Manchester United have a problem with their midfield. Rather, they have a problem with the qualities of their players, especially in attack, their current positions on the pitch and their manager’s tactical set up. The tactical issues United are facing are hardly problems on their own, but combined with each other it causes United a huge problem. As we saw, again, in the demolition at Tottenham last week, there’s a distinct lack of defensive balance in the centre of midfield. The problem it caused against Tottenham was evident, as it was against Arsenal, when United despite winning 3-1 conceded 33 shots, and last season against Manchester City. Tottenham took advantage of the space United left in midfield to dominate the match despite a bright start from the visitors (after the early goal of course). In the aftermath, the focus has been on Paul Pogba’s inability to play in a midfield two but in reality it comes down to a Pogba problem and a Jose Mourinho problem.
Mourinho’s defensive setup
There’s been a term in England during Jose Mourinho’s time in the country where a Mourinho win in a big game is normally tagged a “Mourinho masterclass”. Normally this focuses on how he shuts down an opposition. Throughout his career, Mourinho has always created superb defensive sides with lethal counter-attacking to follow when the ball was regained. Think about his first Chelsea side, his Inter that won the Champions League after a fantastic double-legged performance against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the semi-final, his Real Madrid which broke the points and goals scored record in Spain and finally his second Chelsea side which won the Premier League in 2015. The template has barely changed since his time at Inter. The setup during and after the treble winning 2009/10 season in Milan has been the same; 4-2-3-1 in attack which changes into a man-orientated 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 out of possession. The midfield is the interesting bit as he’s always kept a compact and aggressive double pivot of two central midfielders in front of his defense. These two have been man-orientated in their defending, often marking opponents when they’ve come into the central midfield zone. It’s actually been a bit of classic zonal marking where they mark the players closest to them in their zone. Most importantly though, has been the way they’ve worked together. When one presses, the other covers and they always stays close to each other. This gives perfect protection in front of the back-four and especially the centre-backs in the dangerous number 10 space.
The wingers have had a different role however. Against attacking full-backs, Mourinho have often chosen to keep his wingers wide and basically mark the opponent’s full-backs. If they both push on then it forces Mourinho’s sides into a situational 6-2-2 but this has also meant they’ve been very difficult to break down, hence the tag “park the bus”. In other games, the ball-near winger have marked and defended deep while the ball-far one has tucked inside and helped the double pivot in midfield. Below is an example from a clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain. I’ve highlighted the double pivot of Pepe and Luka Modric who stays close to each other and protects the back four while being in proximity to mark their closest opponents. The left winger (Alvaro Morata) presses while the right (Jose Callejon) tucks inside to cover centrally.
Here’s the protection for the back-four I mentioned above. This is from Chelsea’s superb 1-0 win away at Manchester City in 2014 with David Luiz and Nemanja Matic protecting the back-four and creating a strong central base for Mourinho.
One important take away from looking through Mourinho’s Chelsea team from 2013-2015 is how wanted his central midfielders to defend. They always stayed close to each other to give the side defensive balance centrally. Another example is below.
This image highlights how strong a defensive side Chelsea could be at their best. They have pressure on the ball from Ramires and Branislav Ivanovic while they have Matic and Luiz in great positions in front of the defense. It’s compact and difficult to break down.
Mourinho has always wanted a powerful midfield duo in front of his centre-backs to give security and cover across the pitch in general but centrally in particular. Remember this as we now move onto Manchester United’s issues.
The Pogba problem
Paul Pogba is an absolutely fantastic footballer. In attack, he most definitely is one of the best midfielders, if not the best, in Europe. He creates chances in every game from through balls, crosses, flicks or longer passes over the defense. He’s made nine assists in 14 games in the Premier League, among other things. Even against Tottenham, when he clearly didn’t have one of his better games, he created two really good chances for United with a through ball to Jesse Lingard early on and then from a sweeping pass into Romelu Lukaku in the second half. Pogba is without doubt United’s best player and most important attacking creator. Just as good as he is in attack, just as poor is he defensively. His physique is often very misleading; he’s not in any way a powerful midfield presence, even though he probably could be given his strength and sheer size, and his positional sense defensively is appalling. I believe he’s a victim of his own body; people believes he’s a ball-winner just because he’s big when in reality he’s much more like a number 10 than a holding midfielder.
