Manchester United kicked off their pre-season tour with a 5-2 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy at the StubHub Centre in Los Angeles. Largely untroubled throughout the night, José Mourinho set the team up in an unconventional 3-5-2 formation which he only used on two occasions last season.
Mourinho did admit that he was doing so in order to try out the forward partnership of new signing Romelu Lukaku and the in-form Marcus Rashford, but was also adamant that he would return to his preferred four-at-the-back system in the near future, should his new plans fail to satisfy him completely. In this trial run, it worked out perfectly, but with the options United possess in defence, it looks unlikely to stick for the long run.
Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Daley Blind, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf are United’s current senior options at centre-back with Marcos Rojo out until at least December, while Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah have had sporadic appearances amongst the first team.
Last season, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea became the first club to win the Premier League by consistently deploying a three-at-the-back system, with his tactics earning plaudits the world over. In recent years, there has been a shift in tactics in the Premier League, with several other clubs including Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City choosing this emerging method for their success.
Mourinho, however, has been successful with his tried-and-tested methods and he should continue with the same this season, especially considering the core he has in defence – Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf. Both centre-halves were bought into the club under Mourinho himself and with both at 23 years of age, they are sure to be the backbone at the club over an extended period of time.
Lindelöf and Bailly can Form a Partnership for the ages at Old Trafford
Manchester United have always had a renowned partnership at the back which plays a major role in determining their success. Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce were the men at the back that allowed Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to win four out of the first five Premier League titles in the ’90s, while Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić were the force in the late 2000s as United romped to multiple titles once again as well as a Champions League honour in 2008.
Not since Vidić’s injury problems in late 2011 have United had two consistent defenders at the back, but Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf could very well change that.
The Ivorian already proved his worth last season and is one of the best centre-halves in the league with his no-nonsense style being a major influence on United’s fine defensive record where they conceded just 29 league goals – the second-best record, with only Tottenham’s 26 bettering it. His brash style is the perfect counter-balance for what his hopeful partner Victor Lindelöf brings: calmness and composure at the back.
It’s very rare to see José Mourinho signing a centre-half who is good on the ball, but the signing of Lindelöf suggests he might be shifting away from his more accustomed “get-the-job-done” style and bringing in more control to games. His passing percentages stand out the most, having completed a whopping 90% of his passes in the Portuguese Primera Liga last season with Benfica. At the same time, he maintains a fantastic range of passing, with his long-passes almost always reaching its intended target; an attribute that will be key to the increasing average height at Manchester United.
While Mourinho already possesses a quintessential ball-playing centre-half in the form of Daley Blind, Lindelöf brings something that Blind has always been exposed of in the Premier League—pace and height. The Swede brings aerial prowess at the back which is crucial to the physical nature of the Premier League, and that will be tested to the maximum against some of the most powerful forwards in England. He also brings about calmness in his tackle and times them perfectly, but it will be a much harder task at his new club with the speed and volatility being at a completely different level.
Bailly had a sensational first season in England, showing off his speed and strength in the early months of the season. He picked up an injury in the middle of it, but returned in January and became the first name on Mourinho’s team sheet for almost every game. An integral part of their Europa League success, he played a crucial role in the competition, but unfortunately missed out on the final. His strengths match well with that of Lindelöf’s, with his own aerial duel success percentage standing at nearly 58%.
Bailly’s aggressive style was often criticised last season, but with the signing of Lindelöf, he has found the perfect complement to his abilities. Reminiscent of the Vidić and Ferdinand partnership of old, with Bailly playing the immense Serb and Lindelöf taking on the Ferdinand mould, this new partnership can last the test of time and can be at the heart of the club’s successes for years to come.
Tall, powerful and highly skillful, Lindelöf and Bailly prove that Mourinho’s three-man defence system will not be as successful as he hopes at the back. The Portuguese manager has two solid centre-halves at his disposal and has a level of assurance at the back for a prolonged period of time.