Jose Mourinho may be one big loss away from seeing his Manchester United tenure come to an end. Much has been said about the philosophy of the Portuguese tactician and how his job ought to be safe. However, a brand like Manchester United in its present stage cannot afford to play mediocre football.
Even though it is a tested feat that sacking managers mid-season rarely has the desired effect, it is the most tangible of decisions that can be made to reflect a sense of order. At the moment, order is precisely what the Red Devils seem to be lacking, and one potential gaffer who can step in and change that is Eddie Howe.
This analysis works under the premise of a winter window sacking, although if United do stick with Mourinho, the Bournemouth manager could still be a potential long-term option to consider.
First things first, let us get out of the way all the reasons why Howe may not be the ideal United gaffer. Despite his dream tale with the Cherries, the Englishman doesn’t have a daunting European resume nor the reputation that could continue to attract big names to Old Trafford.
However, the latter may not be necessary, which will be analyzed later. Further, the appointment of Howe would certainly mean obvious changes to the present setup, an act that would bring United back to the vicious cycle of adjusting post-SAF.
Despite all this, Howe could still be a worthwhile investment with regard to tactical brilliance, and here’s why.
In terms of shape, the gaffer prefers a 4-4-2 style with a tendency of functioning as a 4-4-1-1 late during games. This is a daunting change from the 4-3-3 that Mourinho currently prefers, and would limit the importance of the holding midfielder that has been the crucial difference in the side’s tactics over the past two seasons. However, if done right, the opposing effect of the midfielders could be reminiscent of the present set-up.
What this formation would retain is the vitality of full-backs, a feat that may be taken to the next level. A typical Howe side is heavily reliant on its wide-men, with the penetrating full-back often even going ahead of the winger to establish the crosses and linkups that result in goals. The young duo of Shaw and Dalot scream of this kind of pairing, and United may just be able to make the ideal use of their currently star-studded bench too.
The side’s backline could be joined by a familiar face. Already Nathan Ake has been linked to United, but Howe could certainly speed up things in that regard. Paired with Lindelof, this could be the apt defensive partnership for Old Trafford.
Howe’s altered shape will see a non-parallel deployment of the central midfielders. One will function more as a defensive cover, akin to a holding midfielder. This is tailored to the abilities of Fred, although it can also be utilized by the likes of Pereira or Herrera during a rotational role.
This deep role is in contrast to what Pogba is likely to be used as, with an advanced position likely to be assigned to the Frenchman. This would seem him fulfill a more disciplined, box-to-box duty.
In this regard, Fred’s role can be compared to that of Lerma while Pogba can be deployed akin to Lewis Cook.
The next big change would be the incorporation of the second striker, who primarily functions as the conduit between the midfield and primary striker. This role can be fulfilled by a plethora of talents at the club, with Marcus Rashford, Alexis Sanchez, and Anthony Martial being the obvious candidates. In particular, the tendency of Sanchez/Lingard at finding space can be compared to that of Joshua King. Further, both these talents have a knack for high-pressing, which shall be dealt with shortly. At the same time, this setup requiring true wingers may be a sour point given the strong centralizing tendency of most of the players that are currently deployed by Mourinho in those spots.
Further, the comparison between Rashford and Fraser, while not obvious, certainly provides room for some experimenting. Under Howe, the young Englishman could prove his versatility and function in a creative role up front. This can put him in a spot to both score and assist.
Next, Howe will likely bring to the side the much-needed tactic of high-pressing. Used to brilliant success across European powerhouses, the Mancunian giants are the rare team that have been hesitant to fully utilize it. Fortunately, this is a trademark Howe tactic, with winning the ball back up-front being given a crucial level of significance at Bournemouth. Moreover, with the sacking of Mourinho likely robbing the side of its defensive identity, high-pressing may be a shot-in-the-arm solution to retain a semblance of that reputation.
This also works well with his simple philosophy of an attacking and possession-based football that is powered by patient build-up, and isn’t afraid of rotating possession when chances don’t pan out.
However, the most daunting difference he’ll bring to the illustrious club is with his knack of developing individuals for specific roles. Many pundits have commented that United’s star-studded lineup fails to succeed due to a failure on part of Mourinho to deploy his lads where they are best suited. Howe’s philosophy empowers individuals to give their best and develop for the full set-up, a feat that could work wonders with the likes of Martial, Lingard, and Rashford, and would give even more importance to the twilight talents of Herrera, Mata, and Fellaini.
Further, if United sign Howe, it would mark the end of their experiment with spending big in the market. The gaffer’s penchant for developing young talent is quite telling. Given the strong academy that United already boast of, plus the kind of youth presently dotting their roster, a return could be seen to the classic Red Devils philosophy – of nurturing youngsters into legends.
However, the obvious question that this leaves is what becomes of the likes of Pogba and De Gea, individual figures who often eclipse that of the club. Managing United is more than just leading the club to victory, and Jose Mourinho has already seen this season how damaging a task building rapport could be. If a well-experienced gaffer struggles at this task, how will Howe fare?
All in all, signing him would be a bold move on part of the club, one that would mark a strong desire to return to their roots and establish a new philosophy. Many have compared Howe to the likes of Guardiola, but if done right and led properly, he could even ape what Sir Alex Ferguson oh so memorably achieved at the Theatre of Dreams.