Jose Mourinho believes that his decision to switch to three at the back during Manchester United’s first leg 1-1 draw with FC Rostov in the Europa League last 16 “worked well”.
The Portuguese has spent the majority of this season fluctuating between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 set-up, using the latter on a more frequent basis in recent weeks.
He opted for a radically different approach in Russia, deploying a 3-5-2 system with Daley Blind and Ashley Young acting as wing backs and Henrikh Mhkitaryan featuring in a free role behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
And Mourinho, speaking after the game, noted that his side adjusted well to the differing approach.
“I think it worked very well,” he said.
“The only problem was the goal, because I think playing against these two strikers you are always in control, I had a feeling in the first-half that everything was completely under control, I didn’t see us conceding a goal and we did it.
“But they are like this, they are very direct, they don’t use the wingers, and the ball goes to the sides, it’s just to put the ball into the box, so I think the three guys in the middle had a very positive game.”
It became clear, almost as soon as the first long ball flew into the air, that Mourinho was wise to abandon his usual four-at-the-back set-up.
Playing out from the back with a conventional back four on such a bobbly, unpredictable surface would have been close to suicidal; the presence of Young and Blind at wing backs meant that the likes of Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera had an easy passing option all evening, as opposed to being consigned threading difficult – and, on this pitch, close to impossible – passes to players further up the pitch.
This new approach helped United control proceedings throughout, whilst also enabling the back-line to move the ball away quickly after collecting a long pass.
Trips like these can be deceptively calamitous, and Mourinho can rest easy on the flight home knowing that his side – somehow spared any injuries on the night – will enter the second leg as clear favourites.