There was no subtly or artistry to Jose Mourinho’s determination to get a victory at the Riverside Stadium on Sunday afternoon. With twenty-one minutes left Mourinho brought on Marcos Rojo for Juan Mata, which suddenly meant that all four of Manchester United’s centre-backs were on the field as part of a formation that could easily have been interpreted as a 6-2-1-1.
It almost back-fired, too. Before Marcos Rojo’s emergence, Manchester United had managed to contain Middlesbrough with ease, and looked more likely to pick them off on the counter-attack than concede. But then United started to drop deeper, and for Rudy Gestede’s Middlesbrough goal not only were Rojo, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly practically stepping on each other’s toes as they bundled together just outside of the six-yard box, but in its build-up Rojo was beaten in the air by Alvaro Negredo, Jones hoofed a clearance that only added to the confusion, Marten De Roon then towered above Bailly and powered his header into Smalling’s feet, whose inability to control saw the ball drop to Gestede, and he scored.
Suddenly Middlesbrough had some initiative with 15 minutes left to play, and it was only after Victor Valdes’ slip, and Antonio Valencia’s subsequent tap-in, that Manchester United’s victory was finally secure. But while the introduction of Marcos Rojo might was probably a little excessive, it provided an insight into what we can expect towards the tail end of the season from United, as Mourinho traded attacking showmanship for a defensive pragmatism in his pursuit of victory. At this point of the season that’s all that matters.
That’s also why United started their third successive game with a three-man defence, as Jose Mourinho looked to juggle his tired and injury ravaged squad, while still making sure that they were solid at the back and capable of attacking. With the pacey Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard stretching the Middlesbrough defence at one end of the field, the evergreen Ashley Young on the left, tireless Antonio Valencia on the right, and Marouane Fellaini providing an aerial threat, United put in a very solid and professional performance against a Middlesbrough team looking to impress following Aitor Karanka’s midweek sacking.
It’s a line-up that won’t work against every opposition, but it showed the depth of Manchester United’s roster, especially with Anthony Martial and Henrik Mkhitaryan on the bench, Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended, and Paul Pogba injured. With United having looked particularly jaded and tired in the ELF Cup Final and their draws with Bournemouth and FC Rostov, Mourinho’s decision to adopt a new formation has provided a wake-up call to the players, and it could be the perfect jolt to the system going into United’s last 16 games of the season across Europe and the Premier League.