Gordon Strachan: Why biggest isn't best for Man Utd
Written by Simon Austin — October 4, 2018
THERE’S one table in which Manchester United have consistently improved and challenged for top spot under Jose Mourinho: that of tallest team.
Since the Portuguese arrived at Old Trafford in May 2016, he has been on a quest to make his side bigger.
According to stats from the CIES Football Observatory, United are now the second tallest team in the Premier League, with an average starting height this season of 185.02cm (6’07”), behind only Huddersfield Town, who average 185.45cm (6’08”).
If we go back to November 2015, United's average height was 182.8cm (6’0”), which went up to 184cm (6’04”) in 2017/18. At the same time, Pep Guardiola has been making Manchester City smaller (they are the Premier League's second smallest team) as has Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool (fourth smallest).
This may all seem insignificant (the full stats are at the bottom of the page if do happen to be interested), but according to former United midfielder Gordon Strachan, it’s fundamental.
The ex Scotland player and manager, himself a diminutive 5'6", says that whereas teams used to intimidate through size and power, they now do it through speed of thought and movement.
“I watched Chelsea against Liverpool last weekend and it was phenomenal,” Strachan told Talksport. “You needed to be a top, top player to feature in that game and the six central midfielders, none of them were over six foot. They had so much energy.
“The game is not so much about tackles now, as about interceptions and being able to cover five, 10 yards very quickly when you win the ball back.
“I don’t think Manchester United players, when they win the ball back, can cover any ground. People are not scared to play Manchester United any more, because there will be a lot of time when you’ll have the ball.
“But when you play against Manchester City and Liverpool now, you think, ‘wow, they’re going to blow me away’. Mentally, teams are already beaten, because you know they’re going to test your fitness, your technical ability, everything.”
Chelsea and Liverpool both played midfield threes in that 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge last weekend:
Chelsea: N'Golo Kante (5’6”), Jorginho (5’11”), Mateo Kovacic (5’10”).
Liverpool: James Milner (5’9”), Jordan Henderson (6’0”), Georginio Wijnaldum (5’9”).
On the same day, Manchester United lost 3-1 at West Ham and also played a midfield trio: Paul Pogba (6’3”), Nemanja Matic (6’4”) and Marouane Fellaini (6’4”).
The same three played in the 2-1 win at Watford on September 15th. A few hours earlier, Manchester City had won 5-0 at home against Fulham with Fernandinho (5’10”), Bernardo Silva (5’8”) and David Silva (5’8”) in the middle.
Of course, Mourinho is one of the most decorated managers in the history of football, with eight league titles spanning four countries, as well as two Champions Leagues. And, in the words of Gary Neville, he has tended to favour "powerful, robust, strong players".
Strachan, who played for United from 1984 to 1989, added: “About a month ago, I did say this was the biggest Manchester United team I’d seen in my life. That started last year, when I think Jose decided this was his way to win a league, especially in England.
"I think Jose went for the biggest team last year and decided he was going to bully his way to the Championship.
“He was also saying set plays are huge - to score from corner kicks and free kicks. He probably thought it was a power the smaller teams couldn’t cope with."
However, it's the Scot's contention that the game has changed, making Mourinho's preference for power outdated - a theory which seems to be backed up by the league table. Smaller players cover the first few yards faster, which is crucial to the high-pressing, fast-passing style of Guardiola, Klopp and Chelsea's Maurizio Sarri.
“We’ve all said over the years that power and strength win a league,” Strachan said, “but it’s changed and circumstances have changed. Pitches have got better, laws have got better, so technical ability has become the asset you need.
"Unfortunately, the ability and dynamic energy that Manchester City and Liverpool in particular have got has given Jose a problem.
“I don’t think he’s seen it coming. The problem for him is that if he changes, that’s him saying these coaches were ahead of him. That would really kill him I think.”
- 1. Huddersfield (185.45cm)
- 2. Manchester United (185.02)
- 3. Watford (184.54)
- 4. Crystal Palace (184.08)
- 5. West Ham (183.55)
- 6. Southampton (183.27)
- 7. Brighton (182.99)
- 8. Newcastle (182.85)
- 9. Tottenham (182.78)
- 10. Cardiff City (182.64)
- 1. Bournemouth (179.64cm)
- 2. Manchester City (179.81)
- 3. Everton (180.15)
- 4. Liverpool (180.36)
- 5. Leicester City (181.28)
- 6. Chelsea (181.61)
- 7. Fulham (181.72)
- 8. Wolves (181.92)
- 9. Arsenal (181.96)
- 10. Burnley (182.02)
- Data correct to October 1st 2018. Source: CIES Football Observatory.