United’s attempts to sign Ivan Perisic have failed to excite many people but there would be clear logic to the move as he would provide Mourinho with an invaluable option in his attempts to mount a sustained title challenge.
It has been well documented that Perisic lacked a sense focus and work ethic in the early years of his career and that has ultimately prevented him from ever making a huge impact at the highest level before now. Ironically, his work ethic has now become one of the trademarks of his game and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Mourinho who has relied on having an industrious winger throughout the majority of his managerial career. He believes this option provides his teams with a natural sense of balance and it can help to get the best out of other attacking players.
Mourinho is one of relatively few managers at the top club clubs in Europe who still likes to play with an orthodox, “old-fashioned” winger on one side of the pitch, and as a result there is a lack of suitable options around for the position. While plenty of players can still provide width, Perisic’ game is perhaps more comparable to a winger from the 90s or 00s: he is diligent defensively, he’s strong with both feet and perhaps most importantly, he actually looks to make runs down the outside of full backs instead of simply cutting in to create opportunities for himself or to play through balls. He is dangerous in one on one situations because he has the option of crossing with either foot, which makes him unpredictable and ultimately very challenging to defend against. While Mkhitaryan and Martial have struggled at times with the demands of playing when they’ve lacked short passing options, Perisic is patient with the ball and more than happy to travel down the byline in search of crossing opportunities. In fact, he played more than twice as many crosses (239) in the league last season as Martial (56) and Mkhitaryan (48) combined.
One complaint amongst supporters has been that there are “better” players available on the market. Other names have been touted, most commonly Bayern’s Douglas Costa, but the interest in Perisic is due to his playing style as much as his quality. While other players could be considered to be “better”, they don’t possess the specific skill-set Mourinho has been looking for. In Martial, United already have a hugely talented left-sided forward so unless a “dream” target such as Neymar became available, there was never going to be any realistic interest in players who like to float around infield and play more as forwards than wingers.
United need to improve their ability to create clear goal-scoring opportunities and break teams down at Old Trafford this season but it’s important to understand why those difficulties existed in the first place. Visiting teams tend to play with a deep, compact defensive unit and it is difficult to create chances against this kind of system at the best of times, but with Ibrahimovic dropping deep and the wingers looking to come infield, United struggled to open teams up. With everyone looking to run into the same spaces infield, it was easy for defences to maintain their shape and protect the key central areas. With Perisic maintaining the width and providing a different type of option with the ball, United would be hopeful of creating bigger spaces and higher quality goal-scoring opportunities.
His presence could also be of great benefit to several other players in the team. By holding his width, he could provide Pogba with more space in the centre-left areas he likes to occupy and Lukaku will appreciate having an orthodox winger to provide him with crosses because he is not the type of striker who enjoys engaging in too many intricate passing moves to create chances for himself. He needs much of the work in the build-up to be done for him so he can dominate the penalty area and convert opportunities.
Having a natural, hardworking winger will also be of benefit to Mkhitaryan, Mata and potentially even Martial despite the fears over his playing time. Mkhitaryan in particular was often tasked with tracking dangerous opposition full backs and putting in a huge shift last season but this left him exhausted and unable to make an attacking contribution in some of the bigger matches. Perisic should take the heat off these players and leave them to play a more natural game on the opposite wing or as attacking midfielders. The introduction of a defensive midfielder should also help in this regard, so the links to Dier and Matic (among others) are not surprising.
One interesting topic of debate has been whether or not United could play with a three-man defence this season. Although it remains fairly unlikely that this will be seen on a regular basis in a conventional sense, Mourinho’s teams can often resemble a 3-5-2 in the attacking phase of the game. Valencia will once again be used as a “shuttle runner” up and down the right wing but whoever plays at left back tends to operate slightly more conservatively. In practice, Perisic’ role would be comparable to that of a left wing back so you can see why Douglas Costa would be a poor fit for the role.
If the move goes ahead as we expect it to, it may not seem immediately impressive but it could have huge implications to the way United play and allow them to be more incisive as a team. In time people would begin to recognise this and Perisic could become a popular, highly dependable member of the squad. It is a signing that should be welcomed as United already have an excellent squad but they just require a different type of option to open up matches and get more from the players they already have.