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Unraveling the conundrum of Manchester United's starting XI

Written by: Tushaar Sachdeva

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As the Red Devils' boss grapples with doubts over his own future and a disappointing start to the season, we try to zero in on his best team.

After scraping past Leicester City in their Premier League opener, Jose Mourinho's much-fancied Manchester United side are stuck in limbo right now, following their recent losses to Brighton and Hove Albion and Tottenham Hotspur.

The Old Trafford outfit were expected to keep up the winning momentum after their opening victory against Claude Puel's side. But, the situation doesn't seem hunky-dory at all after conceding three goals in the first half against the Sussex side. Furthermore, injuries to Alexis Sanchez, Antonio Valencia, Marcus Rojo, Nemanja Matic and Diogo Dalot, show that Lady Luck is not in line with the red side of Manchester.

While the confusion regarding the team's captain seems to be over, the recent wantaway stories surrounding Paul Pogba have made things look a bit messy. Against Tottenham, United fielded a 3-5-1-1 formation, with Antonio Valencia wearing the armband.

Drifting into his third season, it seems Jose Mourinho is yet to find his best XI, let alone a preferred formation. With the squad at his disposal, we frame the team in a way that might provide good results, but could likely not be to Mourinho's taste.

Was it the lack of clinical finishing or a leaky defense that cost them the game?

Goalkeeper

Is there any dilemma for the man between the posts? No, but David de Gea has been underperforming by his own high standards and one can partly put that down to the sheer number of shots he has to repel in a game. 

He, of all the goalkeepers at Carrington, stands out as the best. Agreed, that he has not been the best since the start of the FIFA World Cup, but who would replace him? Sergio Romero? He is injured for an unforeseen period. Lee Grant? the third-choice keeper currently sits on the bench, but is nowhere close to De Gea's level.



The Spaniard was sloppy when he first arrived, but conceding just 28 goals last season in 37 games ,with 18 clean-sheets was no child's play.

Defense

United have quite a large pool in this department. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Rojo, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof are options for the centre-back position, while Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, new-recruit Diogo Dalot, Luke Shaw and Ashley Young take up the full-back roles.

Smalling and Valencia have been underdogs. Yes, they are error-prone. Yes, they have cost the team some crucial matches, but their work-rate is extraordinary. Alongside them, Bailly has impressed since his debut. He is fast, physical and has a knack of being the last man standing, with tackles that are mostly effective.

However, It was him that cost United a goal against Brighton in the second game, but which centre-back has never been error-prone? The central pairing of him and Smalling might provide the team the stability they need at the back.

Watch: Eric Bailly largely impressed in his debut season 

The left flank has been a problem since Patrice Evra left. Shaw came in, had a lot in him, but regular injuries cost him more than two seasons. But, it seems now, that Mourinho is beginning to trust him.

Scenario A - Four-Man Defence

Valencia, Bailly, Smalling and Shaw make United's best back four on current form. Who else? The Red Devils do not have a better right-back than the Ecuadorian, who possesses an ample amount of pace and his work-rate is better than most in defense. Bailly is fast, Smalling is firm and experienced. All in all, the quartet bring a good mix to the table.

Scenario B - Three-Man Defense

Bailly on the right, the specialist ball-playing defender, Lindelof in the middle and Smalling on the left. Lindelof is also error-prone, perhaps more than any other player in the squad, but his ball-playing ability is second to none.

Midfield

Manchester United have Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Andreas Pereira, Fred, Juan Mata, Mourane Fellaini, Scott McTominay and Jesse Lingard to play in the midfield.

Mourinho has traditionally liked to defend with six and attack with four, typically his system has two central defensive midfielders, sitting ahead of the four-man defense, before three attacking players and a striker, in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But, since coming to Old Trafford, he has shifted, twisted, reformed and changed his formation from time-to-time. However, one man has stayed integral to his plans, Pogba.

The French World Cup winner was a regular starter in Mourinho's first season and the second. The inclusion of Matic did give him a bit of relief, but still not enough for him to be at his lethal best.

The classic diamond that haunted clubs under Sir Alex Ferguson

Scenario A - Four-Man Midfield (Diamond)

Matic playing as a CDM, Pereira on the right and Pogba on the left in the middle of the park. Why not Fred? Because he has been awful. He has had a disastrous start to the campaign. Pereira, on the other hand, is versatile and can also fit into a traditional 4-2-3-1 shape.

The final cog in the system? Alexis Sanchez playing in the hole. Let's face it, his arrival has disturbed the development of the squad and its balance. To yield the most out of him, it would be best to field him in this role. He is street-smart, he has the vision and moreover, he's fast. He can drift onto either wing for support or shoot from distance.

Scenario B - Three-Man Midfield with Wing-Backs

Valencia and Shaw playing the wing-back roles, Matic and Pogba shifting roles from defense to attack as needed. Matic played this style under Antonio Conte at Chelsea and would be appropriate for it, with Pogba responsible for the distribution of balls all over the final third, as was evident in the 2-0 home win against Chelsea in the 2016-17 season.

Lingard sits in front of the midfield base, stringing opportunities on either wing and the middle.

The most crucial thing for this formation will be the performances of Pogba and Sanchez

Attack

The forward line of United, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku, Sanchez and sometimes Lingard, share 218 Premier League goals and 103 assists between them, but they have lacked goals in recent times. Tactically, the frontline has three strikers, but both Rashford and Martial have drastically deteriorated on the wings.

The lack of a natural right winger is evident. The position has been troublesome for a while now. Since the departure of Nani and Wilfred Zaha, Angel di Maria was brought in, followed by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but none of them worked out.

United Fans are direly calling for the manager to play Martial

What makes a team a threat? Goals. A great team shall either have the greatest attack or the best synchronization to collectively produce a goal. Leicester City proved that to great effect two seasons ago.

Scenario A - Two-Man Attack

Martial is arguably the best player in the squad. He is fast, his first-touch is second to none in the league. Yet, he now finds his seat either on the bench or off it. He has a knack of spinning defenders, making them fall, while he leaps towards goal.

The flair of his right foot makes him best for the left side of the striker duo, with Lukaku on the right.

Scenario B - Two-Man Attack

Lukaku is a threat, well he has been a bit silent over the past few months, but teams never write him off. He is lethal, especially with on-par forwards, who can shift in and out to the wings to feed him with service.

Partnering him and playing just ahead of Lingard would be Sanchez. He is versatile and can drift anywhere on the park to help his team, especially to score.


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Bench

The bench would stay the same for either scenario, starting with Grant in the absence of Romero and keeping Jones as a backup centre-back. Young is an asset to the squad. He can defend or attack on either wing. Keeping him on the bench gives United the benefit of bringing him on in several positions.

The fourth player? Fellaini. Let's cut to the chase, he's not a 90-minute starter, but his heading ability is a threat in the last quarter of the game. McTtominay could be included in his place as well. Next up would be Herrera and Fred. Both of them can play anywhere on the pitch, but if it is for Scenario Two, Pereira should be given the nod ahead of Herrera.

The last spot goes to Rashford, as his pace makes him a good option to bring off the bench in the final minutes of a match, if you need to stretch the opposition.

Published: Wed Aug 29, 2018 10:54 PM IST

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