Premier League
November 25, 2017

Pogba, formations and defending halfspaces: the Manchester United season so far

United are adrift in the title, but things can still change


Having won 7, drawn and lost 2 games, Manchester United are currently sitting 2nd in the Premier League table with 23 points. There is an 8 point gap between them and their neighbours, Manchester City, who are demolishing every team they face. However, the Red Devils are top of their Champions League group with 12 points and have already secured a place in the last 16. They have also reached the quarter finals of the League Cup, where they will play Bristol City away.

Phrases such as “Mourinho is parking the bus” or “Manchester United are over-relying on individual quality” have been repeated plenty of times in the last few weeks. So, where’s the problem? Is Mourinho himself the problem? Or do problems lie elsewhere?

Wrong Expectations

Before the season started, the majority expected Manchester United to win the league. Manchester City under Guardiola have been favorites since the first kick of a ball, though. Perišić, a quality winger who was targeted by the club, wasn’t signed. Man City’s expected goals numbers have been much better than last season and with all the work they have done in the transfer market, the rewards are being reaped. The Reds have also gone into the season with two unproven left wingers and only one creative central midfielder in Paul Pogba.

Andreas Pereira, who was mainly an attacking midfielder in his younger days, has been deployed as a centre midfielder in the pre-season. He impressed everyone and it looked like he was going to get his chance this season. But why did José let the Brazilian go?

He didn’t want Andreas to go on loan. Pereira is the only central midfielder player in this Manchester United team alongside Pogba who is press-resistant, and it is difficult to keep possession in a team where there are zero press-resistant players. If you watch the second half against Southampton, you will notice that Mourinho has decided to “park the bus” there to secure the three points. The team wasn’t even capable of keeping possession under pressure, let alone create quality chances.


So, with Paul Pogba as the only creative central midfielder in this team capable of dictating from deep, creating chances and playing under pressure, that didn’t bode well for what would happen should he get injured. Sure enough, he got injured in his first Champions League match for Manchester United. He missed 12 matches and has been replaced by Marouane Fellaini: he’s no Pogba, but his physicality and the ability to score from headers have carried his team until… he got injured too. The Belgian missed 6 matches, including an important away trip to Liverpool, where Manchester United spent the whole match with two midfielders. Carrick was injured too.

The M62 derby ended with a draw, but United looked hopeless. The space in midfield helped Liverpool to create chances which they couldn’t convert into goals. Klopp’s team were unlucky not to win that game, but the story could have been completely different if United had at least another physically strong disciplined midfielder.

‘In the second half I was feeling, I need my bench and I had no bench. We are playing only two midfield players and I had no one else to compensate that. So progressively we were losing some control, they were having a little bit more initiative. So in the end – a point.

José Mourinho

Five matches were played with a Matić-Herrera double pivot. Firstly, in a 4-2-3-1 system, then they switched to a 5-2-1-2, with an attacking midfielder who has the freedom to operate between the lines. Mourinho tried it in the pre-season, so it wasn’t something new for the team.

It has been used plenty of times this season, including against teams like Tottenham and Chelsea. In both of these big games, United struggled to protect their halfspaces because of the lack of central midfielders. The number of defenders in the box has been a problem too. Two quality chances in two different matches and both came from the right halfspace.

Against Spurs, here Jones is confused whether to step up or not. Eriksen crosses from the right halfpsace after a perfect run into the box from Alli. We know that crosses from halfspaces are always very dangerous, and Mourinho always tries to protect them. In the first situation, United did. Look closely at Lingard, who stands in his zone marking Dembélé.

Do you know which shape gives you practically the same structure when defending but instead of one defender in the centre it gives you two? Mourinho’s 6-3-1.

Against Chelsea: as you can see, United don’t have any midfielders in the right halfspace so Jones is forced to step up. Matić should be protecting it, but it’s difficult since only two midfielders are behind the ball – he chooses to protect the centre. A numerical superiority is created for the blues in the box – Azpilicueta produces a perfect cross from the right halfspace, a header from Morata and a goal.

Can you find Mkhitaryan? United’s shifting isn’t perfect and still needs work.

We prepared the game in a way that we know how they like to defend, they like to close one side and move across and maybe if we leave the interiors open and we attack in the space we would create problems and that’s what we did.

Cesc Fàbregas

Basically, the 5-2-1-2 system has flaws when defending, and Mourinho only used it out of necessity. It should only be used against inferior sides.

Lack of individual quality

Manchester United simply does not possess the quality other top teams possess. United doesn’t have many game changers, they don’t have the world class players their rivals have in Coutinho, Mané, Sánchez, Hazard, De Bruyne, Agüero, Kane and others.

Rashford and Martial are still young, talented, but at the moment, they aren’t on that level. Mkhitaryan is 28, but he’s just incosistent; he can pull off a masterclass on Monday and play like a Sunday league footballer on Thursday. There is a reason Mourinho wanted Griezmann in the summer. He’s exactly the player this Manchester United side needs.

You can bring Tuchel, Guardiola or Pochettino, they can intergate their positional play, but it is not going to change a lot on a bigger stage. Simply not good enough. This speaks a lot:

United are often praised for their squad depth, but in reality, it is full of average players. This is not a José Mourinho team. This is a team José Mourinho is adapting to and it is difficult for him to do so. He is trying to take United on a new level and is winning trophies at the same time. Let’s look at Manchester United’s xG difference in the league since LvG took over the club:

2014/2015 – 0.39

2015/2016 – 0.15 (United were also below Chelsea by expected points that season, that’s how things were bad.)

2016/2017 – 0.71  (Mourinho’s first season.)

2017/2018 – 0.96

His job is underappreciated, considering the state this team was in before he came.

If I play counter attack with this team, i’m in shit

José Mourinho

Compare United to City and their overhaul. The Manchester City team is full of quality players currently and Guardiola is still planning a new storm next summer.

At the same time it is unfair to compare Guardiola and Mourinho – the Spanish coach has the freedom on the market and has all the support from Txiki Begiristain, the former director of football at Barcelona.

How to fix these problems

One of the problems is already fixed: the injured players are coming back. Pogba didn’t fly to France, so he will have two weeks to regain his form. Ibrahimović, who hadn’t played since April will be back to his best soon, too. The club should throw more quality into the team though, bring players like Bale or Griezmann and improve the squad level. A possibility of bringing Özil in January should not be excluded. Pereira can be recalled from loan too.

The board and Ed Woodward should do whatever it takes to keep the “Special One”. Things aren’t as bad as they seem to be, and the title race might yet hot up.

About this author

Kamran Asadov

Manchester United fan. Born in Switzerland, from Azerbaijan.

Premier League