Manchester United Closeup: Tactics, Stats, and Rashford

Welcome to another edition of our opposition closeup’s where we have a real treat in store for you. Come Sunday, Liverpool will host historic rivals Manchester United on home turf at Anfield. Whilst United are but a shadow of the team and the ethos legendary manager, Sir Alex Ferguson left behind, this fixture still represents a must win for the club.

Joining me in analysing the threats we have to keep quiet, we have the wonderful Shirley.


Where are United Now?

As it stands, United are a team bereft of their former glories, struggling to find form and re-establish themselves within the league’s top four, let alone as contenders of the competition they dominated in the 90s and 2000s.

The blistering, flowing football that encapsulated the ‘United Way’ has become the stuff of dreams since the introduction of David Moyes in 2013.

Manchester United Training Session : News Photo

“All those lads you see going to the factory in Trafford Park, they come to watch you on Saturday,” Matt Busby once told Bobby Charlton as a promising youngster. “They have boring jobs, so you have to give them something they will enjoy.”

The subsequent appointments of Louis van Gaal and 
José Mourinho, although trophy-laden, have done little to bring back such enjoyment to the lives of United fans.

United currently lie in 6th place, eight points away from the top four, and an embarrassing sixteen away from the league’s summit and arch-rivals Liverpool.

This represents Mourinho’s worse first half of a season since the Portuguese took over the reins at Old Trafford, with the club nine points worse off than at the same stage last term.

José Mourinho – The Controversial ‘Special One’

Although having brought about United’s most successful season (in trophies and points) since Alex Ferguson’s departure – 81 points in the 2017/18 season – Mourinho has been invariably accused of a negative style of football, incompatible with the ‘United Way.’

Manchester United Press Conference : News Photo

Putting aside football philosophy for a moment, you would be hard-pressed to argue against the former Chelsea manager’s reputation as one of the greatest managers of all time.

“Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.”

– José Mourinho

Many will be aware of his quick rise to fame in Portugal, in particular his unprecedented successes with Porto, where he lead one of the ‘Big Three’ to a UEFA Champions League final against Monaco in 2003/04.

Champions League Final - AS Monaco v FC Porto : News Photo

Most impressively, Mourinho’s Porto side managed to secure victory over Ferguson’s United, 3-2 on aggregate, on their way to the final.

The Champions League win brought Mourinho to the forefront of the football world, with Chelsea courting his services.

“Liverpool are a team that interests everyone and Chelsea does not interest me so much because it is a new project with lots of money invested in it. I think it is a project which, if the club fail to win everything, then [Roman] Abramovich could retire and take the money out of the club. It’s an uncertain project. It is interesting for a coach to have the money to hire quality players but you never know if a project like this will bring success.”

– José Mourinho

Despite publicly announcing his desire to manage Liverpool, the Merseyside club instead enlisted Spaniard Rafael Benítez, with Mourinho heading to Stamford Bridge.

The Portuguese had a highly successful first spell at the London side where, bankrolled by billionaire Roman Abramovich, he brought the Premier League back to Stamford Bridge after a fifty-year long wait.

Statistically, the season was a brilliant success, breaking a number of domestic records, as Chelsea recorded a then high of 95 points, whilst having conceding the fewest goals in the process (15).

Although, he narrowly missed out on back-to-back Champions League successes following the ‘ghost-goal’ affair in the semi-finals against eventual winners Liverpool.

Sequence 7 of 7 - Liverpool's Luis Garci : News Photo

A move to Italian giants, Inter Milan, prompted by an increasingly fractious relationship between manager and owner, only served to further bolster Mourinho’s status as one of modern football’s best. 

Following a less successful spell at Real Madrid and a brief return to Stamford Bridge, the Portuguese signed a three year contract with Manchester United in 2016.

Under Mourinho’s tenure, the club has secured the Community Shield and League Cup in 2016, and the Europa League in 2017. However, a title-win continues to the elude the club and manager.

Manchester United Tactics

Much of Mourinho’s success has been built on a 4-3-3 formation which promoted three key facets of play: midfield superiority, solid defending, and incisive counter-attacking. However, some may argue that Mourinho’s current tenure with United has been lacking the same degree of cutting edge that his previous sides often possessed.

