When Manchester United were hit with a sudden bout of defensive injuries for the trip to Southampton on Saturday, Jose Mourinho’s response was to switch to a 3-5-2 formation to protect makeshift centre halves Scott McTominay.
Neither man continued in central defence in last night’s 2-2 draw against Arsenal, but Mourinho stuck with the same system he employed at St Mary’s.
The Portuguese may view the shape as a backup for times of crisis but a deeper look shows that it may actually be United’s best formation.
Safety in numbers
The principle Mourinho applied to Matic and McTominay could easily apply to United’s first-choice central defensive options.
All of them, with the possible exception of Victor Lindelof, when fit, have a mistake in them, but having three centre halves on at any given time would allow more cover to mitigate for that.
Further, last night saw Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo stride forward from the back with far more purpose than United’s defenders usually do in a four-man backline.
Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, Ashley Young and Diogo Dalot would all be more comfortable in a wing-back role as well, so United have the players to play it.
With the possible exception of Alexis Sanchez – who is injured until the new year anyway – United do not have any natural wingers in their side.
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are strikers who can play on the left, while Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata are both better through the middle.
The 3-5-2 gets United’s more of attacking players in their best position. A front two of Martial and Rashford with Lingard behind caused problems last night and Mata and Sanchez could also play in the system.
The formation relies on energy and it is telling that United’s performance tailed off when more physical options Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba came on, but there is promise there if Mourinho sticks to it.