After yet another draw in the league Manchester United have been left 4 points adrift of the top four. What went wrong for Mourinho and why did United look so toothless against Hull City?
It seems that this result might have its basis in a little bit of short term history. Since Christmas, Manchester United have played Marco Silva‘s side on three separate occasions. On aggregate, they are only 3-2 up against the former bottom of the table side. This run also included a 2-1 defeat at Hull in the league cup semi-final which, although it qualified them for the final, ended Manchester United’s 17 game unbeaten streak. Hull have continually frustrated United and last night this all came to a head with one of the most disappointing performances at Old Trafford this season. Arguably, this can be put down to one change made at half time.
After a poor first half where United had few chances Mourinho decided to bring off Michael Carrick and bring on Wayne Rooney. This is understandable because United were dominating possession in the opposition third but were struggling to score goals. It made sense to bring on a player who can create and score chances in order to find a breakthrough in a tight game. However, the loss of Carrick took away Manchester United’s tactical shape. Rooney, although a legend in his own right, offers a completely different style to Carrick. Mourinho would have known this and took a gamble by swapping the two. If it had worked, and the injection of energy and attacking intent had gained United a goal, then the game would have been forced open and Hull would have had to attack and leave space in their own half. Instead, Rooney was ineffective and could not find space in front of a well organised Hull backline guarded by Tom Huddlestone. This forced United to use space on the flanks and cross the ball into the box which meant Hull could pack out the space in their own area and continually head things away.
Tactically, the switch Mourinho made at half time created a tweaked formation for United. They had originally been playing the 433 which they have found success with for much of the season. It works with Carrick as a pivot allowing Herrera and Pogba to pick the ball up higher up the pitch and create chances for the front three. In the first half last night it looked something like this:
Carrick would sit at the base of the formation and transition the ball forward from defense into midfield sometimes through the other central midfielders and sometimes through the fullbacks. Against teams that have more attacking intent this works well because the full backs can get beyond the defensive wide midfielders and create space for either themselves or the United wingers to provide quality balls or runs into the box. Against Hull there was an issue because the defensive wingers sat deep and wouldn’t let the fullbacks get behind them. This forced united to attack more centrally but Huddlestone in defensive midfield did a brilliant job of shielding his backline. It is understandable then that Mourinho turned to Wayne Rooney, Manchester United’s new all time record goalscorer, to unlock a tough Hull team. The issue came not from the intent of Mourinho’s decision but from the shape in which it forced Hull into:
Wayne Rooney’s introduction did a number of things. Firstly, it forced Tom Huddlestone to drop even deeper to cover the new attacking midfield threat. This in turn brought Hull’s defense naturally deeper and the other central midfield players also retreated to cover the new space in their own half. This meant that, although United were getting the ball in positions higher up the pitch, the quality of possession was worse and there was much less space to maneuver in. Incidentally, this could account for why Wayne Rooney’s first touch seems to have deteriorated, there’s simply no space to play in and he’s receiving balls from distance. This also meant that players like Pogba, who provide much of United’s creativity, were made to pick up possession from deeper positions that usual and weren’t afforded the space on the flanks which is usually created by the fullbacks attacking. Basically, United decreased the area in which most of the game was played and that meant Hull defenders didn’t have to cover the same amount of area. There’s a reason Old Trafford has such a big pitch.
Ultimately, it seems that Mourinho was a little impatient and took a risk. It may seem that Carrick playing as a deep playmaker doesn’t offer enough against a defensively solid team. However, his presence would have given Manchester United a player in space to play the key passes into whatever little space was available. Also, it would have stretched the Hull midfield who would have needed to pressure Carrick and therefore created space for United in front of the back four. This is especially useful later in games when defending teams become more tired.
It seems likely that Mourinho knew all this and took the risk anyway knowing that Manchester United are expected to play an attacking style at home. In return Marco Silva set his side up well and they were excellent at adapting to changes in United’s style. Plus, Jakupovic was particularly good in net for Hull and made a number of saves against Ibrahimovic and Pogba, plus one fantastic stop against Mata, to keep the game tied. These are kinds of games where often the weaker side will concede early and then have to struggle against stronger opponents. Unfortunately, for Manchester United that first goal never came.