Moyes forced onto the defensive

September 29, 2013 Tags: , , Reads 30 comments
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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.


Shamoon Hafez - September 29, 2013 Reply

RT : Moyes forced onto the defensive – >> read this – a brilliant analysis of #MUFC at the moment

OZ71E - September 29, 2013 Reply

mate that’s an outstanding breakdown on the tactical side. Can I be bold and ask what level your coaching badge is at? #curious

AMAN MATHARU - September 29, 2013 Reply

one of the main reasons why we haven’t scored from open play in a while?

yudo yuridyo - September 29, 2013 Reply

Excellent review! -> “: Moyes forced onto the defensive – #unitedrant”

Eddie London - September 29, 2013 Reply

The problem United have in playing the high line is lack of pace. Ferdinand although he has been a good servant, no longer has the pace to function successfully in Moyes system. Also, presently the midfield lacks mobility and pace. Solutions are not easy with the current squad for the way Moyes wants to set up, however he would be. Better advised to change more gradually as the squad is still full of quality. Phase out the more elderly in the squad, gamble more with the likes of Zaha and Janusaj and other talented youngsters. We do need new signings as I beieve that the squad has lacked investment for a while especially in midfield. Our wingers have underperformed significantly hence lack of chances being created. I hope Moyes can sort it, weneed to be patient but also he needs to sending out more positive messages. At the moment he is being too negative.

Chris Nicholls - September 29, 2013 Reply

Davis Moyes is right in saying that without buying top players United cannot win the Champion’s League. Indeed, not even the Premiership. But it is not his fault. There is a calculated cunning plan to deceive the United supporters by the Glazers. They have no intention of spending any real money, so for the sake of a couple of million more United do not get Baines that they need. They then concoct a story about Bale, and offer a ridiculous amount to delay Real in buying him, so that the deal to offer United their defender fails. The United owners are greedy, cunning profiteers, and do not have United’s interest at heart. This is why Ferguson resigned, and Moyes will also, as he cannot keep on taking the blame for United when his hands are tied and cannot have the players the club needs.

Tony - September 30, 2013 Reply

All the stories linking Utd to Bale originate from one person……none other than Daniel Levy. Bale’s agent Johnathan Barnett says that there was a higher bid for Bale, but does not know who made it. He also confirmed that neither he nor Bale had any contact with this club. Perez also confirmed there was a higher bid, but surprise surprise, he didn’t know who it was either Either first hand or second hand, this all comes from Levy, at a time when he was making sure that the money wasn’t paid over 6 years. In a word it was all about Levy getting leverage- there was no Utd bid for Bale.

Gavin - October 3, 2013 Reply

Our squad is good enough that we should not be losing to West Brom at home

jimmy newton - September 29, 2013 Reply

what about a rotating five point star formation swirling between the lines with a over lapping double defensive immobile diamond formation with one up top .

The_Philosopher - September 30, 2013 Reply


jimmy newton - September 30, 2013 Reply

it works for Cowden beef

SABIITI STEVEN - September 29, 2013 Reply

this moyes guy z very annoying!!!!….. hiz so indicisive!!! even when u clearly see issues on pitch he kips guessing on the bench!!! that west brom game had me screeming for a right back subsititution & shifting jones to central midfield to deal wth sesengon’s raids!!! that danzt reqiure a signing!!!! dammmnnn wats up wth u MOYES!!! for now oplay jones in def.midfield till wen u settle!!koz hiz far beta than av static fellaini!!!…samone nids to shout at MOYES PLIIIIIIIZ!!!….& PLIZ STOP GIVING EXCUSES AFTER VERI BAD GAMES!!!!!!JST GO & FIX YO TAKTIKS THAT SQUAD EVN WTHOUT ADDITION WON THE LEAGUE BY 11 POINTS!!!! & LOST 5GAMES WE SHOULD NOT ENTERTAIN TIMID MEDIOCRITY AT THIS CLUB!!!…U KNEW YOU WERTE TAKING OVER SO STOP BABY CRYING YOU R NOT A KID GET TO WORK!!!!!! WE ALSO RUN COMPANIES :& NEVER BABY CRY WE FIIIIX OUR MESS!!!U RATHA FIX & FAIL BT DONT BABY CRY IN THE PRESS!!!!U WERE NOT HIRED BY THE PRESS!!! U WERE HIRED BY MANUTD LTD &B THE GLAZERS SO GET TO TOUGH HARD WORK IF U HAV NOTHING TO SAY RATHA SAY NOTHING!!! ROONEY DINT SAY ANYTHING IN HIZ RECENT POOR FORM HE GOT TO WAAAK!1..& HIZ NOW FLYING!!! GET TO WAK MOYES THIS Z NOT A PARTY IT IS “BLOOOODY HELLLLL!!!” SO SAID FERGIE U REMEMBER!!!!

