Manchester United’s physicality will win them games this season, writes NICK VAN RENSBURG.
Height and muscle – two things you would not have associated with the Red Devils during the Louis van Gaal era.
The Dutchman has always been a fan of the more cerebral operator. The talented but diminutive Juan Mata (1.71m, 61kg) for instance, topped the appearances list in 2015-16 with 38, and barring the presence of Marouane Fellaini’s 1.94m frame in midfield, it’s a theme that carried right through the team with Daley Blind (1.78m), Anthony Martial (1.81m) and Wayne Rooney (1.76m) getting plenty of minutes.
You only need to look at the club’s set-piece statistics in 2015-16 to see the lack of balance in the physical make-up of Van Gaal’s squad. Their 10 goals from set pieces last season placed them second last on the list – beating out only relegation fodder Aston Villa’s nine – while at the other end of the pitch they weren’t much better.
They displayed a shocking fallibility while defending at set pieces, with their 3-2 loss to West Ham in the last game at the old Boleyn Ground proving a nadir for Van Gaal’s defence, who were unable to cope with Dimitri Payet’s accurate delivery from dead ball situations and cracked under the pressure of a must-win game.
Mourinho’s recruitment policy shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has watched his teams over the years. His love of a good big ’un was perfectly illustrated when he returned to Chelsea for his second stint in 2014, sanctioning a deal for burly Serbian defender Nemanja Matic’s return to the club to play a crucial role in their successful 2014-15 title challenge.
Enter Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly. At 1.95, 1.90 and 1.87m respectively. Mourinho’s signings have transformed the physical dimensions of the team, with United suddenly boasting set-piece options – offensively and defensively – across the pitch, especially if Pogba is paired with Fellaini in central midfield, as was the case in their 2-0 home win over Southampton.
United are suddenly a tall, physical team, with the balance in the squad required to play in different ways and execute multiple game plans. Opponents are not going to be able to outmuscle the Old Trafford outfit as easily as last season.
Ibrahimovic perfectly illustrated the danger for teams coming up against Mourinho’s team, with two muscular headed goals, one in their Charity Shield win, while he also took full advantage of a dipping Rooney cross in the Southampton game, powering over the back of Jose Fonte to slot the ball into the net.
Height makes good crosses into great ones, and with Ibrahimovic, Pogba, and Fellaini to aim for, expect this United team to be close to the top in terms of crossing statistics by season’s end. And of course, as in any Mourinho-coached team, these three, along with Bailly will be asked to do their bit defensively, negating United defensive fallibility against muscular operators like West Ham’s Andy Carroll or Everton’s Romelu Lukaku.
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