As Cristiano Ronaldo’s standoff with Real Madrid continues, alerting Manchester United to his possible availability, it’s easy to forget that Jose Mourinho has other plans for his team’s attack.
In tactical terms, they are arguably far more intriguing. This is because it has recently become clear that he has been pursuing not one outstanding talent at centre-forward, but two — Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata, and Torino’s Andrea Belotti. Many considered that Morata, 24, and Belotti, 23, were merely different options, but Mourinho’s pursuit of them at the same time suggests he may be looking to field two central strikers regularly next season. After all, it would be surprising if he bought players of this calibre only to consign one of them to the bench for long periods.
The cynics might argue that this is exactly what Mourinho did with Henrikh Mkhitaryan last season, but then again the Armenia playmaker’s integration into the team did not go entirely to plan. Mourinho’s pursuit of these players shows he is very keen to address Manchester United’s very poor scoring record in the Premier League last season, when they amassed a paltry 54 goals in 38 matches — 31 fewer than champions Chelsea, and one fewer than ninth-placed Bournemouth. It also implies that he does not yet trust Marcus Rashford to be prolific, although it is clear that he believes in his big-game temperament.
Should both Morata and Belotti arrive at Old Trafford, there is of course the option the former could play on the wing, as he did for some time under Mourinho at Real Madrid. Yet that seems unlikely to happen too often, since a key reason the Spain international wishes to move is to get regular games as a starter, presumably in his preferred position. In any event, Mourinho is also said to be making a move for Ivan Perisic, Inter Milan’s skillful and hard-working left-winger, and so he may feel that he will already have sufficient depth in that position.
It is perhaps best to see Mourinho’s latest bout of shopping as a sign he is going to be tactically flexible this season, alternating between a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-1-2 formation. There were games last year where it felt Mourinho was too cautious, leaving a third man in midfield when only two would have done the trick.
His signing of defender Victor Lindelof from Benfica shows a willingness to push the play higher up the pitch, given the Sweden international is excellent at playing the ball out from the back. Lindelof’s presence will allow United to dictate terms, particularly at home, where they drew so often and so frustratingly last season. The transfers of Belotti and Morata would therefore represent a significant statement of intent. Both are strong, with excellent technique, movement and link-up play. They would give United far greater dynamism in the final third that they showed in the previous 12 months. Belotti is presently the better finisher, with Morata, though his strike rate last season was excellent, still to reach another level of composure in front of goal.
Mourinho would instantly have a series of exciting options. He could play with a 3-4-1-2, with a back three allowing Mkhitaryan or Antonio Valencia to push up high on the right flank and Perisic on the left. This would bring the best from Paul Pogba, allowing him to combine with pace ahead of him, and from Ander Herrera, giving him the chance to break forward with the late runs that could be another vital source of goals.
Mourinho would have four very gifted strikers to choose from each match, with each of them offering slightly different skill sets. It is a point often made, though one which still bears repeating, that United’s successful assault on the Champions League in 1999 saw them with a quartet of superb forwards — Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. If United make their intended progress in domestic and international competition as they intend, there will be plenty of football for Rashford and Anthony Martial, too. There will also be a healthy contest between them for these starting spots, which will hopefully galvanise them towards finer performances.
The elephant in the room remains Ronaldo, with his destination next season seemingly having slowed United’s transfer activity. Though he would be a very strong addition in the short term, the other targets Mourinho has identified would serve United’s future far better, giving them the kind of front line that would make them a consistent threat for years to come.
Whatever United plan to do in the transfer market this summer, they must remember the aim must be not only to return to the peak of the game, but to stay there.