Cass - September 29, 2013 Reply

Try that again, only this time in English, if you please.

gabagool - September 30, 2013 Reply

Oh goody.. I like puzzles. .. this one appears to be some kind of word jumble.

The_Philosopher - September 30, 2013 Reply

Very well said.

Moyes is too busy pointing the finger at everyone else instead of himself.

He is a little man in a big man’s shoes. . .

jimmy newton - September 30, 2013 Reply

you need to fix your English

Bob sleigh - September 29, 2013 Reply

Agree with many points but not with the Johnny Evans being mobile….he is not mobile and stays off attackers rather than being touch tight due his lack of turning ability, Johnny is an excellent passing centre half who lacks mobility.

Varun - September 30, 2013 Reply

why he doesn’t play a diamond. Jones as DM. Carr, nani, kagawa in middle and rooney at the tip. So he still has his trusted 442

jimmy newton - September 30, 2013 Reply

your one missing

Ry_Mar - September 30, 2013 Reply

Great stuff in there, the analysis really helps frame the issues. What I find most interesting is that if you’re right and Moyes is trying to push his style onto United’s squad, that seems a bit problematic at best.

With Baines and Coleman, Moyes had genuine attacking threat from full backs down both flanks – with pace – but at United keeps sticking in centre backs at RB instead of Fabio, meaning we offer nothing down that side.

Distin was a big part of the Everton defense for the past few seasons, and one of his greatest assets is pace – something I don’t believe any of our backs now possess.

And you’re right, Moyes likes having a player in the hole, but Rooney roams so much as to almost negate that position.

So given that Moyes has inherited at the very least a better squad than what he had, shouldn’t he be coming up with a formation that best utilises these players, rather than shoe-horning them into his formation?

The_Philosopher - September 30, 2013 Reply

Very well said.

I am affraid of Moyes being exposed. He doesn’t seem to have what it takes to perform at this level.

Time will tell. Its a tough transition.

But the early signs seem to suggest that he’s out of his depth.

Its time to sit tight right now though. We’re still far from panic stations. . .

Damian Garside - September 30, 2013 Reply

I have always felt that the problem we have had with the system to play is one that has been created by Rooney. It seems to me that either he must play as a dedicated CF — or he must be allowed to roam. But as you argue, he romas too much to be an effective number 10 playing in the hole and setting up the main striker. Now, recent matches have shown that we have to keep him and play him (proving me wrong in being so negative about him previously). I don’t know much about football tactics — certainly nothing like the impressive stuff above from the Rant writer. But gien hie special status — we need to think of a system that would maccommodate him — and allow him to move between being classic CF and roaming deep-lying forward/attacking midfielder. Then we can get Kagawa in the hole– where he can playmake — because he is our only playmaker — and we chose a solid base to the team — but have 1 or 2 from Januaj/Nani/Zaha in attack to support van Persie. I think we have to have Kagawa plus Rooney plus van Persie plus one of the young skill and speed guys I have mentioned (though nani perhaps isn’t so young any more). Everyone has a fixed role– except Rooney — who is given whatever licence he needs. If it doesn’t work then one of Rooney/van Persie or Kagawa will have to leave .and we must look for the third player whpo WILL create a holy trinity (like the Best/Charlton/Law trinity of the 60s)

RedAlert260599 - September 30, 2013 Reply

I think Rooney’s roaming is down to the fact the players around him are offering very little in attack and he feels he has to do it all himself. – That’s the impression I got on Saturday anyway. Jones – not a right back, Buttner – not good enough, Anderson – time to say goodbye. It all comes down to years of Glazer under-investment in the team. I’m amazed we won the league at all last season with this squad, never mind romped it. It just shows what a great manager Fergie was. We are in for interesting times at OT.

therealdeal - September 30, 2013 Reply

Moyes needs to put Rooney upfront with VanPersie, Kagawa in the center behind the strikers, Zaha on the right wing and Nani on the left wing. Moyes bringing this outdated style football to the club is the reason why we sit in 12th position. He is not a good tactical manager and his motivation is poor! One more loss and he will be gone! We can’t afford to keep sliding into the relegation zone.

