Away form creates tactical dilemma

September 27, 2010 Tags: Opinion 23 comments

Coming off the back of Manchester United’s draw with Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson must wonder about the cause of his side’s indifferent form. Few could argue that Bolton, Fulham or Everton are easy away games, but they are the sort of matches that a side with serious title ambitions probably has to win.

Even more worrying is the nature of United’s three Premier League draws this season. It is one thing to come away with a point in a tight 0-0 away from Old Trafford, but to concede seven goals in three away games is unacceptable, especially against teams not noted for their attacking prowess.

Reasons for these defensive lapses can be found in the form of Jonny Evans who, despite looking solid for most of the previous season, now appears daunted by his key role in the team. The Irishman’s performances of late have been undoubtedly below par with a string of errors offering chances up on a plate for the opposition. Most recently Evans allowed Zat Knight to score from a corner.

With Rio Ferdinand returning, however, many will hope that United’s defence will be stronger and can once again thrive through the key personalities of the England captain, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. Ferguson will hope that all three will start together for the first time this season when the team travels to Valencia for another key away tie this week.

Of greater concern, however, is the fact that defensive personnel are not purely to blame. For the first time in many seasons, Alex Ferguson has chosen to play an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation, even away from home. It could well be this tactical change which has resulted in so many goals being conceded.

Without three midfield players in the centre of the park, United’s opposition have been afforded more time and space with which to move forward. This season in particular, the problems of playing only two central midfielders have been prevalent, with Paul Scholes providing little to no defensive cover and Darren Fletcher attacking more than an out-and-out anchor man might.

In fact United is one of the few elite clubs to play without a traditional holding player. Taking a quick glance at Europe’s top clubs, it’s clear most invariably operate with three central midfielders, one at least of which is defensive minded:

  • Real Madrid – Khedira, Alonso, Kaka/Özil
  • Barcelona – Busquets/Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta
  • Chelsea – Essien, Mikel/Ramires, Lampard
  • Inter Milan – Cambiasso, Muntari, Sneijder
  • Bayern Munich – Van Bommel, Schweinsteiger, Müller/Kroos

It is no coincidence that Europe’s elite has turned to the system, with games won and lost in midfield. The dominant formation at the World Cup included two defensive midfielders. It is also no coincidence that United’s best seasons of late have come when predominantly playing three in the middle of the park.

Even in United’s 2008 European Cup winning season as Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez often played together upfront, the pair’s tireless nature made up for the missing midfielder, with one tracking back on almost every occasion.

While a return to 4-3-3 – or 4-5-1 depending on your outlook – might be the answer for the current Old Trafford outfit it is no longer easy for Ferguson to play the formation given the personnel available. As noted earlier, Dimitar Berbatov cannot play alone up-front and in his current form it would be folly to drop him to the bench.

The other option, it seems, is to operate in a 4-3-3 formation with Rooney returning to the left of a front three that includes Berbatov and Nani.

Many fans recoil at the suggestion, dreading the waste of talent that comes with Rooney playing on the left. It doesn’t have to be the case and may liberate the former Everton player.

Rooney has been poor this season, looking lacklustre in possession and almost frightened to take on a shot such is the pressure piled on the 24-year-old. Moving Rooney wide may ease much of the pressure on him to score goals, allowing the striker to create but without the weight of providing another 35-goal season.

Alongside Nani, Rooney could provide enough support for Berbatov to play competently up-front, thus solving the old problem of the Bulgarian failing to spearhead United’s attack.

Besides, it is not uncommon for a talented forward to play wide. David Villa almost exclusively played on the left-side of a front three for Spain at the World Cup, as did Luis Suarez for Uruguay. Lionel Messi and, obviously, Cristiano Ronaldo have also shone in a wide position in club football.

The point being United’s only way of solving the current ‘defensive question’ is to return to three in midfield, pushing Rooney wide. It could even solve the ‘Rooney question’ too.

Fergie is very likely to pack the midfield against Valencia in such an important European away game. Those crying out for a change from a 4-4-2 formation that is reaping few defensive rewards, will agree.


Alfonso Bedoya - September 27, 2010 Reply

Isn’t this the position Carrick is supposed to play?

Fairly good at it as well, when he can be arsed.

Nikos - September 27, 2010 Reply

I agree with the main thrust of this article, and am perhaps inclined to move towards a fluid front three of nani berba roo – but I do not hold the view that Berba cannot play alone in a 4-5-1. Aside from Chelsea at home last term where there was a distinct lack of support from a tentative and nervous midifeld – Berba has led the line brilliantly away in the San Siro, in Germany, at Wolves and more recently at Everton.

