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Liam Newman has a look at Jose Mourinho’s struggles and why he thinks two up top is the way to go at Old Trafford.
After just 13 games in charge at the time of writing, Jose Mourinho is already breaking records at Old Trafford. Unfortunately for the self-proclaimed Special One, those milestones are unenviable ones to say the least. In fact, the 1-1 draw with West Ham United had condemned Manchester United to their lowest ever points tally at that stage of a Premier League season.
Perhaps more worryingly, the Red Devils have won just one of their last seven Premier League encounters while a return of just 18 goals means that the division’s current top four have all registered at least 10 more after just one-third of the campaign.
Given that 14 of those goals came in the opening six games, the alarm bells should be ringing along Sir Matt Busby Way. The promise of a first serious title push since lifting a 20th crown in 2013 has already evaporated whilst hopes of a return to Champions League football already hang by the thinnest of proverbial threads.
On the face of it, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial should be one of the most feared foursomes on the planet. In reality, an inability to find the right formula in this part of the pitch is fast becoming the primary source of United’s woes. Quite simply, playing one central striker hasn’t worked; the obvious solution is to play two.
Frankly, the whole situation verges on the bizarre. After all, this is a Manchester United team that boasts a captain who is just one shy of Sir Bobby Charlton’s record for goals scored in the famous red shirt, as well as one of the most prolific and trophy-laden strikers to grace the beautiful game in the 21st century. Throw in a youngster who is widely tipped to be the future of English football, in addition to a Frenchman who became world football’s most expensive teenager in the summer of 2015, and it’s almost unfathomable to compute the struggles that Mourinho currently faces.
The madness is amplified further still when analysing the wealth of midfield talent on display. Over the summer, Mourinho acquired the services of last season’s leading assist-providers from both the German Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A. Those signings of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba, from Dortmund and Juventus respectively, surpassed the £100m mark with ease while the latter is the biggest transfer in the sport’s history.
With big players and an arguably even bigger manager to guide them, the Old Trafford faithful expected big things. After roughly one-third of the season, however, many of the issues that plagued the Red Devils throughout the ill-fated David Moyes and Louis van Gaal eras visibly remain.
Even for a coach of Mourinho’s stature, escaping the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson – the man whose name adorns the stand opposite the dugout that the current boss seems to spend less and less time in as the weeks roll on – has been no easy challenge. While his predecessors failed to fight it, the 53-year-old must embrace the palpable presence of his former adversary – at least when it comes to the adopting a new attacking strategy.
Throughout the period of dominance under their greatest ever manager, United were a constant attacking force thanks to the success of various partnerships. Whether Cantona and Hughes; Yorke and Cole; Van Nistelrooy and Solskjaer; or Rooney and Van Persie, the efficiency of two central stars remained a hallmark of Old Trafford throughout the club’s most successful era.
Likewise, Ferguson could always rely on his understudies to deputise with equally stunning outcomes. Javier Hernandez and Teddy Sheringham are just two of the stars to enjoy productive Old Trafford careers despite not always playing as often as they’d have liked. Mourinho is blessed with four players who all have the potential to spearhead the Red Devils to success from a central role, which is why he has no excuse for the current problems – irrespective of how unlucky he may feel his team has been.
While Rooney is the club captain, there is no doubt that Ibrahimovic is Mourinho’s main man. At a glance, the Swedish superstar is doing a fine job as a return of seven goals in 12 appearances would seem to put the former PSG man on course for a 20 goal haul in his maiden Premier League season. As a lone striker, though, goals cannot be the only barometer for success.
At times, the veteran has been utilised as a target man in a not too dissimilar manner to how Didier Drogba was during Mourinho’s time with Chelsea. A return of zero Premier League assists is more than a little concerning because, when the goals aren’t flowing on a personal note, it’s incredibly difficult for United to win football matches. This was highlighted during Ibrahimovic’s six-game barren spell as the Red Devils claimed only one victory whilst additionally failing to find the target on half of those occasions.