Pogba in a midfield two, the classic Mourinho double pivot, doesn’t work against good teams. Against probably every side below the top six, the quality of United’s attacking players, and Pogba in midfield, makes up for the lack of defensive balance in midfield because of their sheer quality which forces the opponent back and makes it difficult for them to counter-attack. But against the good sides, as the terrible performance at Tottenham highlighted in brutal fashion, it doesn’t work. Let’s look at a few examples from that game and you’ll see the stark contrast with the earlier images of Mourinho’s previous sides.
In this image it’s quite simple to see the issue isn’t it? Matic isn’t in a superb position but he does cover for Young and could theoretically pick up Christian Eriksen if the ball is played there. Pogba has been attracted towards the ball and left his position in midfield. United’s two midfielders are now in a straight line in front of each other. Now remember the earlier footage of Luiz and Matic at Chelsea. This is surely not what Mourinho wants. Anyway, huge space in the midfield where Spurs have three players and Kieran Trippier has a simple pass to make before Spurs can attack the back-four. Just under the game time you can see the position of Anthony Martial on the right wing. We’ll come back to that later.
Here, Pogba has been drawn wide by Dembele which is a direct effect of Mourinho’s preference for man-orientated pressing in midfield. As Pogba goes wide, Matic is left with a huge space to cover on his own and it’s easy to exploit the space for Tottenham.
Another example of Pogba drifting wide to press an opponent midfielder who’s moved wide. Matic is also really deep while United’s both wingers are so wide it means United basically have no midfield.
Do you remember when I highlighted how the Chelsea double pivot helped their centre-backs defend the penalty area. This is what it often looks like for United, Matic helping out with Pogba jogging back in position in a straight line from the Serbian. This gives the opponent a lot of space to exploit either side of Matic.
This highlights the issue with Pogba’s discipline. He must see Son coming into the space Matic has vacated but reacts too late and this is a recurring theme.
This is probably the worst one for me. This is a throw-in! I mean the game is stopped but Pogba doesn’t get into position to prevent the throw into Alli or Son. They are now both around Smalling while Pogba rather would go out of shot to mark Dembele. I find this quite absurd, why not just stand in that space and prevent the danger? But Pogba seems passionately not interested in defending which is why he’d rather mark Dembele who definitely won’t get the ball. A second later from this shot you would have seen Pogba pointing to Smalling to pick Son up. So if he sees it, why doesn’t he do it?
To conclude the issue with Pogba, I think he definitely lacks the positional discipline to play in central midfield when there’s only two in there. He’s also uninterested in defending and much more interested in what he does with the ball. Surely Mourinho will have identified this glaring problem with his best player? Surely he’s talked with him about it or worked on it? If Pogba still fails to understand simple positioning then he’s got a massive problem. As intelligent as he is on the ball, this shouldn’t be too hard to grasp unless he decides not too. With that said, Pogba is still United’s best footballer. As I’ve said he creates chances, keeps them ticking when in possession and gives them a dynamic dimension with his ability to dribble through the opponent’s midfield. His passing and creativity is sublime and he’s without doubt United’s most important outfield player. I think he definitely should be blamed for his lack of positional discipline, but I also think he’s a victim in terms of being understood of what kind of player he is. Just because he’s huge physically doesn’t make him a physically imposing defensive midfielder. Pogba is a free spirit, a creative footballer who thrives when he’s given the freedom to do so. For United’s sake he should be allowed too, with a strong defensive setup behind him.
