Manchester United’s loss to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday was the third reverse in the Premier League this season. Many of David Moyes’ problems tie in the tactics the former Everton manager has deployed, which have impacted both defence and attack.
One of the key concepts behind Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 formation is to develop two points of attack. By contrast two pure strikers offers essentially only one target to aim for. With a forward deployed in the hole, however, the team uses the number ten to feed its advanced forward, or provide other attacking players passing options.
The two banks of four used in Moyes’ prefered 4-4-1-1 formation offers a solid defensive base – it is a relatively simple shape that offers cover as the midfield four closely tracks the opposition midfield. And with at least one forward staying in the opposition half the team can quickly attack on the counter.
However, these two banks of four are rigid and the formation needs careful calibration if the side wants to avoid becoming overly direct. After all, the system deploys nobody to mark the opposition number ten so the gap between the defence and midfield needs to be narrow in order to squeeze the space in which opposition playmakers can operate.
This space has to be carefully managed, lest the team is forced deep, especially where the defence is immobile. The consequence is the requirement for a high line if the team is to play attacking football. It was this gap that Samir Nasri expertly exploited in the recent derby, ravaging United’s defence in the Reds 4-1 defeat at the Etihad.
Jonny Evans’ return, a mobile and seasoned defender, offers hope and Rafael da Silva should soon regain match fitness to take up his position on the right. It will allow Moyes to use Phil Jones or Chris Smalling in their natural position at centre back. However, United’s new conservatism under Moyes suggests that Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will feature prominently in the future. There are times that call for a deep line, but being forced into it is a different matter entirely.
The most significant weakness in United’s two banks of four is that against most systems in modern football there is no spare man at the back. With the Reds’ central midfielders, wingers and full-backs completely occupied man-for-man by the opposition, United’s central defenders are left to deal with two opposition forwards by themselves.
The system also requires central midfielders to act as a duo; a staggered pair in the middle can easily be outmaneuvered. Moyes’ apparent faith in Anderson is perhaps an attempt at enabling a midfielder to join the attack while maintaining a deep line, trusting the Brazilian’s pace to quickly return to midfield in defensive situations.
With the engine room pinned back United’s attacking thrust must come from the flanks. In Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 the Reds’ wide midfielders must hug the byline – getting caught out in central positions can put the team in an undesirable situation where central midfielders are dragged out wide and the wide men are forced to cover through the middle.
Part of United’s problem this season lies in Wayne Rooney. The former Everton player is in very good form, but he has been deployed as a second striker. Rooney comes deep only when the opposition is in possession for a prolonged period of time and bombs forward as soon as United regains the ball.
With Vidić and Ferdinand uncomfortable in a high line, Michael Carrick and his partner cannot push up the pitch without compromising United’s defensive integrity. Carrick and Maroune Fellaini’s lack of pace exacerbates this problem.
Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valencia and Adnan Januzaj can all play the traditional wide role, but the fact that United doesn’t have a genuine aerial presence bar the new Belgian acquisition limits the usefulness of this quintessentially British approach to football.
The unexpected defeat to West Brom on Saturday epitomizes the problems both in defence and attack inherent in Moyes’ 4-4-1-1. Perhaps emboldened by Evans’ return, the Reds pushed high up the pitch. Anderson and Carrick, in particular, enjoyed time on the ball, although West Brom’s midfield stuck close enough to the United duo to limit the incision or penetration from the middle.
Meanwhile, United used a mixed approach on the flanks. Nani played well in the first half, but was seldom seen after the break. On the right the Portuguese attacked the byline and crossed. Yet, with little height in United’s forward line, West Brom opted to defend the box, allowing the winger space and time to play.
While Rooney and Javier Hernández failed to penetrate the deep-lying West Brom defence, a breakthrough appeared possible with Nani delivering sharp crosses and United having good possession.
During the opening period Nani and Shinji Kagawa also drifted inside. With Rooney seemingly neither playing up front or in the hole United’s nominal wingers offered additional passing options in central attacking midfield.
