Manchester United’s pre-season and first two matches of the new campaign have shed light on the fact that Jose Mourinho has been deliberating between two formations to give him varying advantages against varying types of opposition.
Inevitably, systems with both three and four defenders will be deployed over the course of Mourinho’s second season at Old Trafford, but it is interesting to compare and contrast, examining which suits United better and will feature more prominently. This will depend on factors such as balance, personnel, and the ability to tinker with the formation and add nuances to improve the side further.
Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal have deployed three at the back formations early this season due to the balance it offers their sides. The switch has allowed their best players, mostly narrow attacking midfielders, including the likes of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Alexis Sanchez, and Mesut Ozil to play in their best positions together, while also incorporating a proper striker in the side.
The balance has nullified the limitations of their defenders, allowed them to transition quickly or control possession depending on the situation, and maintain numbers when defending the counter, all attributes which would benefit United.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan relished in a central role during pre-season and was allowed to play there against Real Madrid despite the fact that United played a midfield three. The same advantage would apply to Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, and Jesse Lingard, and could even come to the fore should Zlatan Ibrahimovic re-sign in January.
Unlike City, Arsenal, and Chelsea, though, Mata, Mkhitaryan, and Martial have all thrived at points in their careers from a slightly wider role, and the 3-4-3 can be weak on the wings and in the channels. Furthermore, Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia, United’s main fullbacks, are workhorses, making them perfectly suited to playing wingback but also perfectly adept at playing the role of a wingback without being defensively exposed regardless of whether two or three centre-backs are on the pitch.
Playing three centre-backs seems almost wasteful when United have the best defensive midfielder in England in Nemanja Matic, as well as one of the best central midfielders from a defensive standpoint in Ander Herrera. With them and Paul Pogba on the pitch, United would only be playing two forwards in a 3-5-2.
The main difference between a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3 with Darmian and Valencia as wing-backs is the sacrifice of a forward for a defender, which could work against sides such as Real Madrid. However, with the likes of Lingard at wingback, the formation doesn’t look better defensively or going forward than a 4-3-3, instead just being unbalanced.
Due to the plethora of centre-backs available to Jose Mourinho, injuries in forward positions may make three at the back more viable, but the wing-backs need to be balanced, and the only combination at first-choice level is Darmian and Valencia, a duo that can do the same job from fullback.
Combine this with the fact that United’s attacking midfielders all started in fine fettle in a 4-2-3-1 against West Ham United, and four at the back seems to suit United’s personnel more. The same conclusion could be reached regarding the ability to tinker, as United could deploy a variety of formations with four at the back.
The options with four at the back are endless. Matic could play behind Herrera and Pogba in midfield, two of the three could play behind Mata, Mkhitaryan, and two strikers, Martial or Rashford could pair Lukaku in a 4-4-2, a diamond formation could overload teams with weak midfielders, Marouane Fellaini could even play behind Lukaku to hurt teams on the counter.
On the other hand, with three, the only options are a trio in midfield with two forwards, or a duo in midfield with three forwards. United would have to cede possession in matches to allow the transition football to work at times, and Paul Pogba would likely have to play deep to even deploy three attacking players in the side.
Thus, Mourinho’s experiments with three at the back formations were most likely for reasons related to balance, making them an option in bigger matches during which United expect to be dominated and cede possession.
However, in most matches, United should play four at the back. The system will allow for the greatest amount of attacking midfielders on the pitch at once, remove a defender who will be surplus to requirements in most matches, and allow Darmian and Valencia to be the defenders they have promised to be this season.
Either which way, though, it’s incredible that Mourinho has so many options. Last season, United were promised a deep squad, but many variables didn’t come to fore; this season, guns throughout United’s massive squad are preparing to blaze.