Ferguson and 4-2-3-1: a love affair
There are certain supporters and pundits who paint Sir Alex Ferguson as an angry, old man who shouts a lot to get results. Such lazy depictions are, frankly, dead wrong. Consider this very simple ontological argument; if the Scot were such a simple-minded manager, would he have lasted this long at Manchester United?
United’s gradual and painful assimilation to four-band systems such as 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 has been credited by fans to Carlos Queiroz. After all, the barren period at United coincided with the Portuguese’s arrival. Given that the former Real Madrid manager is famous for his striker-less experiments during his days as Portugal’s youth manager, it probably is true that the radical experiments that took place between 2006 and 2008 were instigated by Queiroz – but it is not true that he brought about the shift to four-band systems.
For one, Ferguson started the shift a year before the former Portugal manager came to Old Trafford. Queiroz arrived in 2002 but it was in 2001 that Juan Sebastian Veron was purchased. With Veron and Roy Keane at the base, the former Aberdeen manager played Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs off Ruud Van Nistelrooy in distinctly 4-2-3-1 ish system.
The Guardian’s season guide to 09/10 predicted that United would utilize 4-4-1-1 – Ferguson’s “love of his sporting life.”
Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson argued, in an interview conducted by Gialuca Vialli, that he never used the traditional 4-4-2 during his time at Manchester United. The statement is not as outrageous as it sounds – for example, United’s 4-4-2 this season has been anything but traditional.
Ferguson’s first great team, despite being labeled as a 4-4-2, played in a distinctly four-band system. Keane and Paul Ince sat deep with Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis placed higher on the pitch than their nominal wide midfielder positions called for. Mark Hughes led the line with Eric Cantona off him. Cantona wasn’t a second forward – he floated around too much. One may justifiably argue that this is all matter of semantics but the Frenchman was more a trequartista than a forward.
Even teams that looked like 4-4-2 never really matched the traditional kind. The second great Ferguson side that won the Champions League in Nou Camp is probably the closest the Scot got to using the traditional 4-4-2 model. Even then, the team always featured a striker who dropped deep, a la Dwight Yorke. Also with David Beckham playing deeper than Giggs, the system at times looked more like a lopsided 4-3-3 than a 4-4-2.
Why has Ferguson been this obsessed with four-band systems? After all, 4-4-2 has plenty of high-profile supporters. Arrigo Sacchi and Arsène Wenger are both fans of the system – they argue that, with intense pressing, the formation dominates the pitch in the most symmetric fashion.
There are many tactical issues with playing 4-4-2 that have already been discussed by this column and by many others. It is also worth noting that intense pressing is extremely hard. It is physically exhausting – even Barcelona cannot keep up the pressure throughout the game. The pressing game also requires a high workload on the training ground – Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side disintegrated as star players simply became fed up with the workload.
A big problem – if not the problem – is finding the right players. Four midfielders must have great engines; they must run from box-to-box, providing presence all over the pitch. Fitting in wingers to the wide spots is possible perhaps but finding box-to-box central midfielders is much harder task.
In continental Europe, where 4-4-2 has largely been discarded, there are almost no players that fit the description. Players who are used to more specialized roles find it extremely difficult to play box-to-box. Even in England, midfielders coming through have been brought up in the continental fashion – Jack Wilshere, for example, does not play like the Scholes of old.
The recent rumors about Javier Pastore, like many other ‘reports,’ are not conclusive but United’s interest in the player is genuine – the Reds attempted to buy the player before he went to Italy. United’s interest – disregarding finance for the time being – is interesting, given Sir Alex’ infatuation with 4-2-3-1.