Fergie is trying to achieve an attacking 4-4-1-1 with Berba-Roo interchanging with false 9 role, which theoretically should not cause us issues either at home or abroad (Rooney on form would solve some defensive frailties of course!) – where the problem lies IMO is the lack of defensive minded midfielders in what is essentially a 4-2-4 with Nani and Giggs pushing on. Fletcher must maintain positional focus, and I wouldnt be surprised if Park was to now step into the fray ahead of Giggs and play a big role in the busy period ahead.

Nikos - September 27, 2010 Reply

I think Carrick is a certain starter when fit – a very good point. His defensive “shielding”, reading and intercepting the play has been massively missed. But dont expect OT to see it that way…. 🙂

Bill - September 27, 2010 Reply

Good article.

You might be right with Rooney, a move to a position less central may benefit him at the moment.

Carrick would be ideal to play the true anchor role, although a 3 of Scholes, Park & Fletcher have more bite & energy.

I remember those 3 in the middle of midfield were particularly good against Milan last season, although it was a home.

redevil_83 - September 27, 2010 Reply

i can see a middle three of scholesy, anderson and fletch tomorrow

Alfonso Bedoya - September 27, 2010 Reply

Can’t see Scholes playing. 90 minutes on Sunday should be his lot for the week.

Triggs - September 27, 2010 Reply

I think the 433 with Rooney on the left makes most sense – especially with Giggs now out.

Given Rooney’s poor form, I think ‘doing a job’ for the team could help him regain some focus and form. Rather than feeling the pressure to create and score upfront, he’d have to concentrate on covering the full back and then breaking at speed when we’re in possession.

My view is that Berba can play up front on his own and is very good at it. No he can’t run the channels, but he can win headers and if we can pass it to his feet – there’s no better player at maintaining possession. The key thing is getting support and willing runners who will stretch the play outside him and beyond him. Nani, Rooney and Gibson/Fletch from the middle are all capable of doing this.

I was thinking after yesterday’s game that we missed Carrick (when he’s at his best) covering and calming in front of the back four. There’s no better opportunity for Carrick to return and save his United career. Berba’s grasped the nettle, let’s hope Carrick can too.

Triggs - September 27, 2010 Reply

If Roo plays on the ledt, I think the middle three will be Fletch-Ando/Carrick-Park.

Scholes will be recalled for Sunderland away

Ed - September 27, 2010 Reply

Rooney not travelling with the squad to Valencia due to ankle injury. My guess is that Berbatov will play up front alone, with Park coming into the team on the left and Anderson or Gibson joining central midfield.

Dave - September 27, 2010 Reply

i agree that roo, baerba, nani with rooney playing an attacking wide role could be good, especially with the shortage of decent fit wingers now in the squad. it would also allow strengthening of the midfield although we still lack a replacement for scholes. anderson and gibson need to step up to the plate.

will be bad news if park now gets an extended run in the team, offers very little going forward.

also, evans needs a rest, hopefully rio is fit otherwise put smalling in.

redevil_83 - September 27, 2010 Reply

hmm, carrick could start though right? how far is he off from fitness to start a match?

Onside - September 28, 2010 Reply

Why concentrate on the defending dilemma? With the change of emphasis to 4-4-2 and an attacking outlook, we’ve already scored 24 goals in 9 matches so far this season (including Community Sheild).

Do you know when was the last time we scored as much or more goals from the first 9 matches of the season?

1958! In other words, this is our best scoring start to the season in 52 years, longer than most of us have been alive. I say let’s enjoy this attack-minded era. If we’re gonna let in a bit more in order to strike a lot more, I say, so be it. I know we won a few trophies in 2008-09, but it was not an enjoyable season, with a lot of matches settled by an early strike and then defensive solidity.

Ed - September 28, 2010 Reply

Onside – that would be fair enough it United wasn’t shipping the same amount of goals in away fixtures! I’m all for a free flowing United like 1999 but even that team could shut the opposition out when needed.

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baggio365 - September 28, 2010 Reply

i think when rio comes back into the sdie properly, it’ll give our defense a huge boost.

why fergie persists with o’shea is beyond most people

but like onside pointed out, we are scroing goals, so things arnt all that bad. we just need to tighten up at the back. i can understand playing 3 in the middle away from home/ or at least in the bigger games, but its not like we are getting overrun in midfield at the moment. are defenders just arnt coping with the opposition forwards, so really its them who need to pick up their game, not rely on an extra body in midfield to solve their inadequacies.

