Sir Alex Ferguson likes width. Throughout the 69-year-old’s tactical tinkering over the years the one constant has been his reliance on wingers, or at least wide-men. United’s recent game against Norwich City at Old Trafford epitomises the Scot’s philosophy.
On Saturday United found it difficult to break down a well organised Norwich defence and Sir Alex’ solution during the second half was to move Ji-Sung Park to the right and have the South Korean cut in and then provide cover for a marauding Antonio Valencia, who had the game at right-back.
There were a number of options open to the Scot. United could have, for example, introduced a more advanced midfielder, or deployed Wayne Rooney deeper, to facilitate play in the middle of the pitch. Instead, the United manager opted for width, as he so often does.
In this there is also a curiosity. In Ferguson’s recent teams United has, more often than not, deployed right-backs that tend to be less attacking than their counterparts on the left. Another puzzling fact is that frequently United’s right-backs have been converted centre-backs. Over the past two decades Chris Casper, Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Chris Smalling are all natural centre-backs who have filled in on the right. Even Gary Neville played many games in the centre as a youth.
One reason for this phenomenon is availability. These centre-backs have often been forced into stints on the right because United had no ‘proper’ attacking right-backs. Indeed, before the Da Silva twins arrived at Old Trafford in 2008, United hadn’t been particularly blessed in the area of attacking right full-backs.
Yet a more probable explanation involves tactics. Sir Alex’ claim that he has “never used” 4-4-2 notwithstanding, United’s tactics have involved close variants of the system over the years. In the Premier League, where 4-4-2 remains the formation du jour, United cannot deploy two attacking full-backs unless a midfielder holds deep, lest United faces an two versus two at the back.
Asking one full-back to hold back is a realistic option, which frees central midfielders to concentrate solely on running the game. The loss, of course, is that the thrust from deep is lessened when deploying less attacking full-backs. The blow is softened should the winger ahead of him provide genuine width, which is, of course, something that Luis Nani or Valencia do very well. The benefit of freeing your full-backs from creative burdens is that the man remains fully focused on defence, becoming an auxiliary centre-back in the process. In such cases a centre-back playing wide doesn’t seem so alien an idea after all.
There is another issue. Ferguson’s current version of 4-4-2 features no dedicated defensive midfielder – not even on the rare occasions Darren Fletcher is playing. In fact more often than not two central midfielders have bombed on this season, so the fact that United’s right-back, usually Smalling, holds back more often than Patrice Evra on the left, and that the former Fulham man has been preferred to Fabio, suggests that the United manager has been instructing his right-back to be more defensive. It’s a tactical plan fully supported by the theory presented above. The question is whether this is enough to maintain a sound defence.
The evidence suggests otherwise. David De Gea has been forced into more saves than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League. This statistic suggests that United’s defence has been rather porous. In fact, the open defence has started to hinder United’s attack by allowing the opposition more time on the ball than deserved. This is a problem that needs to be fixed soon.
One option open to Ferguson is to further instruct United’s full-backs to limit their forages forward, retaining three at the back more often. Another is to replace the current ad hoc system of one central midfielder holding while the other joins the attack, with a more rigid system and a traditional holding player.
Fans might bristle at the suggestion of being more defensive but they must remember the dictum that solid defense wins trophies. Following United’s 3-3 draw with FC Basel in midweek it is a point openly made by Ferguson too.
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