The Portuguese’s first spell at Chelsea particularly encapsulated his philosophy and his revolutionary ideas at the time.

Playing a 4-3-3 with a defensive midfielder, Mourinho’s Chelsea side had an instant advantage over most sides in the Premier League at the time who were utilising a 4-4-2. With three central midfielder’s, including a prime Frank Lampard, Chelsea had a 3v2 midfield advantage, which arguably greatly contributed to their consecutive title wins in 2004/05 and 2005/06.

Chelsea v Portsmouth : News Photo

In Mourinho’s own words:

“Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.”

At United, Mourinho has been faithful to his favoured 4-3-3, using triangles and diamonds to progress play. For instance, when building from deep, the nearest centre-back, full-back, centre-mid, and defensive-mid, can form a passing diamond. In advanced areas, a passing triangle is often created by Mourinho’s nearest centre-mid, full-back, and winger to progress possession.

Like at Chelsea, Mourinho’s striker plays an important role in bullying the defence and dragging defenders wide. Didier Drogba excelled in this role at Chelsea, with opposition sides often having to devote two defenders to neutralise the Ivorian, which allowed Mourinho’s Chelsea side to make good use of the extra man in midfield and dominate the available space.

However, since the arrival of Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Maurizio Sarri, Unai Emery, and Mauricio Pochettino, the general standard of top six football has become far more advanced.

More teams implement a deep-lying midfielder involved in building possession from deep, most notably Guardiola at Manchester City, and Sarri at Chelsea, similarly to Mourinho, utilises ‘triangles’ and ‘diamonds’ in possession to progress the play.

In comparison to his peers, Mourinho’s brand of football has been labelled as negative and uninspiring, effectively the antithesis to what is expected at ‘The Theatre of Dreams.’

However, there is more to consider than just Mourinho’s style, as the club’s forays into the transfer market have been found to be wanting.

Romelu Lukaku, Mourinho’s Belgian solution to the Didier Drogba sized hole in his squad, has yet to hit the 20 goals, and over, a season mark that the Ivorian used to hit regularly for Chelsea. Indeed, Mourinho’s United team greatly lacks the cutting edge his teams of old used to possess in bundles.

Although clearly a hugely talented player, Paul Pogba lets himself and the team down with his sizeable ego.

Crucially, in defence, Mourinho lacks the level of defensive partnership he fostered at Chelsea, with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones representing a significant downgrade on Chelsea legends John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho.


The Red Devil that must be stopped: Marcus Rashford

All in all, let’s get the 3 points and keep Jose and his boys quiet… YNWA!!!

It is the biggest game in the English Premier League; and even more so this season. With the reds up top, we have to beat Manchester United for many reasons including the following:

  • We have to retain top spot and keep the momentum going
  • They are Manchester United
  • We need to maintain our fortress status at Anfield (especially in view of the fact that we have yet to win the boys from Manchester’s red half since the 2013/14 EPL season)
  • They are Manchester United
  • We cannot afford to drop points now, as Manchester City’s not going away anytime soon; the gap between us is just a point and it will become more difficult to go back to chasing them.
  • They are Manchester United

For the reasons listed above (see the ones highlighted in particular), Liverpool have a job to do as we approach the end of the first half of the season. And since its Manchester United, you can be sure that “suspect form or not”, they will come prepared to prevent us from getting 3 points.

Now De Gea, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial (injured), Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Nemanja Matic and indeed most of the United squad have had good and bad games this season. They all can also create something out of nothing. However, for the purpose of this game, it is Marcus Rashford who must be held in check.

Rashford has been United’s most outstanding player over the last 3 games (with Martial out injured). In 13 appearances this season, the 21 year old has found the back of the net 3 times and has 5 assists. In a recent interview with “Sky Sports”, he had this to say:

“No, we don’t go there as underdogs, we go there to win the game like any game. They’re a good team. The intensity that they play at makes the game difficult so we have to match that and try and improve it.” You can be sure that Marcus will be an integral part of them trying to take the game to us, with his pace and skillfulness. Milner (or whoever deputises for TAA) will have to be on their toes all game long.”

A must win for Liverpool? Have your say in the comments below!

Farrell Keeling

From Brighton, living in Liverpool. Avid writer and Liverpool fan. Doing bits for FOAR.

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