Rafael’s promise a blessing and a curse

January 25, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments

Despite his crossing ability, Gary Neville has been more a full-back who can attack than a proper attacking player in the mould of Cafu. Yet, Rafael da Silva’s emergence this season has allowed Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps for the first time in his Manchester United career, to depend on his right full-back to provide genuine creativity.

And while it is plain, even to the most casual of fans, that United lacks a creative central player, Ferguson clearly recognises the issue. United’s tactical focus this season has been to flood the attacking central midfield area with numbers – a ‘quantity over quality’ approach.

United’s base system of 4-4-2 cum 4-2-2-2 cum 4-2-4-0 has born some fruit in the home games against Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Birmingham City. An argument can be made though that United’s new 4-4-2 is as much about providing a platform to best utilise the Brazilian full-back as it is about masking the lack of a playmaker.

Rafael has noticeably matured this season even if he remains hot-headed for a defender. United’s system plays to his strengths – by playing a nominal 4-4-2 Rafael has a wide man ahead who provides cover. And because the right winger, usually Nani, is encouraged to cut in, Rafael also has space when in possession.

The twenty-year-old is a genuine attacking threat. Rafael’s blistering pace is buttressed by excellent close control and dribbling. The Brazilian’s passing and crossing are technically proficient even if his decision-making lets him down. Age and experience should improve the timing and reading of the game.

On paper, Rafael’s progress is exciting. Surely, one more avenue of attack will make United even more exciting. However, one must not forget that Patrice Evra is also very attacking.

Take infantry as an analogy – organised by ‘fireteams,’ the idea is to have one soldier charge and gain ground while his or her partner covers the runner. Defence in football operates on the same idea. One-to-one battles are not desirable – once a defender is beaten, the attacker has a free shot at goal.

Football managers have thus always sought a spare man at the back to provide additional cover. For example, one can play three centre-backs to counter two strikers. Or in four-man defensive systems, managers often have a full-back or a midfielder stay behind and form a defensive unit with the centre-backs.

With Rafael and Evra both charging ahead, United faces an undesirable two versus two at the back, especially against teams playing 4-4-2. Even against systems that nominally feature only one striker, such as 4-2-3-1, leaving two men back is risky because of the opposition player ‘in the hole.’

Compensation comes at a cost – a central midfield player can drop deep and provide cover, but the team then gets outmanned in the middle.

United’s response has been interesting. Wayne Rooney has been playing very deep of late and that has ensured United does not get overrun in central midfield. But in the recent away game at White Hart Lane, United suffered simply because Rooney had a bad day.

Indeed, therein lies the problem. United’s new 4-4-2 is a great idea but it can only be a temporary fix. Ferguson’s system asks the midfielders, and one of the strikers, to essentially play two roles. It is arguable that Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are playing badly this season simply because they are being asked to do too much.

The system works fine when United can hold the ball and play a high line. Yet, in less fluid games the team gets stretched and players find themselves covering a too much ground and running themselves into submission.

With a marquee signing looking increasingly unlikely United will have to make do with existing players. If the answer doesn’t come in the market perhaps one solution to this dilemma is tactical, by deploying a 4-2-3-1, with Rooney as a central attacking midfielder rather than striker. While Rooney has never been – and never will be – a proper playmaker beggars cannot be choosers.

Another, more familiar, option is to play Rooney as lone striker in a variant of 4-5-1. This less fluid system allows players to domore specialised – hence easier – roles. With central midfielders in their proper place the Reds will hold onto the ball more easily, which of course relieves pressure and further reduces the chance of anyone being caught out of position.

United’s 4-4-2 is an exciting, fluid system. It has the potential to do some real damage as Blackburn found out the hard way. But one cannot persist with a system that puts intolerable pressure on central midfield for the possibility of great football.

We must keep in mind the dictum that sound defence wins championships.


sarin - January 25, 2011 Reply

doens’t make sense for you to be saying that he’s a a curse? rephrase that man, you’re taking it abit too far away from yer stride. He’s a blessing, true!! fullstop. don’t bring in negativity when the boy already has red cards flying when they are not even justified. Let him be brotha, and by saying let him be, i mean let him be a superstar of a player!!because thats what he will be, and yer article will be history. peace, cheers!

Ed - January 25, 2011 Reply

Sarin – the curse, should you choose to actually read the piece, is that Rafael’s attacking prowess leaves United open to 1-v-1 at the back necessitating an extra man in midfield.

danniitronix - January 25, 2011 Reply

too simplistic in my view, the modern RB and LB is a Carlos, Cafu, Abidal, Cole, Ramos, and Maicon not a classic defender.

The advantage is a supremely dynamic attack of the ones that Evra and Raphael can be part of. The dangers of which can be mitigated by having two central midfielders who can sit back and control the centre of the park whilst the likes of Rooney, Berbs supported by Evra and Raph and of course Nani / Valencia, cutting in or playing our wide in combination to attack the goal.

A sound defence is of course essential to win a championship but you overrate how much defending the LB and RB do as compared to their attacking and you article also underrates the job that central defence and the goaly undertake.

I would go one step further, the holy trinity of two central defenders and a goaly in a consist line-up is the essential characteristic of a champtioship winning side.

the LB and RB sure no doubt are vital in set peices etc but there ability to spring into action and distribute is arguably more important than their defending.

the truth is that you will find evra and raph higher up pitch than carrick and fletch because they are in fact support attackers more so than defenders – and actually, carrick and fletch are forced to drop deep to help rio and vid to defend the back line.

depends a lot on opposition but you will find the average position of raph and evra a lot different v. arsenal than v. a shit team. horse for courses and all that.

