In the immediate aftermath of Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat vs. Manchester City on Saturday, Jose Mourinho was quick to criticise his players. He complained that some of them were “below the level” required, a surprisingly bold statement at such an early stage of his reign. Although he inevitably avoided naming individuals, we can be sure that the performances of Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan — both sacrificed at half-time — did not impress.
The pair struggled in different ways. Mkhitaryan was unable to get involved from the right flank while Lingard desperately struggled on the left, twice mishandling simple short passes out of play. It was no surprise when both were substituted, especially considering that Mourinho is renowned for making bold double-substitutions at early stages.
Both men will be afforded further opportunities, of course, especially Mkhitaryan considering his price tag and hugely impressive spell at Borussia Dortmund. But it is Lingard who has a more obvious place in Mourinho’s United squad.
Saturday’s poor performance aside, Lingard has demonstrated that he is a versatile, hardworking and efficient midfielder with an eye for the big occasion, as he proved with his spectacular FA Cup final winner against Crystal Palace in May. Technically Lingard is decent rather than spectacular, but it’s that type of player that Manchester United depended so much upon during the Sir Alex Ferguson years: the squad players often brought through the club’s academy system.
Mkhitaryan is another story altogether. The Armenian playmaker doesn’t feel like the type of player Mourinho prefers, at least not from a wide position. He’s not defensively solid enough to play a deep midfield role, especially if Paul Pogba is occupying one of those positions, and he probably lacks the outright speed to play wide — at least in the type of side Mourinho usually builds.
In truth, Mkhitaryan isn’t the type of footballer Manchester United have embraced over the past 15 seasons. When they’ve signed a high-profile attacking midfielder, managers have either refused to change their system to accommodate them or have changed their system and found it unworkable. Among plenty of talk about a distinct Manchester United “philosophy” since Mourinho’s appointment, few have highlighted the idea that the philosophy doesn’t always suit creative, technical playmakers.
The best example is Juan Sebastian Veron. Signed in 2001 for a club-record transfer fee, Veron’s arrival (along with that of Ruud van Nistelrooy) marked Ferguson’s intention to switch from a two-striker system as United’s default to more of a 4-5-1. This caused more disruption than anticipated. While a fabulously talented footballer, Veron was also peculiar in a tactical sense. Somewhere between a No. 10 and a deep-lying playmaker, his play was aesthetically pleasing, but it was difficult to quantify precisely what he brought to United’s attack.
There was a backlash from United fans against the idea Veron was an outright flop, but for a club-record fee he was a disappointment, and the knock-on effects weren’t helpful either. Paul Scholes, for example, didn’t like being moved to a more advanced role.
That can now be considered a historical aside, but more recent developments are concerning. In 2012, United signed Shinji Kagawa; like Mkhitaryan, he was signed from Dortmund after Ferguson was blown away by his counter-attacking displays. The idea, it seemed, was for the Japanese playmaker to operate behind Wayne Rooney, who would reprise the No. 9 role he’d played expertly a couple of seasons earlier.
But then Robin van Persie became available. Ferguson couldn’t resist signing the Dutchman ahead of his final campaign, and Rooney played as a No. 10 instead. Ferguson did his best to accommodate Kagawa where possible, even switching to a diamond midfield, a system seldom seen at United. Kagawa performed reasonably well but not enough to displace Rooney or convince Ferguson that a diamond was the permanent way forward. Kagawa eventually returned to Dortmund having made little impact.
Juan Mata was next, signed midway through David Moyes’ lone season. He was generally accommodated out wide as, again, Rooney’s dominance of the No. 10 position meant the Spaniard rarely played his favoured central role. Mata has been useful throughout his United spell but hasn’t come close to replicating his electric displays for Chelsea, where he was twice voted the club’s player of the year (in two seasons in which the club tasted European success). He’s contributed regularly with goals and notched a fair number of assists, too, but he hasn’t dictated the play as one might expect, in part because it’s difficult from a wide role.
Then there was Angel Di Maria, another club-record buy who arrived at the start of Louis van Gaal’s reign. He began brightly, driving forward from the left of midfield and picking up a succession of assists, but his form dipped badly in the second half of the campaign. He was also fielded in a bizarre range of positions, including occasionally being asked to play up front; it was a baffling approach from Van Gaal considering that Di Maria had proved capable of running midfield and providing regular assists at Real Madrid. Often it appeared he and Rooney were playing in each other’s roles.
It’s not as ifUnited have rejected the concept of a playmaker entirely: Scholes, for example, is among the most revered players in United’s recent history. But it’s worth remembering that Scholes was always highlighted by Ferguson as a player for United’s post-Eric Cantona period, with the manager believing a midfielder in Scholes’ mould was incompatible with a deep-lying forward like Cantona.
Has Rooney essentially restricted the potential of Kagawa, Mata and Di Maria? It’s open season on criticising Rooney at the moment for both club and country. But Mkhitaryan is yet another player who prefers the No. 10 position the United captain inhabits and on the basis of the past couple of seasons, he is more deserving of that prominent role.
Mata and Mkhitaryan must hope Mourinho sorts it out soon. More performances like the first half on Saturday and the outcome will be that Mourinho scraps the 4-2-3-1 entirely in favour of a 4-3-3. Then, no one will get to play as a No. 10 and playmakers will continue to struggle at United.