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New-look midfield the solution for Mourinho and Manchester United?

Though eclipsed by the mixed fortunes of Manchester United's forwards so far this season, the state of the team's midfield is also a major talking point. Jose Mourinho has used so many different combinations and formations so far this season and seems unable to settle on his best formation of preferred midfielders.

Against Manchester City in a must win League Cup match on Wednesday, the Portuguese manager went for a 4-2-3-1 - which could look like a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-3-3 formation - with Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera shielding the defence and Paul Pogba ahead of them to the left. Juan Mata was allowed to roam, usually to the right of Pogba, with Marcus Rashford to the left.

It was the first time that Mourinho has gone for the Carrick, Pogba, Herrera combination. Of the players who could have expected to play in midfield so far this season, Bastian Schweinsteiger has been frozen out completely and Morgan Schneiderlin, another 2015 arrival, has barely featured. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is not impressing his manager enough to even make the 18-man squad, never mind start matches, while Marouane Fellaini has not fared much better despite more opportunities.

The Carrick, Pogba, Herrera trio worked and United's victory, albeit over a much changed City team, was exactly what was needed to lift the team's spirits following Sunday's 4-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge. Beating an out of form City team which had made nine changes from their previous league game against Southampton won't be celebrated too much, but City's side still cost £150 million, with substitutes bought for another £230 million available on the bench. Mourinho has yet to overcome a major rival at full strength, but a little progress could go a long way in these challenging times at Old Trafford.

Carrick had not started any of United's nine league games, but the decision to start him and make him captain against City won approval from fans long before they were singing about comparing him to Paul Scholes towards the end of the game.

Carrick's regular omission this season has been surprising, especially as Mourinho sanctioned a new contract to keep the Geordie at the club for another year. Carrick had expected to leave had Louis van Gaal stayed.

After two straight steady performances in midfield, Michael Carrick looks to be in line for a bigger role for Manchester United.

Given how he played last week against Fenerbahçe, adding authority, and balance, while peerlessly distributing the ball and shielding his defence - and doing it again for much the game against City - the calls for him to start a league game are considerable. He played deeper than any of the other midfielders and at times acted as a one-man midfield line. He also managed to stay on his feet when several players slipped and fell as if they were wearing no studs. Carrick's efforts paid off as he helped the side he captained to keep a clean sheet, his experience needed in front of a defence missing Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling. Bailly was replaced in the side by the maligned Argentine Marcos Rojo, who played well.

In Herrera, Carrick had a tenacious sidekick. Herrera is far happier playing and training under Mourinho than he was under Louis van Gaal. Though his former Athletic Bilbao coach Marcelo Biesla once told him that he should play more forward, Herrera is thriving in a deeper role. He chases and tackles well to win the ball back and distributes well too. Leaving little wonder why the Zaragoza youth product made the Spain squad for the first time last month.

Mata is as industrious as the Manchester worker bee which appeared on the front of the match programme. United have won 13 of a possible 15 points from the last five games that he's started over all competitions. In contrast, United have picked up just one point from a possible 12 in the four games he didn't start, a stark statistic.

The Spaniard scored the game's only goal, a 54th minute tap in after an intelligent run. Only Wayne Rooney - sadly, almost a forgotten man since he slipped from being a first choice striker - has been involved in more goals than Mata since he joined the club in January 2014.

Mata and Herrera aren't only fine footballers, they're switched on and intelligent young men who appreciate the city in which they're living, enjoy its culture and research the backgrounds of the clubs they're playing against. At the weekend, this writer spoke to a Spanish journalist sent to live in Manchester to cover the increase in interest since the appointment of Guardiola and Mourinho. He opined that Mata and Herrera were the most approachable and intelligent of all the Spanish speakers in the City. While Guardiola is always engaging, he found access to City's Sergio Aguero and David Silva limited and frustrating.

Juan Mata celebrates after scoring the winner for Man United.
Once cast off by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Juan Mata has flourished this season under Mourinho at Manchester United.

Paul Pogba is the third of the main midfield three. His position is secured in the team by virtue of his world record transfer fee, yet he's struggled to make the expected impact so far. Against City, he again provided glimpses of his undoubted class and should have scored a chance as United came out much improved in the second period, but he can still have more of an impact on matches. He might be better suited to lining up with Carrick and Herrera alongside him.

United's next two league games are against Burnley and Swansea City, two teams that sit near the bottom of the table. A tricky game in Istanbul next Thursday against Fenerbahçe lies in between and it's unlikely that Carrick will play all three matches. That being said, it's imperative that United win both league games to stay in touch with the leaders and close the gap at the top of the table. United are lucky that those above them have all stumbled, a testament to the competitiveness which makes the Premier League so appealing.

In-form Arsenal visit Old Trafford on November 19th, the first of four home games in 12 days for United. Two of those games are against West Ham, the second one in the EFL Cup quarterfinal. Mourinho is serious about winning the competition and United fans should be too. The same goes for the Europa League. Neither are the Champions League, but both can provide highlights as the team continues to transition under their new manager. What's the alternative? A season with almost no midweek football as in 2014-15?

As the 67,000 United fans singing as they left the ground on Wednesday after beating City demonstrated, there's a revival of interest at Old Trafford in this much-maligned competition now their team sit seventh in the League.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.

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