Manchester United battled to a 1-1 draw on the banks of the Don River earlier tonight, which, given the hostile surroundings, the silly refereeing, and the atrocious pitch, is probably not the worst outcome for them. What was more interesting however was that Mourinho deployed his troops in a 3-5-2 formation, which was something unexpected from him and possibly meaningful ahead of Monday night’s match at Stamford Bridge.
Well that was pretty ugly. No real quality at all but United did enough. Great result in horrible conditions.— Rob Dawson (@RobDawsonMEN) March 9, 2017
Three at the back isn’t necessarily new to Mourinho; we saw it used as the default chase-the-game formation at Chelsea, when he would take off the left back (Azpilicueta), throw on a striker, and play a back three of Cahill, Terry, and Ivanovic. But it’s not something I recall him ever using as a starting formation at Chelsea, or at any of his other jobs for that matter.
As we can see from the pass maps above, Rostov basically played a 3-4-3, which Mourinho tried to counter with the direct 3-5-2. That sentence would also make sense if we substituted Rostov with Chelsea.
“...we have to try to create a team with qualities to fight against a hard opponent and difficult conditions so we try to adapt, to be solid, to be competitive because we have to manage to get a result. I don’t think it’s a passing game, I don’t think it’s a game for creation or great dynamic, it will be more direct, more flighted than played, so let’s go for it.”
-Jose Mourinho; source: MEN
Manchester United would not be the first team to try to match Chelsea with a three-man defense, though as they themselves experienced today and may have seen others try and fail spectacularly (see: Everton), it’s not an easy thing to switch away from something tried and true to something new and unknown.
And for all we know, this was truly just a one-off for Mourinho and he will be back to the 4-2-3-1 on Monday. But Chelsea ripped that setup apart back in the fall, so perhaps a tweak or two is truly in order for them.