One of the hot topics of Manchester United’s season so far has been how best to set up their midfield. Upon his arrival at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho ostracised Bastian Schweinsteiger and welcomed Paul Pogba before struggling to find a winning formula from the midfielders available to him. Persisting with a 4-2-3-1 formation, he experimented with Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera alongside Pogba, who initially received criticism for his performances.
In reality, the Frenchman was more the victim of a flawed system than any lack of talent. The two-man partnerships Mourinho placed him in were lacking in the requisite balance to enable the surging forward runs that were such an integral part of his game with Juventus.
Therefore it was perhaps no surprise when, for the clash with Arsenal on 19th November, Mourinho appeared to take inspiration from the organisation of Pogba’s former team in an attempt to find a cohesive midfield shape. For that match, the Portuguese abandoned the 4-2-3-1 he has generally been wedded to, implementing a 4-3-3 with Pogba joined in the centre by Herrera and Michael Carrick. In the 3-1 win over Swansea previously—Manchester United’s first Premier League victory since September—he had utilised a similar format, albeit with Fellaini in ahead of Herrera.
The change in structure, along with the tweak in personnel, saw a midfield trident that closely mirrored the one Pogba thrived within at Juventus as they progressed to the 2014-15 Champions League final, which included Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio.
Carrick, perhaps the most underutilised English player in recent history, took on the Pirlo role, acting as a linkman between defence and midfield. To his right was Herrera, who plays with the same mixture of combativeness and technical subtlety that defines Marchisio’s game. While Arsenal gained a point with a 1-1 draw, the widespread belief was that Manchester United deserved more. And, although Mourinho has since reverted back to the 4-2-3-1, he would be wise to continue the Herrera-Carrick-Pogba combination once all players are fit again due to its tactical possibilities.
One important element of the trio is that it offers better defensive coverage. Considering Mourinho has always sought to imbue his teams with a basic stability, this aspect should not be glossed over. The three provides an obvious numerical superiority to a two-man midfield, and with good spacing between the players it can be extremely difficult to break down, offering good protection in central areas and allowing those on the outside (Herrera and Pogba) to shuffle wide or forward to press without fear of gaping holes opening up behind them.
Additionally, in an attacking sense the introduction of Carrick in a deeper role facilitates two potential benefits. One is that his presence unshackles the technically gifted Pogba and Herrera, enabling them to attack with greater creative licence without leaving space between the lines to be exploited on the counter. Another is that, with different depths between the three, there is a greater chance of forming triangles and subsequently more effective passing patterns.
Finally, the midfield-three indulges Pogba’s left-sided preference. This tactical talking point has not received the attention it deserves, but the 23-year-old was at his best with Juventus when attacking from the left of a midfield three. The reasoning behind this is essentially simple—it allows him to cut in on to his favoured right foot. From here he can run directly at the defence, commit players and undermine the opposition’s defensive shape.
Mourinho has dabbled with a midfield three and he shouldn’t go back. He finally appears to have found the correct combination of players, as well as a tactical environment that has been proven to suit Pogba throughout his finest years.