What is Manchester United's best starting line-up?
Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho has selected a different starting XI for each of his sides last twelve games, and not a single player has started all of those matches. Fixture congestion is partly responsible, with United appearing in three competitions and playing midweek four times in this period; including Thursday Europa League excursions. Injuries and bans have also influenced team sheets, yet it is striking that the same eleven players haven’t started twice within this period, not even in-consecutively.
While consistency has been lacking in regard to personnel, Jose’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system has also seen a change to 4-3-3 as seen in the match against Tottenham; the reasoning behind which was clear. Wide players were used to restrict the attacking movement of Spurs’ full-backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, who are often crucial to their attacking success. In addition, an extra man in the centre provided Pogba freedom to advance beyond the opposing holding players; something which the curious absence of Eric Dier ultimately abetted.
Against Palace on Wednesday, United’s defence provided the questionable aspect of the line-up. Eric Bailly (his side’s best centre-back) started at full-back in the absence of Antonio Valencia (suspended). The remainder of the back-line comprised of Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo (CB) and Phil Jones (CB). Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw were both absent, having missed several weeks from a combination of injures and criticism from Mourinho who has previously questioned their injury records and commitment to playing. If all of these players were available, the back four should look more like: Shaw – Smalling – Bailly- Valencia/Matteo Darmian, with both Rojo and Blind often being singled out as weak areas when starting. However, if Shaw and Smalling are unable to alter Jose’s assessment of their character, they are unlikely to secure starting berths.
The remainder of the side that began against Palace is much closer to the one we should expect to see as the season progresses. An Ander Herrera/Michael Carrick partnership in midfield is a must. It is widely acknowledged that Carrick is crucial to Manchester United’s success. Aside from a dramatically improved win ratio when he plays, he aids United in controlling games, they create more chances and are not as careless in possession. Herrera meanwhile, a fan-favourite at Old Trafford, brings an appetite for fierce tackles alongside intelligent movement and an eye for the killer pass.
So in a Mourinho 4-3-3, where does world record signing Paul Pogba fit in? He is almost the spare in midfield, at times able to occupy attacking space as if performing as a number 10. Placed in the role against Palace he put in a Man of the match performance, outperforming every other player by far; scoring the first and assisting Ibramhimovic’s late winner. At times in either formation Pogba has been able to remain in a familiar position, creating an easy transition between two possibilities, depending on personnel available and varying scenarios. Higher up than the central partnership, but generally deeper than Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard or Wayne Rooney. The latter started both last weeks’ games after recently making more substitute appearances, in part to Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s injury, which saw him stretchered off to end an impressive match-winning display against Spurs.
It is in these positions where United have the most impressive array of players to chose from, a further factor in the inconsistent team selections. In addition to those aforementioned players, Rashford and Valencia can all play in this forward-three, leaving De Gea in goal and Zlatan upfront closest to un-droppable status. Were the Swedish striker to be absent for any reason, Rooney, Rashford or even Martial could fill in up top without sacrificing creativity behind.
Having an abundance of quality players is of course commonplace at the biggest clubs, but having a squad of stars capable of performing effectively in multiple positions provides a plethora of tactical options which is rarer at even the highest level. The majority of United’s squad now fall in to this category. Combined with substandard league results leaving them thirteen points behind leaders Chelsea this explains the continued alterations. After three successive wins, tinkering continues, and United are yet to truly dominate a score line.
In contrast Chelsea, who have now won eleven league games on the bounce, have remained almost unchanged in a club record equaling run. Impressively, albeit aided by European absence, eight players have started all of those games, since Conte’s overhaul switch to 3-4-3.
Manchester United’s recent form has masked over cracks and the perception that an under pressure Mourinho was struggling. However, there is much improvement to still be made. If they are to succeed even in cutting the deficit to 4th place United need settle on a best XI and system that can be effective even when changed. The side have benefited from Mkhitaryan’s recent inclusion and have so far coped well with him injured. As Chelsea have won without Hazard when required and Fabregas has stood in for different positions; Jose can and should squeeze the most from his squad by making minimal changes.
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