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Tactics – How Manchester United have evolved and adapted

by Sam Peoples

By @manutdtactics

There has been much talk lately amongst fans about Sir Alex’s recent flirtation with a 4-4-2 diamond/4-3-3 formation. Some have focused upon whether this is to become the new orthodoxy; many have been surprised, and some horrified, that an approach has been adopted which does not incorporate an emphasis on width, a cherished Manchester United tradition. Others have welcomed the new approach. So what has motivated this experiment and how far is Sir Alex Ferguson likely to take it?

As he has been our manager for just over 26 years now, we should expect changes from time to time and his thinking will have evolved over that time frame. Players will also naturally come and go and to remain successful, occasional adaptations are inevitable. It’s football’s chicken and egg question, which comes first, the tactics or the players. You need tactics that suite the players you have available, but you equally need a range of players with certain strengths to make a particular tactic work for you.

Over his time at the club Sir Alex Ferguson has regularly made changes in his tactical approach, often these have been minor and subtle but two particular formations have dominated. These have been a 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1. In truth they are similar, with the most significant difference being the position of the advanced forward players.

In a 4-4-1-1 they would sit deeper whilst in a 4-2-3-1, they would sit higher. An examination of the 1993-94 side shows this subtlety. Figure 1 shows the 4-4-1-1 shape that most pundits described at the time, but just as often the team shape was as in Figure 2. How often did Giggs and Kanchelskis stay deep? And just how often did Cantona stay high?

4-2-3-1 has become the vogue in recent years and a few commentators have talked about Manchester United’s late conversion to this formation. We think this is nonsense, but we’ll return to that in a moment. This formation was the clear orthodoxy at the club after the first Champions League success.

At that time the manager was grappling with the problem of how you control the centre of the park so that you can win in Europe. Despite winning in 1999, Manchester United had often struggled to do this and had been given a tactical lesson at Old Trafford by Real Madrid in the 2000 quarter final.

Figure 3 shows how the shape had evolved by 2002-03 with the two advanced wide players, Giggs and Solskjaer, playing narrow. This allowed Sir Alex Ferguson to accommodate two creative central player – Veron playing deeper and Scholes playing higher. Veron is often considered to be a failure at Old Trafford but that year he was voted the most valuable player in the whole Champions League.

But what has all this got to do with the recent tactical experiments? The 4-2-3-1 worked (to a point) in 2002-03 because of the excellence of Roy Keane. Keane was an exceptional player in that he effectively could do the work of two men. He was a master at dominating the centre of the park, screening the defence, winning the ball back and then moving it forward.

The history of Manchester United’s changing tactical approach since he left the club can be summed up as an attempt to overcome the loss of Roy Keane with an interlude to exploit the brilliance of Ronaldo. That’s an oversimplification, but those are the headlines. Sir Alex has tried a number of replacements (notably Fletcher and Hargreaves) but perhaps he has know come to the conclusion that the type of player who could replace Keane either doesn’t exist or is unobtainable. We think that the evidence of the last two completed seasons bears this out.

In 2010-11 season, Manchester United’s shape was generally a 4-4-1-1 (Figure 4). At that time, Giggs and Carrick anchored the central midfield but Valencia and Nani tended to stay fairly deep to help out. The formation was fairly static that year and movement was at a premium. Many talked at the time about the standards in the league being low and of Manchester United winning the league without really playing exceptionally well.

Last year United fluctuated more between this shape and a 4-2-3-1, hence the talk of a recent conversion to this formation. It was clear from early last season that Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to go in this direction and in the early weeks of the season with Cleverley, Anderson and Welbeck prominent there was far more movement and interchanging of positions.

After that defeat to Manchester City, and in the aftermath of the loss of Vidic and Fletcher to long term injuries, Manchester United adopted a more cautious approach often reverting to a 4-4-1-1 as they ground out a series of narrow wins to ensure they stayed in touch with City. The shape returned to a 4-2-3-1 more regularly after the New Year, as Figure 5.

The problem last season was pretty clear however. When Manchester United lost the ball it simply took too long to win it back. Without a natural ball winning deep midfield player, it was more a case of simply waiting for the opposition to surrender possession. Our half backs, (perhaps with the exception of Fletcher when fit), are not ball winners.

Michael Carrick for example relies upon screening the defence and attempting to intercept and Scholes can’t tackle for toffee. The consequences of this were twofold. Against poorer teams, the periods when we did not have the ball took the pressure off them and against better teams, the opposition were allowed to play and became a threat.

This problem is an even more significant issue in the light our less than rock solid defence of late. Early last year we were conceding a lot of goals from long shots as teams tested out our new goalkeeping options. These shots were coming from the place where a hard tackling midfield player would be. This year our defensive problems have continued with clean sheets being a rarity.

With Rafael’s improvement and Evra returning to something closer to his previous standards of play, it is the centre of defence that appears the issue with injuries making stability impossible. Jonny Evans has had a fantastic twelve months and Ferdinand has done reasonably well but has lost pace and is not the player he was. Vidic, Smalling and Jones have all been dogged by injuries and in truth, I don’t think Smalling and Jones are ready to be starting every week yet.

In response to these issues many Manchester United fans anticipated that Sir Alex Ferguson’s response would be to buy a tough ball winning midfield player last summer, but he didn’t. It is clear that the aforementioned 4-4-2 diamond or 4-3-3 is his chosen approach in games where he feels the opposition may exploit the lack of a ball winning central player.

The approach was first tested against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup where Fletcher anchored the midfield, allowing Cleverley and Anderson to roam freely ahead of him. These three were supplemented in the central area by Rooney dropping deep at times to make a diamond. More often than not in this game, Rooney stayed high meaning that the shape was more of a 4-3-3 (Figure 6).

This formation relied on Cleverley and Anderson surging forward, often running diagonally to create some width, as well as overlapping runs from Buttner and Rafael. The threat paid off with both Anderson and Cleverley scoring on the night. The formation worked with United having the majority of possession, finding it easy to keep the ball and so reducing the need to win it back.

That first game was probably a dress rehearsal for the following weeks Champions League away game against FC Cluj (Figure 7). In that game too, United had the lion’s share of possession and with Rooney dropping deeper than in the previous game the shape was now a 4-4-2 diamond, with more experienced full-backs creating occasional width.

Despite that possession however it should be noted that Manchester United didn’t create that many chances. In Champions League games, and notably the away games, possession is key and it will be interesting to see going forward how often Sir Alex reverts to this system in those games this year.  With a finisher as clinical as Robin van Persie in the side,  he may bargain that we don’t need to create that many chances.

Is this the new orthodoxy? A lot of Manchester United fans have asked this question, some with concern (Maggie of Rochdale on MUTV taking Sir Alex to task for example) but the answer is no. Sir Alex himself has addressed this question directly in recent press conferences. He has stated that he sees this as an option to be used when it suits in specific fixtures against specific opposition and on other occasions he will go for width.

If this tactic overcomes a weakness in the current balance of the Manchester United squad, then Sir Alex may have found a tactical formula which will put us in a good position to avoid the problems we encountered in key games last year. 

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