In the desperate search for a narrative, Manchester United‘s laboured 1-0 win away to Southampton last week was framed in two contrasting ways: it was either the sign of genuine title contenders, winning despite not playing well, or it was evidence that the Red Devils’ early-season form had been overhyped, and they regressed to their mean against the Saints.
José Mourinho’s preservation instincts kicked in against Southampton, electing to bring on an extra defender in Chris Smalling to protect his side’s slender advantage, rather than introduce the in-form Anthony Martial to pursue a game-settling second goal.
Now, faced with 20th-placed Crystal Palace at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon, the Portuguese tactician should allow his vast attacking talent off their leash.
Martial and Marcus Rashford have been rotating in the left wing position this season. Both youngsters are in fine form, with five all-competitions goals apiece. But each has found their first-team opportunities restricted by the other, starting together just once, in the Carabao Cup against Championship side Burton Albion.
Both men are natural strikers who are able to play anywhere across the front line, yet Mourinho, thus far, has preferred to start Juan Mata on the right side of attack as a counterbalance to the dynamic pair, offering control and cunning where he lacks pace and power.
Against scoreless Palace, however, Mourinho has the perfect opportunity to experiment with a front three of Martial, Rashford and the free-scoring Romelu Lukaku. Between them, they have already notched 20 goals and four assists this term, yet the trio are yet to start a game together.
In midweek, United hammered CSKA Moscow 4-1 in the Champions League, as Martial and Lukaku showed their budding understanding, with the Frenchman assisting twice for the £75million former Everton man. And Rashford’s link play is among his foremost attributes; the ingredients are all in place to create a devastating trident.
If Mourinho sticks to his customary 4-2-3-1 formation, either Mata or Henrikh Mkhitaryan will have to miss out, which is a tad harsh as both are in fine form. But, despite the fact the Spaniard has been stationed wide on the right this term, both men are natural No.10s, and are too often found in the same spaces, making United too narrow.
The above image, taken from the 4-0 victory over Leicester City at Old Trafford in August, shows Mata and Mkhitaryan (both circled) clogging the central zone at the expense of the team’s width. Starting just one of the pair, with, say, Rashford wide on the right, could offer greater balance.
Rashford The Right Man For The Job
Of course, Rashford is not a completely natural fit for the right flank, but the gifted 19-year-old has the skillset to perform to a high level in the position. His pace, close control and dribbling ability could see him terrorise opposing full-backs, while, being naturally right-footed, he will be more able to take on his marker around the outside and deliver centres for Lukaku than Mata is.
What’s more, the young England international possesses a well-honed ability to find and exploit gaps in the half-space on the right side. And he is arguably stronger finisher from the inside-right position that in any other scenario.
The above image, taken from a pre-season friendly against LA Galaxy, shows Rashford identifying that the opposition’s right-sided centre-back and right-back are slightly too far apart, and he plots his move into the space.
As the ball reaches Mata, Rashford is already making his run into the gap, which has inexplicably widened at this point. The Englishman’s movement presents the Spanish playmaker with the perfect through-ball option.
When through on goal, Rashford is clinical from the right side of the penalty area, firing across the goalkeeper to the far post; an emphatic finish and one that is typical of his technique in such situations.
Above, we see two further examples, taken from games against Chelsea and Sunderland last season, of Rashford’s excellent finishing from similar positions, having broken into the half-space to forge a chance.
Stationed on the right wing and playing from outside to inside, he could find himself in these kind of positions much more frequently.
With the fluidity of movement that Martial and Lukaku offer, Rashford wouldn’t be isolated on the right, either, as his attacking cohorts would be constantly switching positions to bamboozle the opposition, affording the Englishman plenty of opportunities to pop up on the left or in the centre.
Lukaku, in particular, has shown a development in his link play and off-the-ball movement since joining United, and is beginning to make a habit of drifting wide to the right. This is how he assisted a goal for Mkhitaryan in the 4-0 win over Everton in September, and, with Rashford and Martial as the players breaking into the space the Belgian vacates when he drifts wide, the Red Devils could become even more prolific.
Martial Must Play More
We have now reached a point where the form of Rashford and especially Martial warrants both being given a run in the team. Mourinho has praised the Frenchman’s attitude and application of late, and the 21-year-old’s renewed hunger is clear for all to see.
The decision to rotate the pair to keep them motivated and desperate to impress has worked thus far, but this method of man management comes with a tipping point.
There will be a time when motivation to impress the manager will turn into disillusionment if good form is not rewarded with consistent starts – that, after all, is what is driving these fine performances.
Against a team with no points and no goals to their name, and who were seen off on the final day of last season by a line-up consisting of several debuting youngsters, Mourinho has the chance to experiment with a front three that, granted, may lack in positional discipline and defensive nous, but brims with youthful swagger, pace, technique and daring.
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