Manchester United have made a stuttering start to life under José Mourinho.
They currently find themselves in sixth place in the table, nine points behind leaders Chelsea after twelve games, and (at the time of writing at least) their hopes of progressing to the Europa League knockout stage are under serious threat.
Many critics of Mourinho and Man United have suggested that the fact he doesn’t seem to know his best side right now is severely hindering their progress, but could it be the formation itself that is holding this side back?
Antonio Conte has made 3-4-3 sexy at Chelsea (with the likes of West Ham, Tottenham and Everton all copying it in recent weeks) – as much as it would pain Mourinho to be following a trend rather than instigating it, plus as one of the world’s most tactically rigid managers using a system that encourages freedom of expression would horrify him to his very core, would changing to a three-man defence benefit his Man United team?
In addition, how would the players line up if José did switch to the newly-popular formation?
David De Gea
Regardless of the formation, De Gea is Manchester United’s best goalkeeper by a country mile. First name on the teamsheet.
Centre-Back: Eric Bailly
Centre-Back: Chris Smalling
Centre Back: Daley Blind
Eric Bailly has instantly settled into the Man Unite defence following a £30m move in the summer. The Ivorian has put in a number of top-class performances since his arrival and his absence through a knee injury is being felt.
Blind and Smalling, meanwhile, have struggled a bit this season, though the former has at least looked good at left back. Blind, despite the hiccups, is generally comfortable on the ball and could operate in the role César Azpilicueta is playing at Chelsea, the specialist full-back acting as the first point of attack, the go-between for defence and midfield.
Bailly as the rock and the other two either side of him could be a sturdy and effective unit.
Right Wing-Back: Antonio Valencia
Left Wing-Back: Matteo Darmian
Having been out for a period of time, Valencia made a storming return for Man United in last weekend’s draw against Arsenal. The Ecuadorian has over time been converted from a winger to a full-back so already has a good grasp of the entire right flank – the improvements he has made in defence combined with his natural attacking instincts and lightning speed make him an ideal player for a wing-back position.
Darmian, however, would need a bit of work. The Italian international has struggled for a form and game time, and there are clearly some trust issues between him and Mourinho. The more likely scenario would be the acquisition of a new centre-back and moving Blind to the left position, but Darmian at the very least has the natural ability – considering he has regularly featured as a left midfielder for Italy – to make a stab at the role.
Luke Shaw is another option, and played in the role when Louis van Gaal briefly flirted with a 3-5-2, but is probably behind Darmian and Blind in terms of suitability for the role right now.
Centre Midfield: Paul Pogba
Centre Midfield: Ander Herrera
After faffing about with various Marouane Fellaini-related errors, Mourinho seems to have finally stumbled upon his best midfield with the triumvirate of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba.
However, Carrick cannot play in every game and wasn’t up to his usual standard last Saturday. Not to underplay Carrick’s general importance to this team, but Ander Herrera stepped up and arguably did the work of two players against Arsenal.
The Spanish international was Man United’s most creative player, as well as breaking up opposition attacks from midfield, and although he was deeper than he would have liked, Herrera showed once again that he has a high level of tactical discipline.
Pogba, however, might need to rein it in a bit. The 23-year-old’s talent is undoubted, but playing in a midfield two could leave Herrera and the defence wide open if he persistently goes on his dribbling adventures. Mourinho would need to make Pogba a bit more rigid in his movements without stifling him – not easy by any means but if he could manage it, there’s a potentially world class midfield partnership to be wrought there.
Right Forward: Juan Mata
Left Forward: Anthony Martial
Striker: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Juan Mata is arguably more of a threat in the centre than out wide, but in a three-man attack he could play both parts. Valencia’s movement down the right allowed Mata to move more centrally than a right winger would generally be able to, and this was to Manchester United’s benefit as the two were fantastic. Valencia and Mata have combined to show that they would be quite comfortable playing within this system.
(It could also be a handy way of easing Henrkih Mkhitaryan into the side if he is rotated with Mata for the games against weaker opposition.)
On the left, the formational change would also allow Martial to move closer to the middle. The French international has struggled for form this year and would rightly have Marcus Rashford breathing down his neck, but giving him a freer role and letting the left wing-backs take care of the flank might restore his focus.
Up front, whether Mourinho would go for the speed of Marcus Rashford or the physicality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is an interesting conundrum. Diego Costa at Chelsea is able to combine both but at Old Trafford it would generally be one or the other. Rashford is definitely on an upward career trajectory, but the finishing ability of Zlatan, even if he is off form right now, should give him the edge.