Manchester United

Mourinho must take bold step of ditching back four

 • by Mark Thompson
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Manchester United are ninth, and the only team with a goal difference of zero. They are, as stated by the league table, pretty much exactly average.

It’s safe to say that all is not well at Old Trafford, and Manchester City’s continued excellence only makes the need for improvement even more urgent.

Former captain Gary Neville has suggested a change of system might be in store for United’s next game, against Tottenham Hotspur.

“What we’ve seen today [against Brighton] are two players in Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf who are lacking confidence a little bit,” he said on The Gary Neville Podcast.

“Or maybe they aren’t quite good enough. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between. I think it will force Manchester United and José Mourinho to go three at the back [against Tottenham]. I think, with the centre-backs he’s got, he will resort to that.”

All change

This could be a great idea because defensive issues aren’t United’s only problem. Despite an attacking line-up that could boast Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, and Alexis Sánchez has produced fewer than nine shots per match, 17th best (or 4th worst) rate in the league.

An interesting note of the first two games of the season is that Mourinho’s side have almost completely lost any influence that they placed on crossing before.

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While United fans, last season, may have wanted the team to be less characterised by putting crosses into the box, they’ll have presumably wanted the gap to be filled by other ways of creating chances. They have not.

The club only have two players in the Premier League top 50 for expected goals assisted. Liverpool – who, at the time of writing, have only played once – have two in the top ten.

Perhaps it would be wise for United to go back to their crossing ways a little bit more (although it should be said that the drop could either be because of a change of approach or the same approach, just with poor execution).

Moving to a back three would allow them to do that, both by moving the full-backs further upfield and by giving them more of a defensive safety net if they were caught high up the pitch.

It would also mean that Paul Pogba could play in a central midfield trio, as he is supposedly more suited to, and give Rashford playing time as a centre-forward, alongside Lukaku.

Which centre-backs should play?

Given that it was the centre-backs who initially sparked the conversation, which of them should play in United’s back three?

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Marcos Rojo can be crossed off the list, both through injury and his place in the pecking order. Bailly, Lindelöf, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, are left, as well as anyone else that Mourinho decides to bring into the running (Scott McTominay played there during pre-season).

Paradoxically, the central position is most-suited either for the best communicator (able to see the most of the pitch and direct players on either side) or the worst player of the three (able to be sheltered). The side players, meanwhile, need to be positionally adept, and comfortable to step into areas usually occupied by full-backs or midfielders.

Of the four, it’s Jones who seems the most vocal, and the responsibility of being placed centrally could bring out his inner Duncan Edwards – to whom he was likened when he first joined the club.

Bailly and Lindelöf flanking him, to the right and left, could make sense. Keeping Bailly away from the penalty area could avoid situations like the penalty against Brighton, and Lindelöf playing as a wider centre-back would allow the Swede the freedom to be adventurous on the ball.

It makes too much sense to ignore. Mourinho should ditch the back four and move to a three.

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