Mason Mount is back. How should Manchester United use him? – The Athletic

By Carl Anka6h ago

Among all the chaos, goals and eventual glory of Manchester United’s 4-3 win over Liverpool was Mason Mount.

The 25-year-old played the last 15 minutes of extra time, touching the ball four times in a helter-skelter finale. It was the midfielder’s first appearance since a mid-November victory over Luton Town, as a handful of injuries have seen him miss 26 games this season. He has only played 641 minutes for Erik ten Hag’s side in 2024-24.

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It’s been an odd season for a player who has been an odd fit for his new team. United had to beat off several suitors for Mount’s signature in July 2024 yet the England international didn’t seem an essential future piece of Ten Hag’s midfield puzzle. It was easy to envisage him playing next to Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard in Arsenal’s 4-3-3. Jurgen Klopp’s interest made sense as he looked to reboot Liverpool’s midfield with legs and attacking energy. One could imagine Mauricio Pochettino would have been annoyed at losing someone as versatile and tactically adept at pressing before he got started at Chelsea.

Mount made his return against Liverpool (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Ten Hag has struck complimentary tones when discussing Mount’s adjustment to life in Manchester. The midfielder was given the famous No 7 shirt and lauded as a “complete midfielder” during pre-season. And in the lead-up to facing Liverpool, the Dutchman said he was convinced Mount would be a key player for his side in the future. 

“He didn’t have the chance to prove this point, but he will be a very good player for Manchester United. It is really unfortunate, really disappointing for him, but also for us when you have such a class player in your middle and you cannot play him.

“He has had three injuries, as we all know, so he didn’t, at any time, get into a rhythm. But I am sure when he is fit, he will play, he will get into that rhythm and he will contribute to a successful Manchester United.”

His return gives the team another option, but questions remain about how he fits into United’s starting XI. Initially cast as an upgrade to Christian Eriksen in central midfield, Ten Hag’s plans to have Mount push up and join Bruno Fernandes to form a 4-1-4-1 were quietly shelved as the Englishman’s forays forward left too much space behind for opponents to exploit.

In September, Ten Hag insisted this was not an issue of the midfield but due to problems “in the front and the back”. Injuries and other tactical dysfunctions mean United have made little improvement in those areas, leaving Mount’s key skills at odds with the rest of the side. 

Throughout his career, Mount’s value has derived not from how much the ball is at his feet, but from his tactical elasticity. When deployed as a No 10, he often serves as a trigger for his team’s attacking work without needing to be its focal point. When used as a box-to-box midfielder or on the wings, he works as a facilitator for others, attacking the half-spaces and serving as an auxiliary playmaker. While he is above average in most on-ball requirements for an attacking player, his USP comes from his work out of possession; capable of switching from pressing players, passing lanes or particular areas of the field at a moment’s notice, managers like Mount because he enables myriad defensive schemes.

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Mount is a good player with the work ethic of a much worse one who might rely on their industry to stay in the team. An impressive cog in a well-functioning machine, he is less impressive when asked to carry a stuttering mechanism’s creative or defensive burden.

A look at his domestic league minutes shows a player who has spent most of his career playing past the halfway line, but United need help in their own half. Injury and form issues for Casemiro have meant Ten Hag lacks the tackling and counter-pressing presence that could bring the most out of Mount.

Mount is not an on-ball creator to the same level as Bruno Fernandes, making him unlikely to dislodge the United captain from the No 10 position. While he is a good-to-great defender in a collaborative pressing scheme, he lacks a few key elements that make him an option as a defensive midfielder.

His reasonable, rather than remarkable pace, coupled with United’s assortment of full-backs, means Ten Hag is unlikely to deploy him on the wings ahead of Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garancho.

Kobbie Mainoo’s emergence has further complicated things; the 18-year-old can serve as his team’s deepest midfielder, however, a potential midfield partnership with Mount might see the Premier League’s more physical teams overrun the pair. (Both men are willing to compete for headers but lack the guile and technique that make players such as Casemiro, Rice or Rodri so good in aerial duels.) 

Mount ideally wishes to be the connective bridge between a side’s midfield and attack. Unfortunately, United’s best defensive midfielder is in an apparent decline and the attacking midfielder needs particular (and irregular) tactical conditions in order to thrive. A high-level facilitator working in a team that often relies on specialists to win games, his challenge now is to find a niche ahead of a summer when the club might look to buy another midfielder — someone who can better address the problems in deeper areas that he can only partially solve.

Mount has endured a frustrating time since joining United (Manchester United/Manchester United via Getty Images)

It is not an impossible task; Scott McTominay and Diogo Dalot are two squad players who have become valuable members of Ten Hag’s set-up. Mount’s talent and tenacity in the final third make Ten Hag’s happiness over his return to fitness understandable. Between now and the end of 2024-24 he might best work in a role similar to McTominay, pushing up from midfield to make late entries into the penalty area. While he lacks McTominay’s goalscoring instinct, he has superior passing and can better contribute to build-up play.

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If Casemiro’s muscle injury proves too great for him to feature against Brentford after the international break, then the Dutchman could choose between Mainoo or Sofyan Amrabat as the team’s defensive midfielder, with one of Mount or McTominay as a partner.

These are not ideal circumstances for a player signed for £55million less than a year ago, but Ten Hag will be pleased to have competition for places again after spending so much of this season dealing with an injury crisis. If you look at other leading clubs, multiple talented and expensive midfielders spend periods of time on the bench.

Mount’s multi-functional use will increase as the squad evolves from a dysfunctional collection of players into a more cohesive collective. To find his best rhythm at United, the team needs to figure out what sort of song it wants to play.

GO DEEPER

How Manchester United signed Mason Mount: Smokescreens, a placatory phone call and Ten Hag’s sales pitch

(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

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Carl Anka is a journalist covering Manchester United for The Athletic. Follow Carl on Twitter @Ankaman616

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