Haakon - September 28, 2010 Reply


Dave - September 28, 2010 Reply

true, we are seriously short of a decent right back oshea – not good enough, neville – past his best and rafael – promising but seems too injury prone.

tacticalnouce - September 29, 2010 Reply

One option hasn’t been mentioned, which seems to me the most obvious and plausible: play Rooney deeper.

The examples you’ve given above are often in the fashionable (and effective) 4-2-3-1 formation. For us, this could quite easily be Scholes/Carrick with Fletcher (/Hargreaves?) playing as the deep two, with attacking midfield trident of, say, Nani and Giggs wide and Rooney as the central point of the three. His best game this season was probably for England playing in that exact role. Last season Rooney played as a traditional No. 9, which he can do. But I’m not convinced he’s great with his back to goal, which you can see with the number of flicks that don’t come off, or the number or times he gets dispossessed as he gets the ball into his feet. He’s better with the game in front of him, where he can open up space for others and drive forward. With him playing deeper in front of a more defensive two, we’d have more bodies in midfield and a more creative and robust element in the centre – creativity from midfield has also been a problem this season in my opinion.

There are problems with this idea, however. One is that a 4-2-3-1 generally needs a pacey and strong forward, rather than a brilliant but languid false No. 9 (Berba). Unfortunately, both Rooney and Berba are probably better playing slightly deeper, which is one reason their partnership may have not taken off.

The other issue we face is that, with Valencia injured, we lack pace and consistency on the flanks. Giggs no longer has the legs for that role, whilst Park is limited and Obertan seemingly not up to it. Cleverley and Ravel Morrison may be the future, but we’ll have to wait and see. This whole United team feel like it’s waiting for something, or someone.


Ed - September 29, 2010 Reply

tacticalnouce – The issue is a difficult one for Fergie to solve. I don’t think he has really. I agree with you that Rooney’s a better player when deeper, but his goal output as main striker was phenomenal last year. It’s hard to dismiss that.

I don’t agree with your comments about Berbatov though – he’s was not a deep player before he joined United. I think this is an assumption based on his technical skill and Fergie, like many fans, got it wrong. In fact last summer Fergie spoke about using Berbatov in the wrong way, that he needed to be further forward. The manger has finally done it this season and United are reaping the benefits.

mongoletsi - October 1, 2010 Reply

Exactly. Berba actually SPRINTS now, well sometimes. Turns out he’s not slow after all. It’s MUCH too soon for Cantona comparisons, but there’s definitely something of The King there. Plus he seems a lot more motivated and willing to get stuck in elsewhere.

Still, Berba and Rooney are definitely best in the deeper striker role (I won’t say “second striker”). Owen – despite your comments – can clearly still do the job of target man, and Hernandez too (I used to live in Mexico so watch games sometimes).

What I’m trying to say is that the logical thing to do is pair one of the former with one of the latter. Rotate as needed.

But then, you’re leaving out Berba or Rooney. Which is ludicrous if they’re both fit and in form.

So in summary; I’ve added nothing at all to the debate :o)

Oh apart from pointing out that Rooney and Tevez were thought too similar to be played together…

Bill - October 1, 2010 Reply

Away formation will be 4-5-1 for the immediate future I would of thought taking in account the result Wed, the goals shipped away from home & the injures we have.

tacticalnous - October 1, 2010 Reply

Ed, you may well be right about Berba. But this season Fergie has been trying to play Rooney and Berba together up front in an old-fashioned 4-4-2, and it really hasn’t worked particularly well. This could be due to both Rooney’s poor form and, Nani and Scholes aside, a sluggish and slightly makeshift midfield. But it could equally be due to the fact that Rooney and Berba just don’t quite work together, at least with both playing as outright strikers.

Long-term the future may be Rooney deeper with Hernandez/Macheda as the No. 9 playing off the shoulder, but for the time being the solution may be, as PSM says, to rotate. Personally I would like to see Hernandez have a run in the team now, which he deserves after his goal in midweek. So the question is what you do when Rooney’s fit again. Fergie likes to have four strikers who complement each other, and this season I’d see them as Rooney/Berba as Sheringham/York, and Hernandez/Macheda as Cole/Solskjaer. I don’t really see Owen as anything other than a last resort and I’d be quite happy to see him leave in Jan.

If we were to extend this 1999 comparison to the current midfield, it’s obvious that our midfield is lacking in quality. The 1999 midfield would now be Nani (Beckham) – Fletcher (Keane) – Scholes aged 36/Carrick/Anderson (Scholes aged 25) – Giggs aged 36/Park/Obertan (Giggs aged 26). Conclusion: we have a pretty average and unbalanced midfield.

Ed - October 1, 2010 Reply

tacticalnous – nail on the head

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