When Jose Mourinho was appointed as Manchester United manager after the FA Cup final victory over Crystal Palace, a few of the first team members were awaiting an uncertain few months as to whether they would be included in José’s plans. These players were typically associated with the failing managers that had come before; Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata as David Moyes’ men, Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia as Louis Van Gaal’s. None were given much hope of retaining their starting positions by the English media, especially with the purchases of Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Eric Bailly who all typically play in the positions occupied by the United scapegoats.
Mourinho has proved us all wrong. Valencia and Fellaini have started all three competitive games this season, despite competition from other players, and have looked like transformed men. The Ecuadorian winger-turned-defender has rediscovered his attacking intent and creativity while the Belgian looks composed in possession yet aggressive in a tackle, in huge contrast with the elbow swinging maniac who graced Old Trafford’s turf over the previous two seasons. Mata has also been retained in the first two Premier League games of the season, despite his history with Mourinho.
Now that Chris Smalling is back fit after missing the opening two games of the season through injury, it is likely that he will return to the starting eleven at the cost of Blind, after Bailly’s very impressive start to his United career. This, however, is not the end of the Dutchman at United. Blind holds a particular set of skills that can allow him to excel in a defensive midfield role for United.
You may be thinking, “hold on… United do not have many centre backs already, and loads of midfielders,(see Schweinsteiger’s exile), why would you push Blind into midfield?”
Firstly, José stereotypically likes strong and aggressive defenders. At Real Madrid, Mourinho used Pepe and Ramos; at Chelsea, Terry (twice) and Cahill/Carvalho; and at Inter Milan, Lúcio and Samuel. Blind is not like any of these players in that he is noticeably small for a centre back and not exceptionally strong either. Blind fitted into Van Gaal’s system so easily because in a possession based style-of-play it is essential for your centre backs to be able to play the ball out of defence. Mourinho is much less conservative with possession than Van Gaal was, meaning that the tall and strong partnership of Smalling and Bailly is likely to push Blind away from the centre of defence.
Secondly, United have got two very promising young centre backs knocking on the first team door in Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, the former already praised by Mourinho after his cameo against Wigan. After only just recently rectifying the very expensive mistake of letting promising players like “You Know Who” go, United will look to blend the talent into the first team sooner rather than later. With Phil Jones also waiting in the wings, United have enough cover at centre back without Blind.
Thirdly, the theory that United already have too many central midfielders is true, to an extent. Herrera, Fellaini, Schneiderlin and Pogba are all capable of playing in the deep midfield role, however, they are all more natural ‘box-to-box’ players than anchors. The most natural fit for the holding role out of the four is Schneiderlin, who was played there for the majority of last season with not a huge amount of success. Maybe that is Van Gaal, maybe that is the player himself. What is true, however, is that at Southampton, Schneiderlin excelled in a box-to-box role. Pogba was used as a holding midfielder during the Euros by Deschamps to poor effect. His talents come to the fore when he is given a free roam, allowing the Frenchman to maraud up and down the pitch like he did against Southampton last Friday. Fellaini has been used in the two opening games of the Premier League season as a holding midfielder to good effect, however, as United fans know from the last three years, Fellaini does not have the technical ability, range of passing or speed of thought to truly excel in that position against testing opposition. With Carrick’s legs going, United do not possess a true midfield ‘anchor’.Photo: @Wikimedia Commons
“Well, what kind of traits do a midfield anchor need to be successful?”
I’m glad you asked. If you look at the best midfield anchors in the world e.g. Busquets, Xabi Alonso, and (for arguments’ sake) Carrick, all three have similar play styles. All three are calm and composed in possession, have a fine range of passing and, most importantly, have a brilliant reading of the game. Busquets, probably the most effective anchor midfielder for the past decade, is so good at this that people often overlook how important he has been for Barcelona during their recent glory years. His understanding of the game allows him to make interceptions and recycle possession quickly to put Barcelona on the front foot.
While Blind, admittedly, is not Busquets, he has shown over the last two seasons that he is composed in possession and can spread the play effectively from the back. His most important attribute, the reading of the game and defensive positioning because of it, is Blind’s best argument for filling Carrick’s boots. Flash back 12 months, Blind was paired with Smalling at the centre of defence and United fans up and down the country were pulling their hair out at Van Gaal’s stupidity to start a short and weak player against the Premier League’s monster men. Ten months later, Blind and Smalling helped United achieve the joint best defensive record in the Premier League. How did Blind do so well? His reading of the game means that he rarely got caught out of position and Smalling provided the brawn to compliment Blind’s style.
Another argument for Blind to take up Carrick’s role in midfield is the players around him. With the evolution of full backs over the last few years, it has become the norm for the midfielders to squeeze the centre of the pitch and allow the full backs to become wingers. United have got two of the most attacking full backs in the Premier League in Shaw and Valencia. The drawback of these defenders bombing up the pitch is that the centre backs can be left exposed to counter attacks. Step up Daley Blind. If the Dutchman was playing in midfield, it would allow the centre backs to split and cover the wide areas while Blind took up a position centrally in front of the defence. Blind’s interceptions and passing range would be vital to United recycling the ball without dragging their midfield back to help defend.
Blind’s defensive mind-set would also give Pogba much more freedom. Fellaini does not have the defensive capabilities to give Pogba a free role in midfield currently, but if Blind played as a central anchor, flanked by Pogba and Herrera, United would have a midfield capable of defending and launching attacks effectively. Having a three-man midfield would also edge Rooney away from the starting eleven. Make of that what you will.
The huge flaw in all of this is Mourinho. The Portuguese manager is unlikely to revert to a 4-3-3 when the 4-2-3-1 has brought him so much success over the years. Furthermore, the 4-2-3-1 fits Mourinho’s counterattacking style of play, whereas the 4-3-3 with an anchor is more stereotypically associated with possession based teams. Mourinho also loves physical players, not just in the centre of defence, but all the way up the spine of the pitch which explains his decision to play Fellaini and Pogba together against Southampton.
The point still stands, however, that Blind can feasibly take up a Carrick-esque mantle. Whether Mourinho will use that is another question all together, meaning the Dutchman, if he wishes to take up the role, may have to move to another club to do so.