Gavin - October 3, 2013 Reply

What and then have Carrick protecting the back four by himself?

Barry Wharam - September 30, 2013 Reply

like a lot

Dayus D red - September 30, 2013 Reply

Good article but i don’t think is as complicated as you made it. The fact is we play the same 4-4-2 as City yet we were overwhelmed because certain players failed to do their jobs and the coach couldn’t react on time. We conceeded 6goals in two matches and they followed the same pattern. Against City, all the goals were pull outs from the wings where AY and AV failed woefully to track back. Again WB, the two goals came from the right wing. First, Buttner overlaped ahead of Januzaj. When we lost pocession, they was no body to cover. You can argue Rio did not cover himself in glory, but you wonder where Evans who played i on the left side of CD was. Its was his job to cover for Buttner. The mid field should also share the blame for allowing an opponent to run almost 80mtrs unchallenged. The second goal was also from the right.Buttner and and Evans once again guilty and our mid fielders failed to track back. In all, formation is not to blame but the coach and the personnel used. Carrick and Felliani play a flat system and sometimes they don’t know whom to pick. Unlike @ City where Toure is the advanced one whilst Fernadinho sit and protect the defence, we don’t know who does the protection @ United. Whereas City has wingers with pace and can consistently beat a man, our coach is afraid of using Zaha. Moyes must sort out the roles of Carrick and Felliani. We can’t have both of them playing deep and square. That is the problem. He must be ready to take risks and be brave. A situation where he is already advancing excuses for failure in the CL after a match does not speak of a coach with confidence.

Neil - October 1, 2013 Reply

Excellent article. And sums up my feelings… especially Moyes’ cautiousness and use of Rio and Vidic in a defensive high line.

Ashish - October 1, 2013 Reply


This was an interesting article which brought up some points worth noticing.

Moyes is still finding the right balance in the team and he’s busy tinkering trying to find out which system and tactics suits the current squad.

In this entire process, we’ve become alarmingly lax defensively. The likes of Rio and Vidic who were once absolute rocks are now being run ragged. In recent matches against City and WBA, I got the impression that opposition strikers and attacking players were putting a ring round their noses and bamboozling them inside out.

Last time this happened was back in the 2011 CL final against a certain team from Catalunya.

Also it is worth noticing during the WBA game, when Moyes used inverted wingers(Nani on the left and Janujaz on the right), going forward, we looked a greater threat.

Maybe this is something Moyes can think over.


holebass - March 4, 2014 Reply

i always think with the current team squad we can play attacking football with a 4-3-3 tactics. david moyes’ 4-5-1 requires a centre forward who can head in or pass from a cross, but i dont think rvp or rooney can be this type of player. i dont even know if this tactics can help united dominate in the football nowadays. pass and run and pressure is the most popular tactics in the world now.
last summer, i thought pep or jose might come to united and now im sure if we have hired him things might have changed. surely this is just my opinion, but i really think pep’s 4-3-3 in barca or jose’s in madrid can be used in united as well. rooney can play on the left, he played this position along with ronaldo and he played well, rvp knows 4-3-3 well back in arsenal, januzaj can be a sanchez or di mara type play if he carries on developing his skill. mata or kagawa can act as our iniesta, carrick as a holding midfield he could be our busquets. we might just need to add a piece in the midfield, player like gundohan or kroos could be a xavi, rafael and evra are both attacking full backs, and we might just need one experienced defender to act as puyol to play along with young def like jones and evans, our version of pique.
maybe this sounds just like sth in video game, but if we have pep or jose, i do think we can make this team. or maybe moyes would finally change his tactics… no one knows

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