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United system at Watford could be winning formula

Many Manchester United fans longing for a return to the free-flowing attacking days of old got their wish for the visit of Newcastle to Old Trafford two weeks ago.

Jose Mourinho swallowed his conservative pride and plumped for a front three, and the result was a return to the four-goal successes that United fans had become accustomed to earlier in the season.

Problem solved, and with the team playing the “United way”, the goals would continue to flow. After a laboured 1-0 win over Brighton, where an unchanged team ground out a somewhat fortunate victory by virtue of an own goal, it was back to square one.

“Sometimes you play with too many attacking players and you lose control of the game,” Mourinho said after the win. “We had a few problems defensively because [Nemanja] Matic and Pogba, they were a bit isolated in the centre of the park.”

Back to old, conservative ways

It was just as supporters feared, one bad result and it was back to the pragmatic, somewhat negative Mourinho tactics, happy to cede possession and remain, first and foremost, hard to beat. 

However, four goals flowed again on Tuesday against a Watford side that have impressed many this season, all without that dynamic front three on the pitch at the same time. Was this the system to eek the very best out of this vastly talented United squad?

Mourinho went with a 3-4-3, which is rather adventurous on the road, but it still offers plenty of defensive protection. Three centre-backs rigid stay in position, wing-backs can drop deep and offer width interchangeably , and Matic represents one of the best first barriers in the business.

One man who benefited a great deal from the formation switch was Anthony Martial. Stuck out on the wing, or as an auxiliary left-back on occasion this season, the Frenchman has looked forlorn, unable to exhibit his array of skills that has earned him somewhat of a cult following at Old Trafford.

Martial unleashed

Restricted far too often by unfamiliar positions, fans have only been treated to glimpses of what he can do. Deployed more centrally against Watford, with the shackles cast aside, we could really see why United took the gamble to bring in the precocious teenager two years ago.

“Foremost I am a striker, it doesn’t bother me at all which position I play, when I am on the pitch I just focus on helping the team that’s all,” Martial said in an interview last year. 

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“When I score I am happier, I am a striker and that’s how it goes.” I think we get where he wants to play.

At Watford, he didn’t have to consider venturing too close to the touchline, as Ashley Young again did a fine job of stretching another opposition back line, and he didn’t have to operate as a No 10, as Jesse Lingard fulfilled that role.

Martial, just to the left of Lukaku, could therefore work in the pockets, and all his fleet-footed flamboyance needs is the smallest space, in an attacking area, to be devastating.

With Rashford fulfilling the other role on the right, and with Lukaku to factor in too, they can all get in each other’s way, as they did against Brighton – three players all desperate to score goals. Lingard, slightly deeper, lets Martial operate a few yards ahead.

Young and Valencia supply width

A look at the average positions at Vicarage Road shows Martial actually played further forward than Lukaku. Lingard wasn’t trying to steal the goalscoring limelight, well, until his incredible late solo effort.

Young and Antonio Valencia are also perfect as wing backs. Neither are exceptional at defending, but do a job. They are naturally wingers, so know are more than happy to hog the touchline, while fulfilling their defensive responsibilities. Martial, or Rashford, do not have to concern themselves with such duties.

The conundrum of how to fit Rashord and Martial in the same side could have been answered. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata or Lingard are at home as creators.

3-4-3 the way forward?

Lukaku will stay centrally, a playmaker be deployed out wide, happy with JUST creating, with Martial OR Rashford having space to do what they do best; be direct and drive for goal.

When Mourinho proclaimed United may have had too many attackers on the pitch against Newcastle, the collective groan around M16 was audible for miles around.

Here was Mourinho going back to his old, conservative ways. But what if he was right, and they were simply getting in each other’s way? 

It may mean keeping one young, hungry striker waiting in the wings, adding to their frustration, but for the greater good? Playing less strikers, may actually be the way forward, even in an attacking sense.

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