Ferguson’s right-back question

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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Comments

  1. Spider says

    It could almost be argued that it’s a rule in football tactics to never have both your full-backs bombing forward at the same time. Evra is so attacking that the right full-back must be defensive. Having said that, when Smalling and Jones have played right-back this season, neither has been shy going forward. I seem to remember the average position map for the Chelsea game showing Smalling in line with Anderson, and ahead of Fletcher.
    Personally, I think we have been too gung-ho on many occasions this season. Against an efficient team that defends well and counter-attacks with pace (like us in the last few seasons) we would come badly unstuck. Chelsea blew it by attacking us right back and missing their chances. It must be said though that injuries have mucked our defence around so much, it’s been impossible to have a settled back four, a probable contributing factor in the positioning errors that have been going on.

  2. dozer says

    I disagree with a few points in this article. Fergie is a bit complacent with the right back position imo. He plays Valencia there, he played him there even with Fabio on the bench. And last season I’ve seen both full backs in the final 18 yards, when one crosses the ball in, the other attacks it in the penalty area.
    Fergie should’ve played Fabio there more often; he is after all a more natural full back and he’d be better than Valencia there for sure. Valencia/Nani would be brilliant substitutes to bring on, we musn’t try to accomodate both on the right.
    Fergie does tend to experiment with his formations early in the season, but now with City and Chelsea challenging, both teams who can just throw another 100m away in Jan, it’s imperative that we end the year on top by 5-6 points at least
    With this defence, it looks very unlikely.

    Sir Ryan Giggs? No no no. Sir Paul Scholes say.

  3. RobDiabloRobDiablo says

    As soon as Jones is no longer needed to cover at centre and fullback, he should be given a turn as the holding midfield player. From that position, he would be able to use his dribbling and passing ability to create attacking options while also being speedy enough to get back to provide cover for the back four. If it turns out that Jones doesn’t have the timing or vertical leap to be a Vidic-like monster in the air, then midfield will probably turn out to be the best position for him to play.
    EDIT: agree with Dozer – no more Valencia at right back except in an absolute emergency. He should never start there while a healthy right back is on the bench.

  4. Wil says

    Gritty win last Saturday says it all by Ferguson. Anderson disappointed once again. His passing in the opponent half was dreadful despite scoring. On a more positive note, Fletcher seems to be picking his form after 2 or 3 consecutive games… but as this article state, our defense is something to worry about and I believe this starts from our troubled midfield where we are not controlling games. Putting Jones in midfield could be a solution and I’m still waiting for Fergie to do something. It was disgusting to see teams like Stoke kicking us out of the game in midfield!

    For right back, I don’t see it as a huge problem. I still believe Valencia can do a job there for some games. I thinks players like Valencia, Rafael and Fabio will do well against speedy, smaller-skillful teams like Barcelona or Arsenal. But if we are playing teams like Stoke & Norwich then a bigger, more physical player like Smalling or Jones should be at right back. Evra has a pretty good leap for a small player just as long he covers his left back space. Some goals we lost this season is because Evra has went inside centre too much thus giving oppositions right wingers too much time and space to pass or shoot.

    Our form has dipped since the Chelsea game but hopefully when we have more players coming back fit will help strengthen the team and find our early season form again!

  5. bman says

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but I don’t agree with this article’s basic assumptions at all. I don’t know why you think we haven’t been playing attaching right backs: the twins are probably even more attack-minded than Evra on the left, and Smalling and Jones have been bombing forward as much as any fullback you can name (Jones has been bombing forward as a centre-back too, but that’s a different issue). Before them G-Nev was also an attacking fullback, I can only imagine you never got to see him before he was a bit over the hill.

    Yeah, we’ve played some centre-backs in the right back position when injuries dictate, or sometimes for tactical reasons (i.e. before Nani learned to defend or we wanted to unleash Ronaldo). But what team hasn’t stuck a centre-back in the right back position on occasion, when push comes to shove any right-footed player can do a job, hedge the old adage that the right-back is always the worst player on the team.

    I would have thought the left-back issue deserves analysis more than right-back, where we’re spoilt for choice provided we don’t have 8 defensive injuries, which of course is most of the time to be fair…

  6. says

    Right-back question??? Rafa and Smalling both injured and sometimes Rio. So really, the issue has been one of availability.

    Valencia is not a right-back though and frankly we should stop dicking him around.

  7. Alfonso BedoyaAlfonso Bedoya says

    Calvino said:
    Right-back question??? Rafa and Smalling both injured and sometimes Rio. So really, the issue has been one of availability.

    Valencia is not a right-back though and frankly we should stop dicking him around.

    To be fair… as long as Nani and Young are fit and playing well, Valencia won’t see much game time… and in an emergency, he’s done ok as a right back.

  8. says

    At the moment Nani and Young are nailed on starters, Rafael and Smalling are injured and Jones is playing the middle. So…..playing a someone of Valencia’s quality at right back is more than an acceptable scenario. Especially the way we are going forward at the moment. Guess we won’t know Fergie’s first choice until we play a big European or league game and we are injury free.

    • Mongoletsi says

      Word. I remember when Giggs and Sharpe would find themselves at left back, because they could “do a job” there, and they were basically too good to be left out.

      • RobDiablo says

        The point is that Valencia – as a right back – is not “too good to be left out”. Pilkington owned him on several occasions and, had he buried one or two of the chances he made, we’d all be second-guessing Sir Alex for playing Valencia at right back when he had enough quality defenders to fill out the back four.

  9. RobDiabloRobDiablo says

    I like Valencia a lot, especially the way he never shirks his defensive responsibilities when playing on the wing, but he is not a defender by trade and he has been turned inside-out on several occasions recently while playing at right back. As with the rest of the defenders in the last few matches, Valencia’s mistakes have not cost United – mostly due to opponent’s “how on earth did he not score from there” moments. If any natural defender is fit and available to play at right back, they should start before Valencia. Against Norwich, for example, had Sir Alex used Rio to partner Evans (was he saving him for England; United’s next match was two weeks away?), Jones could have covered at right back and, I daresay, Norwich would have enjoyed far fewer chances than they did.

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