Sheffield United
West Bromwich Albion
11:45 AM UTC
Game Details
 By Michael Cox

To rebuild Man Utd's attack, Mourinho must focus on ability, not position

It's funny how quickly things change in football. One moment Antoine Griezmann was specifically rating his chances of joining Manchester United, the next the transfer seemed off entirely, thanks to the upholding of a transfer ban that means Atletico Madrid wouldn't be able to sign a replacement for their best player.

United quickly reacted by briefing that they were instead looking for a No. 9, rather than a deeper or wider forward like Griezmann. Beyond that sounding suspiciously like sour grapes after they were unable to get their main target, it does make some degree of sense given the uncertainty over the future of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

But the problem with acquiring a direct replacement is that United would play in exactly the same way. Ibrahimovic scored 28 goals in all competitions but United's overall Premier League tally of 55 -- one fewer than Bournemouth -- was dreadful and showed far too much reliance on their leading scorer.

Given how other forwards failed to shine, bringing someone in specifically to play Ibrahimovic's role would be counter-productive. In that respect, it might make more sense for United to restructure their attack completely, even if that means incorporating a different type of player.

For example, if United were to acquire Griezmann -- things change quickly, remember, so we can't be sure the deal is entirely dead -- they could deploy him as a second striker just off Marcus Rashford, or wide in a three-man attack.

That would improve their side significantly more than upgrading on Rashford with a No. 9, who might not be genuinely top-class. Romelu Lukaku seems to be the obvious choice if United do sign such a player but, while he's banged in the goals for Everton and West Brom, there are question marks about his all-round game and suitability to play for the biggest clubs.

United have versatile players, with Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan -- the type around whom Jose Mourinho should be building -- all able to play multiple roles. Rashford and Anthony Martial, meanwhile, can both play upfront as well as in a wide position.

Despite winning two cup competitions in 2016-17, there was hardly a defined, cohesive and successful attacking style of play you'd be reluctant to disturb. The defensive shape of the side was largely excellent, as it was under Louis van Gaal. But going forward? You'd be tempted to rip it up and start again.

Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho is in the market for a new forward but his focus should be on talent, not position.

Building an attack is different to building a defence. At the back, you need to plug your biggest hole; if you've got a problem at left-back, there's no problem improving on the other side and hoping this will improve the backline as a whole, because opponents will target your vulnerabilities. Defending is inherently reactive, defined more by your weakest link than your strongest.

Up front, however, you define yourself and can play to the strengths of your strongest link; therefore, it's more about getting the best attacker you can find. That doesn't mean you should completely ignore glaring problems and leave yourself with a surplus at one particular position. But with adaptable young players, the best approach is simply to sign the best player you can.

Therefore, United shouldn't be overwhelmingly concerned with the different roles played by the names with whom they have been linked, which include Griezmann, Lukaku, Lyon's Alexandre Lacazette and Alvaro Morata of Real Madrid.

The amount of money they'll be spending suggests they'll be building for the long-term and that this player is a key part of their plans. Given that, they should simply focus upon acquiring the best available, and the rest might simply fall into place.

United have had a mixed experience with proper No. 9s over the years. Ruud van Nistelrooy boasts the best goals-per-game ratio of any of Old Trafford player in the Premier League era, but his five years in England coincided with the club's worst league run since Sir Alex Ferguson began winning titles in 1993.

Van Nistelrooy's departure saw Cristiano Ronaldo become United's main man and he developed into the best player in Europe. Meanwhile, after people initially said that playing Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney together wouldn't work because they were too similar, the young, versatile trio figured things out themselves, dovetailed and rotated.

There's no reason a similar thing couldn't happen with a front four of Griezmann, Martial and Rashford, or a quartet that also featured Mkhitaryan. Mourinho has generally played with a proper No. 9, but he would surely consider a different system with a top-class, deeper forward.

It's also worth remembering that, when United signed their most transformative forward of the Premier League era, Eric Cantona in 1992, Ferguson had been completely open-minded about what type of player he was after.

As well as Cantona and another deep-lying forward, Peter Beardsley, more advanced types on his radar included David Hirst and even Brian Deane, a proper target man. Mark Hughes wasn't a prolific goalscorer, so Ferguson considered signing a No. 9 to play alongside him.

Ultimately, though, Ferguson simply went for the best player: Cantona. 25 years on, United are in a similar situation and, be it a No. 9, No. 10 or a wide forward, Mourinho's squad simply needs raw quality. Talent, rather than a specific type, must be the main consideration.

Michael Cox is the editor of and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.


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