Manchester United are comeback kings once again. So far in 2018, no fewer than 9 separate occasions have existed where the Reds went down a goal or two and then managed to come back, out of which only the recent Chelsea game was the one where they didn’t secure all three points.
This is indicative of a traditional United style, and one that opposition managers will become quite wary of, going into games against Jose Mourinho’s evolved tactics.
Let us have a closer look at the measures and features that the Portuguese gaffer employs in order to engineer these memorable comebacks.
Firstly, it is important to note that in nearly all of these cases save the recent Juventus game and last season’s Manchester derby at the Etihad, the need for a comeback was necessitated by United’s poor defensive shape in the first half. The recent games against Bournemouth and Newcastle are specific instances where the path to victory was through amendments to their defensive flaws late in the game.
Mourinho achieves this by waiting till the second half, a feature that has ensured that most of the club’s recent antics have been branded as games of two halves. He primarily does this by changing the shape of the side. This usually comes about through a conversion to a back-three, with the holding midfielder switching to support the centre-backs. The other, more adventurous option is when the two centre-backs are left as United’s final line of defense, with all the midfielders crowding the opposition box to pose threats.
Regardless, in both of these cases, the wing-backs undergo a proper attacking transformation, often leading them to press quite high and hold balls deep into the other side. This is rewarded by the presence of the likes of Lukaku or impact substitutions like Fellaini and Herrera, who have a knack for clinically finishing the long balls into the back of the net.
Hence, the likes of Shaw, Young, and Valencia often function as true wingers to supply dangerous balls into a crowded box. Another key feature in this ploy is when the likes of Martial and Rashford secure the flanks initially freed up by the high runs of the full-backs, thus blocking counter-attacks as well.
Next, United tend to choke the supply of the opposing side. This tactic is usually left till late in the game, and after the opposing manager has made a defense-minded substitution. Once that occurs, their ability for counter-attacking is reduced considerably, like the case against Juventus, when Allegri removed Sciglio and Cuadrado from the lineup. This provides the side ample courage to press further.
They achieve this by creating much space and choking the attack of the next team. By blocking their winged route, sides are often forced to play through United’s midfield, where they are met with a crowded space and outnumbered by red shirts. This was particularly evident late in the games against Manchester City and both the fixtures against Chelsea.
Further, it is the role of Paul Pogba that plays tactical importance. Even though the likes of Martial, Rashford, Mata, and Fellaini have been supplying the side with their decisive late goals, the buildup is engineered by the Frenchman. Early on in the second halves of these comebacks, even before any substitutions are made, full use is made of Pogba’s wandering threat.
The World-Cup winner has shown fluid shifts from a regista role above the centre-backs to an all-out no.10 to create the attacking presence that has proven decisive in their recent Premier League outings. His versatility plays further importance, as he too, possesses clinical ability during set-pieces, which have also been a keen source of their late goals.
In terms of other individual contributions, the presence of Sanchez, Mata, and Herrera may be opted by Mourinho to that of Rashford and Lingard, since the experiences of the former leads them to be more likely to make use of open spaces than the youngsters, as evident in the outings against Chelsea and Spurs. At the same time, the reason the impact substitutions of Rashford and Martial work so well in these instances is the sheer pace they bring into the game, giving the entire lineups a fresh breath of life.
All in all, there is more to attaining these fantastic Fergie/Jose time goals than meets the eyes. There is no doubt that an element of luck is also involved, but Mourinho’s intentional shifts to a more attacking style of play display tactical superiority as well. It will be interesting to see how many more such comebacks the side will be able to engineer in the future.