Tactical evolution key to mitigating United’s weaknesses

September 11, 2013 Tags: , Reads 8 comments
featured image

In the three seasons between 2006 and 2009 Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand formed possibly the best central defensive partnership football has ever seen. Ferdinand was no push over in the air, enabling United to play deep when necessary. Meanwhile, the pressing game with a high defensive line was no problem either because Vidić had the pace to recover.

Indeed, prior to the 2008-09 Champions League final, Manchester United was expected to defeat Barcelona with the Reds’ defensive solidity often cited by pundits and fans as United’s big advantage.

As the pair aged each has become more injury prone, with younger players such as Jonny Evans increasingly filling the gaps. Yet, Vidić and Ferdinand have remained first choice despite their noticeable lack of pace; perhaps David de Gea’s initial inexperience and timidity called for calm hands at the back.

However, Evans has firmly established himself as the automatic choice to partner either the Englishman or the Serbian when one of them is absent. The Northern Irishman does not possess Phil Jones’ natural talent, nor does he have Chris Smalling’s physical attributes, but he has more top flight games under his belt and offer keen tactical awareness.

Last season Evans was typically deployed as the left-sided central defender. However, when Jones or Smalling was deployed at right-back, the academy graduate shifted right as well. Since deployment at centre-back is fundamentally different from doing so as a full back and it makes perfect sense to have Evans, who is positionally excellent, and quick enough to mop things up if necessary.

There were other interesting combinations. Smalling was preferred on the left when he partnered Vidić. Despite his height, the former Fulham player is more comparable to Ferdinand than Vidić in style. Crucially, the Englishman offers mobility over the Serbian – for some reason Sir Alex Ferguson always preferred his left sided central defender– be it Evans or Smalling – to be mobile.

Perhaps a clue lies in Ferguson’s assessment of his left-back, Patrice Evra. The Frenchman enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2012-13, but he has never been a particularly good defender. Poor positionally, Evra has always relied on his pace and the centre-back partnering him on the left side to counter the opposition.

Given Evra’s weaknesses it made perfect sense to have the quicker of the central duo on the left and Ferguson’s preference for Evans and Smalling in that position is justified.


Data from the 2012-13 season suggest that central defenders tend to put in more tackles, commit and suffer more fouls and get involved in more headed duels when playing with Evra on the left. The implication is that United’s opposition has often targeted Evra as the defensive weakness in United’s back-four.

Other data supports this theory. Evra’s impressive rate of winning headers last season has often been brought up. Indeed, Evra’s 62 per cent success rate dwarfs Leighton Baines’ 39 per cent and Ashley Cole at 53 percent. However, Evra dealt with 3.21 headed duels per game when Baines dealt with 0.74 and Cole with 1.29. Despite being shorter than the former Monaco player, and worse in the air, Rafael, on the right, got involved in 2.14 aerial duels per game.


Full-backs’ primary offensive role is to create chances. In that aspect, Evra compares very favourably to Fabio Coentrão and Baines – David Moyes’ two defensive targets this summer. But it is the defensive statistics that confirm why the new United manager went looking for a new left-back.

Evra’s low proportion of interceptions in defensive actions, and the fact that the Frenchman committed more fouls per game suggest that his positioning is poor compared to Coentrão and Baines. Coincidentally, the figure has shrunk to 17.9 per cent this season. But the data from last season suggests that the Everton left-back would have provided greater security at the back, while offering offensive qualities at least as equal to Evra’s.

Additionally, there are tactical implications. Moyes’ side has faced significant challenges this season and most of them are caused by the team sitting too deep – Vidic and Ferdiand’s pace necessitating the move. With Evans, Smalling and Phil Jones coming back into action, the Scot can consider pushing his team up once again.

Fellaini’s acquisition adds a little bite in central midfield and pressing as a defensive measure has now become a viable option. However, it is difficult to foresee a manager with Moyes’ reactive tendencies setting up a pressing game with a positionally poor left back who is clearly being targeted by the opposition.

There are alternatives though: a midfield diamond might solve many of Moyes’ defensive problems, and release attacking options. Fitting in Shinji Kagawa, a player who can offer the creative spark United is desperately seeking, is easy. Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie would be free to move into wide areas in search of space, which should ameliorate the lack of width prevalent in the diamond.

With Fellaini’s arrival United now has the number and variety needed for a midfield heavy plan. The deep-lying midfielder can cover advancing full-backs without worrying about losing the midfield battle. And with United’s options on the flanks limited, using Fellaini’s brawn and Kagawa’s brain appears a more productive approach.

