Man Utd could be without Paul Pogba for eight fixtures but Jose Mourinho has plenty of options after Marouane Fellaini’s impact vs Basel.
Bottom of Form
The only positive aspect about Paul Pogba’s lay-off is another international week is nearly upon us. The timing of the October games might be welcomed this year after Pogba was seen leaving Old Trafford on crutches on Tuesday night, but he could still miss up to eight United fixtures.
Four are at home and four are away. Liverpool at Anfield on October 14 is the standout match Pogba could be absent for and United might also be deprived of him for the trip to Benfica four days later. The most testing home game could be against Everton on Sunday.
Jose Mourinho was derided for describing Marouane Fellaini as Pogba’s ‘natural replacement’ last season but the Belgian is set to fill the Frenchman’s void against his former club. Twitter might have killed Ted Cruz’s political career but it seems to have galvanised Fellaini’s at United a month after that Super Cup picture went viral. It says much about football in the social media age that a valuable player eventually won over some of his club’s online fanbase by being hit in the face with a football.
A goal, an assist and a man of the match award against Basel more than compensated for Pogba’s 19th-minute withdrawal. Fellaini proved himself as an impact substitute almost three years ago at West Brom and he has not disappointed off the bench yet this term. He was missed so much at Stoke Mourinho singled him out at his post-match press conference and ‘No Fellaini, no party’ was an oft-used tweet among United fans.
Fellaini might require additional assistance against Everton on Sunday. “The next match you can have another surprise of some player you think is going to play and is not going to play,” Mourinho teased in the Old Trafford press conference room on Tuesday night.
Everton have, depending on your interpretation, started with four different formations in their four league games this season. Ronald Koeman abandoned the back three experiment against Tottenham and they shipped as many goals as they had conceded in their previous three fixtures. It might return at another top six side.
“We’ve looked terrible with a back three,” an Evertonian told this correspondent. “Three at the back is only good if you have flying wing-backs. We have no right-back and two defensive midfielders. We never get outside of our own half.”
Michael Keane, Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams could be shielded by Morgan Schneiderlin and Idrissa Gueye, as well as maybe Tom Davies. Everton have already played at Manchester City and Chelsea this season and are winless since the opening weekend, so their visit to M16 has the makings of one of those pragmatic performances David Moyes often favoured at the old ‘big four’. Everton’s win over Moyes in December 2013 remains their only league win at United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool this century.
4-2-3-1 has served United well so far this season
Ander Herrera’s importance was bound to increase in September and his squad omission in midweek should not diminish it. United appear to be more comfortable in 4-2-3-1 this season than they were in Mourinho’s first campaign, when it was still viewed as a hangover from Louis van Gaal’s reign and inhibited Pogba.
Everton are likely to rely on the counter-attack and it is arguable Mourinho should resist matching them in midfield and focus on how United can harm them. Fellaini, for all his merits, is not as dictatorial a midfielder as Pogba is and Herrera might be more comfortable in an advanced role, where he can combine productively with Antonio Valencia down the right, and release Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Nemanja Matic, Mourinho’s pivot, has made 4-2-3-1 a success and the Serb would liberate Herrera.
United trialled three at the back during pre-season
The Basque performed poorly at Stoke and though Mourinho did not say it explicitly Herrera’s omission from the Basel squad was the penalty he had to pay for his weekend start. Herrera was overwhelmed in the Super Cup as a starter and it is possibly counter-productive to restore someone out of form at the expense of a midfielder on form.
Mourinho has the 3-5-2 option. “I think they follow the trendy tactic of five in the back that some of your colleagues like to call three but they are totally wrong, it is five,” he told a Swiss journalist who asked about Basel’s performance. Mourinho used the ‘trendy’ description after Stoke earned a point and he trialled a back three during pre-season to prepare for reticent teams.
4-3-3 did not work at Stoke
It could also stimulate United’s attack. Mkhitaryan behind Romelu Lukaku, supplemented by advanced midfielders Fellaini and Herrera with width from Antonio Valencia and maybe Ashley Young, is a worthy counter-measure against Everton, with Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata three game-changers to call upon off the bench.
Mourinho did seem to suggest there would be no back three. “If you want to anticipate the next weekend I probably play Bailly and Jones because today they didn’t play,” he added. “Because they are fresh, because it makes sense for them to play again.”
Eidur Gudjohnsen played under Mourinho and Pep Guardiola and once commented the prime difference between them was the Portuguese focused on the opposition whereas Guardiola worried about his own side. Mourinho watched Leicester’s pulsating defeat at Arsenal three times to prepare Bailly and Jones for Jamie Vardy, but maybe he is adjusting the balance now he understands his players better.
That’s another positive.