August 24, 2017
Manchester United have begun the new Premier League season on a tear, with six points and eight unanswered goals after the opening two games. Jose Mourinho has kept the same 4-2-3-1 lineup in the first two games, with an attack featuring Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and new signing Romelu Lukaku. The midfield two has been kept, with Nemanja Matic assuming the full defensive midfielder role superbly without needing any help, allowing Mourinho to employ Mata in an attacking role instead of Ander Herrera, who featured for only the last eight minutes against Swansea City last weekend and looks to be United’s big game option.
The most intriguing part of Mourinho’s setup has been that he has made the exact same substitutions in both games, swapping Mata for Marouane Fellaini and swapping Rashford for Anthony Martial. United have scored 62.5% of their goals after these substitutions, with Martial bagging two goals and an assist in the process. These decisions have shown an interesting new wrinkle with Mourinho’s late game match plans and his use of Fellaini this season.
Last season on many occasions, Fellaini was substituted on to provide an aerial option while United would sit back and hold on to a 1-0 result, with the most infamous instance coming against Everton away where Fellaini himself gave away a penalty to allow Everton to equalise and for United to drop two crucial away points in yet another draw. This season has seen a change, with Fellaini being substituted on to free up the attack and go for the kill. Before the substitutions, United have a fluid three behind Lukaku who drive the opposition defenders into the ground, tiring them out with run after run and dribble after dribble. Mourinho is now not looking to hold the game, but to deliver the death-blow.
Enter Anthony Martial, easily United’s best dribbler and most clinical finisher after Lukaku. The moment Fellaini is swapped for Mata, United become a 4-3-3, with Pogba languishing a little bit higher and Fellaini and Matic holding back. This affords more space to the wingers (Martial and Mkhitaryan) and offers more space for Pogba to run into without Mata circling the middle front of the pitch. Martial has definitely proven his worth, driving right at West Ham United and Swansea’s fatigued fullbacks and causing a lot more chaos while Henrikh Mkhitaryan has also benefited, using the newfound space to provide four assists already this season, bettering his total for last season.
The battle for the left-wing spot seems to have ended in a tie, with Rashford getting more game-time to see different offensive scenarios and learn to adapt, until Martial swaps for him and United go for the kill. United’s attack sometimes is just clogged, and the removal of Juan Mata frees up space in the middle for Martial to use and abuse to his will, as he has done so ruthlessly. This looks to be Mourinho’s game plan against teams that set up to frustrate, and while the importance of the first goal before the time for substitutions cannot be underestimated it seems that United have changed their approach to kill off games and are now trying to avoid the nail-biting finishes the fans had to endure throughout the 2016/17 season.
Written by Zakariya Isaaq