What tactical identity do Manchester United have under Jose Mourinho?

Words By Blair Newman Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 16, 2018

Jose Mourinho is under pressure. Now in his third season as Manchester United manager, consecutive defeats to Brighton and Tottenham have not only put a serious dent in his side’s title aspirations, but have led to scrutiny of his tactics. Some have suggested that his ideas are indecipherable, others say they are outdated. But perhaps the worst criticism to come Mourinho’s way of late is the accusation that his side lacks an identity.

When he arrived at Manchester United in 2016, Mourinho brought with him a reputation crafted over the best part of two decades. He won domestic and continental titles at Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid through midfield superiority, solid defence and incisive counter-attacking. While some thought his style wasn’t necessarily in line with Manchester United’s history, few doubted he would bring them success.

Mourinho has delivered in this literal respect, winning the Europa League, the League Cup, and leading the club to their highest points total and league position since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. And these improvements and trophies didn’t come without work on the training ground – contrary to the opinions of many, he has established a clear tactical identity at Old Trafford.

His Manchester United currently line up in a 4-3-3 system that transforms into a 4-1-4-1 defensively. Mourinho prefers a mid-block, whereby the back-line takes up a position between halfway and the edge of their own penalty box, and instructs his team to press in a man-orientated fashion.

This approach is particularly evident in central midfield, where Fred and Paul Pogba take it in turns to close down their opposite men. The aim of this is to prevent the opposition from playing through the centre and make them go wide or backwards. Once in those areas, Manchester United’s pressing intensifies as they look to pin the opposition near the touchline or force them into aimless long balls or turnovers.

In possession, Mourinho’s side initially take up a 3-4-3 shape, with the defensive midfielder often dropping between the two centre-backs to create numerical superiority in the first line of build-up. Simultaneously, both full-backs push up down their flanks, and the two wingers come inside. As attacks progress the defensive midfielder moves back up and the full-backs take up higher positions.

The formation of triangle and diamond shapes has been key to Mourinho’s attacking game for many years, and this remains the case today. When building from deep, the nearest Manchester United centre-back, full-back and central midfielder can form a diamond with the defensive midfielder, while in more advanced areas the central midfielder, full-back and winger nearest to the ball regularly form triangles through which they combine and progress possession.

In the final third, Romelu Lukaku is the team’s most important individual thanks to his intelligent positioning and movement. He is too strong and fast for any defender when 1v1, so he regularly ‘pins’ two defenders at once by taking up a position in the right inside channel. If the opposition use a back four, this sees him operate between their left-back and left centre-back, who are both needed to cover him. This opens up a number of attacking opportunities.

One option is that Juan Mata, Mourinho’s preferred right winger, stays wide and takes advantage of Lukaku pinning the opposition left-back to receive the ball in space. Another is that, by dragging one of the opposition’s centre-backs wider, Lukaku frees up space centrally for Manchester United’s left-sided winger and central midfielder to attack into. Alternatively, Lukaku could exploit the space he himself creates, running behind his marker to receive between the opposing centre-backs.

Mourinho’s side tend to bypass intense pressure through long balls over the top rather than risk giving possession away in their own defensive third. Fortunately, in Lukaku they have a striker who can make those long balls stick. Both wingers will come inside to support the forward in such situations, ensuring there are options nearby to connect with the Belgian or fight for the second ball.

Manchester United do become more direct when chasing a game, with Mourinho often bringing Marouane Fellaini on to help Lukaku in winning aerial duels and allowing the team to play vertically from back to front with greater speed and effectiveness. This may not be a pretty strategy, but it has often worked.

Mourinho has not neglected the transition phases at Old Trafford either. He does utilise counter-pressing in defensive transition, with one player pressing the ball and one or two others moving to block passing lanes and close down the opponent if necessary. Meanwhile, in attacking transition, Manchester United look to spread play quickly to their wingers rather than go long to Lukaku at the first possible opportunity. This enables them to build more sustainable and threatening counter-attacks.

Evidently, the criticism that Mourinho’s side lack identity is off the mark. So too is the criticism that his ideas are outdated. Indeed, many of the common themes in his Manchester United are seen in other, more celebrated top six sides: Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have had their defensive midfielder drop back to create numerical superiority in build-up; Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have enjoyed great success with man-oriented midfield pressing and intensity in transitions; and Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea attack will be underpinned by the creation of triangle and diamond shapes.

What does separate Mourinho from his Premier League peers is his willingness to opt for a more cautious approach in big games. Rather than impose his identity, he often gets Manchester United to counter their opponent. Often this works, such as when he had Ander Herrera man mark Eden Hazard in a win over Chelsea in 2016/17, or when he opted for a 6-3-1 defensive system to negate Liverpool’s dynamic front three last term. However, sometimes it fails, as it did when he brought Herrera into the back line and changed to a basic 3-5-2 shape in the recent defeat to Tottenham.

Most pundits and supporters are used to seeing Manchester United as the aggressor, but Mourinho’s big-game reactivity is as much a part of his philosophy as any other element mentioned in this video. Unfortunately for him, the only way this approach suits the club is if it gets wins. So, as long as results continue to underwhelm, the pressure on Mourinho will only increase.

This first appeared as a video on Tifo Football’s YouTube channel.

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