereira, and Fellaini, though- they can all play a part in United’s attack and ensure that it has quality in-depth when some of the first four players aren’t available. The same applies to Ibrahimovic, who could be one of the most important players of the season if he returns at the right time.
United’s attack seems stacked for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson was manager, and with the likes of Mkhitaryan, Martial, Mata, Rashford, Lingard, Pereira, Fellaini, and even Ibrahimovic available to the Red Devils, Mourinho should have enough to score the amount of goals required to be successful on all fronts- even if the natural winger he covets is not signed by the end of the summer transfer window.