The plan has weaknesses; attacks down the flanks – especially quick counterattacks – are extremely dangerous, but United already faces that challenge with teams targeting the left flank. Meanwhile, United’s full-backs, starting in the Swansea game, tended to concede the ground, come inside and defend the box anyway.

Putting theory to work is difficult, nor is there any guarantee that it will work. Sir Alex had experimented with the formation last season so Moyes has a base from which he can work. The transfer window has closed and the winter market is notoriously bare – the new manager now has make do with what he has. Tactical evolution may be the answer.


Trevor - September 12, 2013 Reply

The main weakness in the United defence is both full backs. Even when they are attacking up field Evra has either has to beat a man before he centres or has to take two or three touches Rafael when he gets in the same position to centre he passes to Valencia. Both are very slow to get back to defend when they lose the ball
At least Evra goes back to his natural full back position whereas Rafael goes to the centre of the goal and plays centre half. Both need changing. Valencia, full back..?

twat - September 12, 2013 Reply

My tactical knowledge is shite, but this article appears to make these points:
1. Evra is crap at defending
2. Use a diamond that offers full-backs no protection
3. Put them together & hope it works…

Gaurav - September 12, 2013 Reply

It’s a Jay Shon article – what do you expect but speculative crap?

We went Ed… we want Paul….
We went Ed… we want Paul….
We want Ronny, and his Russian doll…
If that fails, we’ll take Luka instead
And smack that angry & confused Ogre on his ugly head!!

Jay Shon - September 12, 2013 Reply

Should have been more explicit about that. Sorry.

Under Moyes, the full backs have been coming in and defending the box.

So United can keep doing that and concede the flanks. The opposition will be heavily outnumbered in the middle though with United playing a midfield diamond. With Fellaini there to win battles and hold up out balls from the defense, the opposition faces a big risk of being overwhelmed in the middle when they commit men to the flanks.

Also with four men in the middle, the deepest midfielder can shuttle across the field laterally and cover the full back.

The major problem with United wingers is that they can’t reliably offer goalscoring threats. This is a big issue because except for Giggs we don’t have a left footed winger in the squad. Valencia has been in decline since the start of last season so by playing wingers whether in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 we essentially have two players on the field who offer very little.

With a midfield diamond, United can fit in Kagawa who will probably offer more creativity than all the wingers combined.

The midfield diamond worked, although not spectacularly, last season so it should be even better now that we have Fellaini, a physical presence in central midfield.

twat - September 13, 2013 Reply

Ok, thanks for the clarification.
Agree about the wingers but still think Nani could provide some end quality -at least more than Tony, Young & Giggs- and reproduce his form of a couple of years ago . As frustrating as he is I’d prefer to see Nani try something and fail to Valencia’s unwillingness to try anything.

ForeverRed - September 14, 2013 Reply

Completely agree with you on this. My heart sinks when I see either Giggs, Young or AV25 in the starting XI. When all 3 are there I know for sure what kind of game we are in for.

Giggs should retire gracefully, give the youngsters a chance and put all his knowledge and experience into coaching them. Young and Valencia are one trick ponies who have been well and truly sussed out. Valencia at least can offer something defensively, but it’s like playing with 10 men when either of them is out wide/up front.

Tourettes @ the KOB - September 12, 2013 Reply

Two issues, we can’t be as poor as we were against the dippers, some invention and forward apssing from midfield, where is Kagawa, ? and get someone up with RVP so he doesn’t get so frustrated and get himself sent off, without him the goals tally would never tick over,
Second, WTF is Giggs doing still playing , he’s even too old to carry the water
bucket , get some youth on the pitch !!

Denton Davey - September 12, 2013 Reply

Trevor @ 9:12: “Evra goes back to his natural full back position whereas Rafael goes to the centre of the goal and plays centre half.”

Watch more closely, NinjaEvra gets caught out by coming in-field a lot. He rarely gets beaten for pace and since few teams play with touchline-hugging wingers, he’s not especially vulnerable in that regard.

LittleRedRafa is improving consistently – if/when he plays with AV25, the right side is just about hermetically-sealed. Of course, if UTD abandon the whimsical notion that a touchline-hugging winger like TonyV is essential to the attack then Rafael will be more exposed.

What’s interesting to me about this article is the implicit acknowledgement that, for all intents and purposes, UTD have a strong tendency to play with a “back three” rather more than most would acknowledge – the full-backs are there to provide attacking width; indeed, having touchline-hugging wingers is somewhat irrelevant and tends to mean that the midfield is under-manned (regardless of who is partnering MC16).

Leave a Reply Cancel