In 10 years under David Moyes Everton relied heavily on width. With Sir Alex Ferguson also a believer, Moyes has persisted with the philosophy in his new role at Manchester United, although the result has been mixed at best.
Sides facing the Reds tend to focus on retaining a defensive shape, and an attacking philosophy that becomes predictable makes it easier for opposition to anticipate and react to United’s attacks. Relying heavily on the flanks, for example, falls into that category. This is one reason why Ferguson tried to include as many avenues of attack as possible to break down stubborn opposition.
After a run of poor results early in the season Moyes might have learned this lesson too, although he has problems with implementation. The line-up against Sunderland last weekend was versatile, with a variety of formations such as 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 all possible without substitution. Adnan Januzaj and Nani added flexibility – United could use the flanks traditionally or otherwise. Even deployed on the natural flank, each is comfortable using their weaker foot and Sunderland was forced to risk allowing the United duo to cut inside.
Meanwhile, with Wayne Rooney deployed as more of a forward than a genuine number 10 the Englishman came deep only occasionally, leaving room for Januzaj to play between the lines. The plan was scuppered only by Sunderland’s use of a 4-3-3 formation with Lee Cattermole holding. In the end United struggled to channel balls through the middle.
One consequence was that United attacked almost exclusively down the flanks, delivering 30 crosses, and made it easy for Sunderland to defend. In fact so easy was it for Sunderland in the first half that the Reds might have lost if it wasn’t for David de Gea’s heroics and, eventually, Januzaj’s brilliance.
It has been a pattern this season, with United’s opponents defending deep and shepherding Red wingers out wide into predictable situations. It is a tactic that doesn’t even play into the Reds’ hands, with Marouanne Fellaini the only aerial presence in the squad.
Meanwhile, Robin Van Persie’s isolation up front has been an issue throughout the campaign. One good game against Swansea City lies in contrast to his fine record last season. Even so the Dutch striker’s form this season is puzzling given that United hasn’t lost any key personnel nor has the side changed tactics significantly.
Perhaps the answer lies in the lack of a player deployed behind the Dutchman. Rooney was deployed at number 10 last season, while Danny Welbeck played a similar role against Swansea on the opening day of the campaign. With a player in the hole the opposition is forced to commit an extra man between the lines.
Meanwhile United’s wingers are more potent too. After all, crosses are more dangerous with a forward arriving late into the box having escaped his marker. Yet, for the most part Rooney has been deployed as a partner of, rather than a supporting man to, van Persie this year.
Over the past two seasons Rooney has played successfully at 10 – at least in terms of his output, albeit with differing instructions each campaign. Yet, United’s performances have dropped since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Madrid, with a group of wide players taking poor form into the current season from the last.
Aside from Ronaldo’s loss, much of the problem lies with in Rooney’s footballing style. The former Evertonian has never been particularly comfortable playing in tight quarters, leading the 27-year-old, whether by instinct or instruction, to release the ball to the flanks. It is always an easier out ball since wide men tend to have more space than the central forward.
To his credit ‘White Pele’ is a player who looks for the ball, but his influence directly affects the type and quality of football United plays, and his tendency to shift the focus to the flank has prompted some of club’s lower quality displays in recent years. Not least because United can boast so few wide players in form.
Width is, of course, central not just to Moyes, but to many managers in world football. Wingers tend to suffer the least opposition pressure and present an easy passing option. Speedy wide men also stretch the field of play and make it easier for those through the middle to find space.
Yet, Rooney’s style tends to offer a map to the Reds’ approach – one that’s not particularly useful in any case, with so little aerial prowess in the squad.
In order to break out of this cycle Moyes could refocus United’s threat through the middle. Welbeck has often played at 10, and presents a safe option given his work rate and tactical intelligence. But the academy graduate lacks real incision leaving Shinji Kagawa a far more adventurous choice in the hole.
Despite not playing regularly the former Dortmund player boasted the highest passing completion rate in the final third in England last season. Notwithstanding his excellent form in the Bundesliga from 2010-12, Kagawa affords United a passing option near the opposition box that no other player offers.
There are risks: it is often said Kagawa’s lack of physicality causes United problems through the middle. However, recent changes in the squad may offer an answer to this problem.
Fellaini has long held that his natural role is that of a defensive midfielder, although the Belgian has added little steel in the engine room to date. Indeed, the Champions League game against Shaktar brutally exposed a serious flaw in the former Everton player. The Belgian gave away a series of fouls, which was understandable because of his limited European experience, but the tendency to give away possession, was even more worrying.
Closer to home, Cleverley has become a defensive midfielder of note under Moyes. The England international is making more interceptions and tackles this season than ever before. On average he has made three tackles per game this season against 1.68 tackles per game last season, while the midfielder’s tackling success rate has increased from 78 per cent to 93 per cent.
At the Stadium of Light, for example, Cleverley successfully completed eight tackles from nine attempts. The midfielder was deployed in a central two against Sunderland’s three man midfield and his tackle success rate, number of tackles and courage, knowing that a missed tackle would put his defence under pressure, was highly impressive.
Moreover, Cleverley has maintained the 90 per cent pass completion rate of last season. Incredibly, 63.6 per cent of his passes are forwards – against 56.5 per cent last season. The former Wigan Athletic player does not offer the sheer brawn of Fellaini, but the statistics suggest that Cleverley is now an accomplished tackler who also keeps possession.
Meanwhile, Kagawa is the one United player who can go laterally and offer United more attacking options. Rooney is a better crosser, and perhaps more threatening than the Japanese out wide, but Kagawa is unquestionably superior floating behind a striker.
The former Dortmund player covered more ground than any other player in his last Bundesliga season, roaming in search of space and allowing midfielders to move the ball up field safely. The Japanese could do the same for United, helping the Reds to keep possession in the middle and freeing Michael Carrick at the same time. In fact, Kagawa’s ability to navigate the game in tight quarters means that Moyes could even consider a Carrick-free midfield.
Ferguson’s purchase of Kagawa, and the Scot’s initial deployment of the Japan international at 10, indicates that the transfer had a rationale behind it. Cleverley’s development might allow Moyes to deploy a traditional number 10 whose primary role is to provide creativity.
Although this switch might place too much emphasis on Kagawa the creator, Januzaj’s rapid growth could divert attention from the Japanese, if Moyes dares to deploy both.
And while is Rooney still is a better all-round footballer than Kagawa the Scouser severely limits United’s attacking variety. Sir Alex benched expensive and seemingly important players, such as Dimitar Berbatov and Ruud Nisterlooy, when needed. Does Moyes have the bottle to do the same with Rooney? He might just benefit from it.