To look at United’s line-up before the game began, it seemed to be a clear 4-3-3. Whether Alexis Sánchez or Marcus Rashford would lead the line was up for debate, but clearly it would be a traditional front three to double up on Chelsea’s wing-backs, hopefully drawing across a centre-back to create space in the middle where Paul Pogba could make positive runs.
This is the first time in Jose Mourinho's managerial career that he has failed to win a trophy in his second season at a club.
The Special One's special formula runs out. pic.twitter.com/AXE9d7gOd7
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That would make sense, right? It would also be in line with the way United have approached other big games in 2018, taking a more proactive and direct approach to attack that made great use of width up front.
But it was not so against Chelsea, as Mourinho sent United out in a 4-3-1-2 formation and stuck with it for the entire game. A peculiar decision from the Portuguese coach. But we noticed three major things about the system as the game played out. What are they? Read on and find out!
1. It helped shut Chelsea down (sort of)
For all of Mourinho’s post-match bleating about Chelsea showing up and playing defensive football, the whole reason United played 4-3-1-2 was defensive. Their system was set up to help shut Chelsea down as a force, because Ander Herrera was tasked with man-marking the Belgian.
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Normally this would drag a third body out of the central zone as Hazard would drift all about the pitch, but in a 4-3-1-2 that “1” (in this case Jesse Lingard) is free to drop back and help out defensively. Ordinarily that’s not what happens as the whole point of this system is to liberate that “1” from too much defensive responsibility (e.g. Real Madrid and Isco) but Mourinho, in typical fashion, used it defensively.
And alright, it did help stifle the Blues. David De Gea had little do, in fact it was only when Eden Hazard managed to escape Ander Herrera’s clutch (mostly at the end when United had pushed loads of bodies forward) that Chelsea created danger. In truth the Blues only really had two good looks at David De Gea’s goal, scoring one of them from the penalty spot after Phil Jones’ series of unfortunate events.
2. It made defending easy for Chelsea
So defensively, 4-3-1-2 did its job. But offensively United were astoundingly anaemic. With Lingard dropping deep to help out, he often wasn’t ready to spring forward as he so often can do, or if he was ready to do as much there were too many bodies between him and goal. Despite the memes, Lingard is not Leo Messi. He can’t be dangerous from the positions he often found himself in.
Worse still, because United only had two central strikers ahead of three central midfielders, there was essentially no width. Occasionally Marcus Rashford would drift to the right, and late on sub Anthony Martial drifted to the left, but it wasn’t a concerted effort. Most of everything was narrow, so many of United’s attack, as well as their best players, were being funnelled into the middle.
And what was in the middle? Six Chelsea defenders, seven if you’re of the mind that N’Golo Kanté is worth two men (and defensively, it’s hard to argue against that – Kanté was great on Saturday). United were trying to pour water down a clogged drain, which unsurprisingly didn’t work at all. Antonio Rudiger and Gary Cahill had excellent games, in part because United gave them nothing but easy passes to clear.
3. United don’t have the full-backs to play 4-3-1-2 properly
Here’s the thing: 4-3-1-2 can be an incredibly effective formation.
Hell, that’s what Real Madrid used in 2016/17 to win the Champions League playing some of their best football in years. The thing is, perhaps above all else, what you need to make the system work is dominant full-backs. These guys have to be elite, because all of the team’s width depends on them.
It’s not enough that they are willing to hurtle forward; they have to be willing and able to get up and down the touchline as well as then ensuring they’re incredibly effective in the final third. And not just at the ol’ “overlap and cross” thing – often a full-back in a 4-3-1-2 is 1v1 with opposing defenders and has to create danger all by themselves. If they are capable of doing so, the formation can be deadly.
The problem United have is that their full-backs are both converted wingers, and worse still both are the wrong side of 30 and in clear decline. Ashley Young is 33 years old and while he is having his best season for years, that’s only because all his others seasons have been terrible and he’s barely featured since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club. Antonio Valencia is only 32 but somehow seemed to age about five years over the course of last summer, going from a tremendously reliable workhorse wing-back to an absolute car-crash of a defender whose crossing is ineffective at best.
Against Chelsea, Young was game for anything but lacked the dynamism to take advantage of the many chances he presented himself. He put so much into his physical prep that while he had Victor Moses on toast, he then had nothing left for the actual crossing. And it’s so telling that United’s only good spell of the game was the 25 minutes where Antonio Valencia hulked out and turned into 2010 Valencia again. Suddenly Valencia could take defenders on. Suddenly he was full of drive and purpose. And in that period United looked like they might turn it around. But then the energy left Valencia’s legs and he faded, thus so did United.
Mourinho’s desire to play 4-3-1-2 is understandable, given his predilections for defensive football, but if he wants to actually make it a viable formation against elite opponents or over the long haul of a league season, then he absolutely needs to invest in a pair of world-class full-backs. Part-timers won’t cut it. United need the cream of the crop out there. If they get that, who knows what happens?