It’s late evening on Saturday 29 September 2012 and Match of the Day is on BBC1. This particular time round the pundits on the famous sofa are Alan Hansen and Mick McCarthy. Whilst Hansen is offering nothing more than his usual drawling twaddle, it feels worth listening to what McCarthy has to say. It seems worthwhile listening to any former or current manager giving analysis-somehow their comments feel weightier.
On this occasion he is reviewing Manchester United’s first loss to Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford for 23 years and analysing the ease with which the London-based team got at United and attacked them from midfield. In particular, he notes the regularity with which the whole United midfield is running back towards their own goal chasing Tottenham’s attackers, and then expresses his surprise that Sir Alex Ferguson doesn’t include a deep-lying midfielder in his tactical set-up to nullify Tottenham.
Now I often disagree with pundits on Match of the Day, but McCarthy makes an excellent point here. Ferguson needed to adapt his defensive tactics to face Tottenham and a deep-lying midfielder would have been an excellent addition to the set-up. A holding midfielder, someone in the ‘Makelele’ role, would’ve been able to sit back and help to break-up the scintillating counter-attacks and bursts forward from the Tottenham players. One can only wonder whether a defensive midfielder would have meant a United win over Tottenham that day, but you can bet it would have made a mighty difference.
There are, broadly-speaking, two ways in which United can operate defensively against teams. The first, which United used unsuccessfully against Tottenham, is the high-line 4-4-2 approach. Ferguson’s darling 4-4-2 restricts United to playing with only two central midfielders making it impractical for either to sit deep. In the 4-4-2, United’s midfielders need to have license to focus on forward play, therefore the back four must step up the pitch to close any gap between the midfield and defence in which the opposition can play.
The Reds used this successfully towards the end of last season with Carrick and Scholes in midfield with Ferdinand and Evans keeping a high-line up the pitch behind them. These tactics do not always work however. They are ineffective against teams with the pace and guile to run in behind United.
The defensive alternative to the high-line 4-4-2 approach is to have a deeper back line and an extra man in central midfield. In this approach the defence sit deep acting nearly as sweepers, whilst a midfielder in front of them works to protect the defenders behind him and breaks up opposition forays forward. These tactics are essential against a team with a strong midfield when United need an extra man in the centre to deal with the dangers coming at them. This deep midfielder would also provide the freedom for the players in front of him to be creative and push on themselves.
Ferguson’s tactics were errant in the loss to Tottenham. The back four sat deep as to not be exposed by the pace of Defoe, Bale and Lennon. At the same time, a high-line would have been exposed.
Despite this deep defence though, United only played with two central midfielders which resulted in massive gaps between the midfield and defence, something exploited for all the Tottenham goals. A deep-lying midfielder could have plugged those gaps and changed the momentum of the game.
United need to adapt between the two main defensive approaches, and it is that ability to adapt that can be the catalyst for the team to go on to more success. That day against Tottenham however, those adaptive tactics got mixed up. Let’s hope next time Mick McCarthy is on Match of the Day he isn’t expressing surprise at the Reds tactical set-ups.