Ed - January 25, 2011 Reply

danni – I think you’re actually agreeing with Jay on this. Ferguson has always been happy with his central defenders going 1 on 1 at the back.. in fact he said so about Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnson. The difference these days is that Ferguson has built his team around having an extra man in the middle. Whether its 4-5-1 or using two holding players. Very rare for United to play with a central midfielder that breaks ahead of the ball. That’s a big change from the late ’90s for example.

Jay Shon - January 26, 2011 Reply

To claim that Fergie has always been happy to have 2 vs 2 situation at the back is little incomplete.

Ferguson tried three at back on numerous occasions for one. There is an amusing part in one of Ferguson’s published diary where he claims that his side containing 3 at the back did poorly because opposition apparently knew beforehand somehow that United will play 3 at the back and from the start played one up top and switched flanks rapidly.

On a very pedantic note, it can also be claimed that United has more often than not played three at the back (2 CBs + a libero) albeit a very weird one with the libero on the right. Sir Alex has always converted his small but talented centerbacks to fullbacks (G. Neville, Chris Casper, jonathan Spector and Wes Brown being prime examples). Perhaps because of their “natural” positions, these players have been very defensive.

And Sir Alex always deployed a central midfielder usually Keane or Butt to help out in defense – especially in European matches.

Certainly when Ince, Keane and Cantona were here, United played distinctly in a 4-2-3-1 ish system with Cantona being the “number ten”. Keane also speaks of him having to become more of a holder (he described it as becoming less box-to-box and more playmaking) when he first came to United – apparently it was Bryan Robson who suggested that he become so during one of their drinking sessions.

The claim that Sir Alex switched to four-band systems at the turn of last century is far too “crude.” His sides have always been quite distinctively different from classical 4-4-2. Starting in 2000s, he abandoned his flexible systems – mostly for reasons stated in this piece. From 4-4-2 cum 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, Ferguson switched to more rigid 4-3-3/4-2-3-1.

ian - January 25, 2011 Reply

Jay I think you have gone over the top here. You have dismissed Dennis Irwin very cheaply. You cannot expect the finsihed article with Rafael; seems to me he is an intelligent lad who learns quickly. In terms of promise I would say he is the best right back I have seen since Roger Byrne. I would have thought that when either Pat or Rafael ‘charge forward’ it is drilled into them the other one hangs back, unless we are desperate in the last few minutes. Much the same with the midfield. Apart from Veron SAF has never gone for a ‘playmaker’ & he seems to have been badly scarred by the experience. He has never gone for a Makelele type either. So he relies on his midfielders to be intelligent -Robson,Scholes, Ince & Keane- one to go forward the other to hang back. Of course we were unbelievable lucky; you don’t get better than Robson & Keane. Scholes, of course, has always had defensive limitations. Personally I think the way ahead is to have a top class creative & defensive midfielder. One of the best things about SAF is that he is flexible enough to adapt the system, (if there has ever been a system),to the players available. Think about when a certain Frenchman came along.

Jay Shon - January 26, 2011 Reply

Sure Irwin could play on both flanks but I believe he was primarily a left-back?

To say that SAF has never gone for a playmaker is just patently false. Eric Cantona for one was more a trequartista than a striker – actually Sir Alex claims, with some justification, that he never played classical 4-4-2 during his time at Old Trafford.

And when Veron came, it was really Scholes who was asked to play as a playmaker – not Veron.

It is true that SAF has never gone for playmaker-centric formations like 4-3-1-2 and 4-4-2 diamond and, like Sacchi, he tends to value “universality.” But his sides have always featured a player who more often that not occupy the hole and play the final ball.

redevil_83 - January 25, 2011 Reply

really good piece. yes our 442 is fluid, but if you want quality build up play it must take place from teh center of the pitch. i agree that maybe fletcher and carrick are being asked to do too much this season and provide more defensive shore. but neither of thsoe two (and carrick’s drop in confident passing) can match the creativity and channel play of scholes. gibson makes the CM role even moer difficult to come to terms with. united are shorn of top quality in that area, and until we get that name in look for wide enterprising play and some skill on the edge of the box from our front players to provide the entertainment

herbie simms - January 26, 2011 Reply

The article claims that Carrick and Fletcher are playing badly this season. Well, I don’t know why SAF persists in playing Darron Gibson. He simply isn’t good enough. Gibson is a one trick pony, he has a kick on him like a mule. He cannot tackle, his passing isn’t great and his work-rate is nowhere good enough.

jeet - January 27, 2011 Reply

mule or pony, make up your mind! For chrissake, his bollocks depend on your decision!

Calvo - January 27, 2011 Reply

Quite simply Utd have to go out and get a “specialist” DM i.e. M´Vila or Lass et al, and a “playmaker” who is capable/prepared to also be a box to box type i.e. Schweinsteiger-type.Because simply put once Scholes is not in the team we have no one in the CM who puts their foot on the ball and dictates the play, thus allowing more free-flowing football for players like Raphael (as he is the subject matter) to roam forward knowing he will not only recieve the ball, but that down our flanks we can be even more potent.On a side issue please do not let Gibson be part of the midfield!…

ian - January 27, 2011 Reply

Jay. Irwin was, I think, naturally right footed but learned to use his left effectively. Funny how one sees things differently. I have never considered Scholes a play-maker, until perhaps after Keane left. Creative yes. Eric was a genius, but I would call him “a classic number ten”. All words. Want we need is a creative, mobile player, with a bit if pace & a lot of football intelligence who can open up tight defences. Doesn’t matter what we label him. Everyone in the bloody universe thinks Gibson has failed that audition. Funnily enough I think Veron fitted that description.

GeorgiaJon - January 28, 2011 Reply

Good piece

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