This changed at half-time when Moyes introduced Adnan Januzaj and removed Kagawa, who failed to provide much creativity from the left. However, the former Everton manager put the left-footed Belgian youngster on the right and switched Nani to the left. The intention was clear – central midfielders spreading the play wide, wingers cutting in and full-backs crossing. It is a sound, if predictable, tactic that was often been used by Moyes in a decade at Everton.
Yet, the Scot failed to recognize the difference between his current and previous clubs. The approach in the first half offered great flexibility. The lack of running from central midfield was disappointing, but Nani at least put in several quality crosses.
The second half rendered United predictable. Rooney continued to storm forward, leaving nobody operating in the hole. Carrick and Anderson, who was replaced by Fellaini, were nullified by West Brom’s engine room and there was no one linking the forwards and midfielders.
Robin Van Persie, just back from injury, was introduced, but the delivery from Buttner and Jones was poor and, with the Belgian midfielder sitting deep, there was little aerial prowess in the box to threaten the West Brom defence.
Two goals conceded at Old Trafford and four the Etihad showcase the defensive frailty inherent in the current United set up. United’s central midfielders were occupied by their counterparts. There was no spare man at the back and the defence was pulled out of shape by the opposition, leaving the Reds extremely vulnerable with far too many gaps.
The concept of using Rooney as a second striker is attractive if United can genuinely create a presence in the hole. Kagawa is having great difficulty in fulfilling that role, with Moyes insisting that the former Dortmund player defend as a wide man in two banks of four. Meanwhile, United’s midfield pair needs to move as one unit to preserve the Reds’ defensive shape and cannot consistently provide runners from deep.
It leads to an obvious conclusion: a dedicated holding midfielder is required. Rafael Benitez, a manager well versed in the 4-2-3-1 system, has always argued that both central midfielders need to stay deep to accommodate two attacking full-backs. Indeed, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side included Alvaro Arbeloa, a solid defender, at right-back. United, however, does not possess a forward in Cristiano Ronaldo’s mould and the utility of whipping crosses into the box is limited.
Such a move is virtually impossible in Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 with wide players holding a defensive responsibility and unable to cut in. The in vogue concept that ‘central midfielders take turns going forward’ requires a number ten like Toni Kroos at Bayern Munich who comes deep and forms a midfield triangle in the middle to play the ball out of defence. In Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 though, the number ten dropping deep leaves the number nine - normally van Persie – completely isolated.
There are other questions too. Of late David De Gea has been passing the ball out to defenders rather than putting it in the opposition half. It is probably a measure to retain possession and defensive shape, but the move has considerably slowed down United’s tempo, leaving the opposition ample time to set up defensively.
Perhaps a tactical shift to 4-3-3 is possible should Moyes persist with the rapid introduction of Januzaj into the first team. But with four good strikers and a number ten of Kagawa’s pedigree in the squad, the formation isn’t Moyes’ best option.
However, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 might allow the number ten to drop deep and let defenders move the ball quickly and accurately up the field without isolating the advanced forward. The central midfield will have to sit deep though, with Evra and Rafael aggressive attackers and head and shoulders above United’s alternate full-backs. Rooney can play the Kroos role, but the problem of fitting in five central forwards into two spots has lingered on from last season.
Alternatively, a midfield diamond solves a lot of Moyes’ problems. A dedicated holding midfielder provides defensive cover and enables other central midfielders to join the attack. With three central forwards, Moyes can take full advantage of a variety of strikers at his disposal. However, the suspicion remains that the new United manager is too cautious for such an adventurous endeavor.
It is still early days – Moyes has been in charge for only a handful of games at United. The former Everton manager has been exposed to great pressure, but his excuse that he is still getting to know the squad rings hollow. The Scot has assessed his team during preseason and all evidence suggests that he was approached about being Ferguson’s success long before the official announcement.
United’s abysmal failure in the transfer market, aided and abetted by Ed Woodward, is understandable. Neither Woodward nor Moyes has ever operated at the top end of the market.
United’s offensive failure is disappointing; that United’s defence has been repeatedly breached too is appalling given that Moyes’ reputation is built on solidity.