It would be wildly inaccurate to put the blame on Ibrahimovic’s shoulders, even if his conversion rate of one goal in every nine shots is a long way short of Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero (one in 5.5) and Chelsea’s Diego Costa (one in 4.1). A lack of bodies around the summer signing has been a major source of frustration, especially when the Red Devils produce flowing moves until the most crucial moment. This isn’t helped by the fact that a 35-year-old striker naturally wants to come deep for the ball. At times, particularly when Rooney has occupied the attacking midfield role, it has looked as though the Red Devils don’t have an out-and-out striker on the pitch.
Worse still, it has often shackled Pogba’s ability to stamp any authority on crucial game while both Rashford and have Martial have often been ineffective from the wings.
The great thing about both of United’s young attacking stars is that they have pace to burn. At this time, it’s Rashford who appears to be the more natural goalscorer; nevertheless, either man could adopt the role of playing on the last shoulder. The passing abilities of Pogba, Juan Mata, and co. would seemingly provide the perfect ammunition while it would help utilise the headed knockdowns that the athletic 6ft5in Swede has shown himself more than capable of producing over the years as well as during his brief spell at the Theatre of Dreams.
Potential partnerships involving Rooney and either Martial or Rashford would require a slight adaptation but the fundamentals of combining youth with experience would remain. Instead, those three players have largely been restricted to the three positions behind Ibrahimovic, which has additionally restricted Mkhitaryan’s game time.
Statistics comparing United’s fortunes when both Rooney and Ibrahimovic have played to when they haven’t would suggest that this could be a winning formula. But, again, while both are truly talented players, they cannot afford to occupy the same zones. A straight partnership could see Mourinho’s men become even more pedestrian. On the other hand, allowing the skipper to operate deeper while pairing Ibrahimovic with one of the younger stars could work.
Of course, all great teams require a degree of versatility and a two-man attack wouldn’t need to be set in stone for every situation. Nevertheless, the fact United aren’t hitting teams on the counter is arguably the greatest indication that a change is necessary. Great counter-attacking wing-play was a hallmark of the Ferguson years, yet even Mata, probably United’s best winger this term, prefers to drift inside. Given that Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, and the club’s other full-backs tend to get forward, a 3-5-2 is one option that should at least be considered.
Ironically, Mourinho’s greatest source of inspiration should be his successor at Stamford Bridge. Antonio Conte may have adapted his philosophy to a 3-4-3 at Chelsea to suit the players currently at his disposal, but the Italian has already highlighted the success that the three central defenders can bring. When all fit, a three-pronged backline of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones looks particularly satisfying for the job needed in that particular system.
However, it’s the Juventus and Italy national team models that the Red Devils can mimic. By creating those pressure zones with two central banks of three, United can return to the quick counter attacking ways while the combinations offered by the four frontline options can capitalise on those opportunities. Moreover, it would free up Pogba to rediscover the type of form that helped him develop into a world star in Turin. With Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera ready to offer a similar type of support as the Frenchman gained from Andrea Pirlo in previous years, it could be the key to maximising the £89m-man’s talent.
Regardless of whether it’s 3-5-2 or another system, Mourinho needs to accept that he is now at Old Trafford rather than Stamford Bridge. Opting for one striker, particularly one that comes deep, has disrupted progress in crucial parts of the pitch and has already destroyed any title aspirations before the start of December.
If he fails to find a winning partnership that additionally enables the midfielders to thrive, it could end the dream of a top four finish too.
Liam has been a football writer since 2013 and joined the Football Whispers team in January 2016. His other works have been published by a variety of outlets including Shoot, Goal.com, FHM and Bleacher Report. His areas of expertise include transfer rumours, fan culture, and historical insight. As an avid supporter, he has watched football in over 35 countries, attending two World Cups along with some of the biggest club matches in the world. The best goal he has seen live was Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s overhead kick against England, although his favourite was at Euro 2012.