Since the Premier League began, Manchester United have provided a platform to players who naturally gravitated to the so-called, number 10 role. From mercurial talents such as Eric Cantona and Dwight Yorke to the ebullient, younger Wayne Rooney, some of United's best teams have been built around elusive, deep-lying forwards who can decide games with a moment of inspiration.
Given this, it seems ironic that during a period when United boast no less than three outstanding players in this mould (namely Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the aforementioned Rooney), manager Jose Mourinho has settled on a system that marginalises such a role and places a greater emphasis on midfield fluidity and control.
Read More: Pogba will be even better next season.
Is This is the End of the Number 10 at Old Trafford?
In many ways, this latest evolution has been in progress for some time. After all, United have experienced some noticeable issues in this role since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, with the gradual (if not irreversible) decline of Wayne Rooney and the failure of players such as Shinji Kagawa to convince as influential number 10s particularly impactful.
Even Juan Mata, who is a huge favourite at Old Trafford, has not always delivered when he has been allowed to operate centrally and in-front of a two, deep-lying central midfielders.
Then we have the enigmatic Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who has endured a frustrating debut season at Old Trafford so far.
After initially struggling to adapt to the sheer pace and physically demanding nature of the EPL, he had shown glimpses of his immense quality before succumbing to an ankle injury during the 1-0 win against Tottenham earlier this month.
So while his acceleration and dribbling ability (when aligned with his vision and goal threat) distinguish Mkhitaryan as a potentially brilliant number 10 for the Reds, it may be a while before he can claim this place as his own.
With Rooney's decline influencing as a number 10 also impacting on England, this position has come into sharp focus recently and encouraged managers to seek out alternative and more fluid systems. Mourinho is no exception to this rule, with the Portuguese having implemented a 4-3-3 system during a four-game winning run in all competitions.
This has enabled Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba to form a midfield platform that allows United to control possession, with the latter operating in a more advanced role in the mould of a classic number eight.
This has enabled United to solve two major issues that have plagued them this season. Firstly, it has created a balance and semblance of control that has been sorely missing away from home this season, particularly during the 0-0 draw at Anfield and the 4-0 thrashing at Stamford Bridge. Secondly, this system has enabled United to leverage the immense potential of record signing Paul Pogba, who has the distinction of creating the single highest number of chances for Mourinho's side this season.
The Last Word: Why United's Number 10's May Need to Find Alternative Roles
Make no mistake; Carrick's positional sense and passing ability has anchored United's new-look midfield, while the increasingly influential Herrera brings the dynamism and box-to-box qualities that hark back to a previous generation of EPL players. This fusion of quality and energy has freed Pogba to play his natural game, as he uses his range of passing, powerful running and shooting ability to good effect in the final third.
While United may still make room for the occasional number 10 during home games or as they look to rotate and rest key midfielders, the 4-3-3 system is likely dominate away from home and in big matches against top four rivals. This will ask questions of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata in particular, as these immensely gifted footballers may need to adapt to wider roles that place a greater emphasis on teamwork rather than individual brilliance.
Their ability to do this successfully may ultimately determine their future under Mourinho, who is renowned for remaining true to a preferred system and starting 11 once he has settled at a club.