The World Cup ended on Sunday with Spain the predictable champions after 64 matches, 145 goals and not enough red cards in the final. But what lessons can Manchester United fans draw from the tournament that will go down as one dominated by negative tactics even if the best team eventually triumphed in Johannesburg?
After all football is cyclical with trends in tournaments often rapidly spreading across the European and Global game. Indeed, innovation and evolution in tactics, staff and approach is one of the major reasons Sir Alex Ferguson has remained in the game so long.
Possession, possession, possession
This is hardly new but the higher the competition level the more possession counts. Unless you’re Inter Milan that is. Spain is the finest exponent of the possession game in a generation and without Jose Mourinho in the tournament only Switzerland – more through luck than judgement – was able to shut out the Spanish. The question is – will European football look to the narcissistic Portuguese coach or Spain as the benchmark for future tactical developments? Two-team La Liga is in for a fascinating race next season, while Barcelona will surely begin the Champions League season as strong favourites to regain the title.
United’s tendency to move from back to front quickly is somewhat anathema to the Spanish style. Indeed, United fell behind Chelsea last season in terms of both successful passes and average possession. In World Cup terms United under Ferguson is far closer to Germany than Spain. Let’s hope third place isn’t the season’s outcome!
4-4-2 is dead, long live 4-2-3-1
While Uruguay used two forwards up to the semi-final although not in it, three of the last four deployed the tactical system de jour right throughout the tournament. Indeed, Spain and Holland pushed the system a step further and used wide players on the ‘wrong’ flanks, much like Barcelona over the past two seasons. While tactical trends are cyclical, modern football, played a pace but with an emphasis on ball retention, has evolved a system fit for purpose.
At United Ferguson has transitioned his team from a rigid 4-4-2 of the ’90s to a modern 4-2-3-1 over a number of seasons, reaching its flexible zenith as Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez reeked havoc across Europe in 2008. Last season Rooney spearheaded the attack with Nani and Antonio Valencia offering more traditional wide options. United’s problem is finding an alternative to Rooney at the head of the team’s attack, with both Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen not suited to the role. United fans will have noted with interest that Javier Hernández began Mexico’s last 16 tie with Argentina in that very role.
The play-maker rules
Wesley Sneijder, Mesut Özil, Xavi Hernandez, Andreas Iniesta… dominated the tournament, given the freedom to attack and create by a solid defensive base. The widespread tactical shift to deploying two defensive midfielders – Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets for Spain, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khadeira for Germany, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel for Holland – also enables the freedom for a playmaker deployed between the lines.
United deployed the system for much of last season with Darren Fletcher accompanied by one of Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes or Anderson for most the campaign. Ferguson’s clear problem is in the creative department with Scholes’ ageing legs now ushered into one final season. The Scot has also deployed Ryan Giggs ‘in the hole’, with more success in 2008/9 than last year. Darron Gibson, who may play more often in the attacking midfield role, is hardly in the same class.
It’s the precise reason the speculated bid for Wesley Sneijder got United fans so excited. But with the Dutchman committing his future to Inter, Özil declaring that he will stay with Werder Bremen and Xavi and Iniesta un-buyable, Ferguson has limited options.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing
Diego Forlán, Gerard Piqué and even Carlos Tevez excelled in South Africa. Tim Howard, Jonathan Spector, Juan Sebatian Veron, Gabriel Heinze, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kleberson also played in the tournament this summer. It’s hard to offer Sir Alex too much criticism though. Forlán has built a superb career after leaving United in 2004 but his performances in the Red shirt hardly merited anything else. The right club at the wrong time for super Diego.
Given Rio Ferdinand’s injuries and Nemanja Vidic’s apparent desire to move on, Ferguson will regret allowing Piqué to leave Old Trafford. Whether the Scot had much of a choice is now moot of course. Piqué had negotiated with Barcelona behind Ferguson’s back and the Scot, furious, threatened to kill the deal. In the end Sir Alex took a practical view – Piqué lay behind Ferdinand, Vidic and Evans in the Old Trafford pecking order.
The ‘A’ list failed but new stars were born
Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Fernando Torres and even Lionel Messi failed to produce on the biggest stage in South Africa. But others did well in their wake. Thomas Müller and Özil are now a world stars, Uruguay’s Diego Lugano and Jorge Fucile were superb defensively, Gregory van der Wiel will have earned a big money move, United’s Javier Hernández showed glimpses of his talent, Asamoah Gyan will get another shot at the big time and Schweinsteiger emerged as a defensive midfielder of true world class.
No United players are any good!
Well none made it beyond the second round at least, with the Red contingent all heading off on an extended summer break. Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Nani didn’t play a minute, while Zoran Tošic moved clubs mid-tournament. Meanwhile, Patrice Evra and Rooney will want to forget the tournament quickly.
Sir Alex won’t mind though, with his World Cup stars given at least 28 days break, only a handful will miss the start of the season, injuries permitting.