The Mourinho problem
This brings us to Mourinho. Surely he must have identified this? Then why doesn’t he change it in the big games? Doesn’t he trust the likes of Ander Herrera to increase the solidity behind Pogba? He evidently trusts Marouane Fellaini but he’s struggled with injuries. I thought he’d found a good balance in the impressive away win at Everton with Pogba one of three midfielders in an attacking role to the left where he ran the show and set up both United’s goals. In the subsequent league game at home to Stoke, United had changed back again and even them exploited these spaces which should have led to a couple of goals. United have now had enough game where the problem’s been evident. Why doesn’t Mourinho fix it? If Pogba can’t do the job defensively, give him a strong platform from where he can do his best.
Ever since Mourinho took over at United, he’s had criticism for “parking the bus” and defensive football. There’s been this excessive talk of United’s duty to play attacking, expansive and exciting football. Mourinho has shown in the past he’s capable of creating exciting football at multiple clubs, but it hasn’t been at the expense of his sides defensive solidity. Has he changed his approach because of the “demand” for attacking football? If so, then it’s failed. United are not very often exciting to watch and they’ve aren’t solid in big games, unless Mourinho opts for a defensive approach. Crucially, Pogba hasn’t been in the side in those games because of injury. When he’s been fit, it’s been back to that 4-2-3-1 (or the 5-2-1-2 at Arsenal) with Pogba one of two in midfield. Is he trying to force as many of his attacking players into the side? After all, Mourinho can call on the likes of Martial, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Lingard, Lukaku and now Alexis Sanchez to play in attack. With Pogba in midfield that becomes a very attacking side, but unfortunately also one without balance in midfield. Is Mourinho affected by the media and social media’s cries for attacking football? These people should be reminded that Sir Alex Ferguson often would approach big games cautiously, especially away from home and in Europe.
One solution to the issue with the huge space Matic needs to cover, often on his own, could be solved by changing Mourinho’s principles slightly. Why does the wingers have to mark the opponent’s full-backs? If they played more narrow, they would limit the space Pogba leaves centrally and would make United more compact and balanced. It would also leave them in better starting positions to counter-attack when the ball is won. They would still be in positions where they could press the full-backs when the ball is played there. Let’s look at this image from the Tottenham game.
We’ve got Anthony Martial and Alexis Sanchez highlighted on either wing where they focus on Spurs’ full-backs. Pogba and Matic are in good positions centrally but there’s a lot of space outside of them in either half-space. Tottenham use this space cleverly as Son forces Valencia down and Alli comes into the left half-space and receives possession, forcing Pogba and Matic to move. What if Martial and Sanchez would have started in the positions highlighted by black circles? They would both have access to press Tottenham’s full-backs, prevent passes through midfield line and increase the compactness of the midfield. Mourinho’s approach with his wingers increases the opponent’s space centrally, which is more important and dangerous than the wide spaces. This naturally gives Pogba and Matic problems, and when Pogba wanders off from his position then Matic has an impossible job to do on his own. If Mourinho continues to insist Pogba has to play in a midfield two, the least he could do for his team’s chances of success is move his wingers inside to lessen the impact Pogba’s poor positioning has on the balance of the team.
Manchester United really need to solve this problem as quickly as possible. Paul Pogba is their best player by a mile, but his weaknesses are highlighted in the position he is played in. That is detrimental to him, to his manager and to his club. Jose Mourinho need to change his approach in order to get Pogba to flourish even more in attack, to make his defense more solid and to improve the overall balance of the side. It should also be remembered that United have the best defensive record in the Premier League with only 18 goals conceded and 15 clean sheets. The problem has mainly occurred in big games, and with the end of the season and the Champions League looming large, United can’t afford many more losses. It seems Mourinho has a set of players who’ll always start which includes Antonio Valencia, Matic, Pogba and Lukaku. Now we can add Sanchez to that list. For United’s benefit, Mourinho might do well to rotate his attacking players in a front three with Pogba in a freer, more attacking role where he’s protected by Matic and someone like Herrera. Or he could change the formation with the existing players and play Lingard and Pogba in front of Matic with the wingers more tucked in to block central access for the opponent. Their are multiple solutions to Mourinho’s problem. He must have identified the issue. Now it’s up to him to fix it.