United’s new four four two – revisited

December 27, 2010 Tags: Opinion 14 comments

This column previously discussed Manchester United’s new 4-4-2. The new system was still experimental at that stage but has come out kicking and screaming in recent games, with its notable lack of traditional width. This is to indulge the type of player that United has in abundance and to mask the Reds’ lack of a classy attacking central midfielder.

However, the formation is more accurately labeled as a 4-2-2-2 because United’s men on the wing are placed higher up the pitch than their normal positions in a traditional 4-4-2 and, crucially, don’t hug the byline. This is the new formation as used against Aston Villa and Tottenham.

In recent games, such as that against Sunderland on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson has gone one step further. Notice (below) the lack of activity in areas around the byline – unsurprising given the nature of new formation – and relative congestion in areas before the final third.

Source: Guardian Chalkboards

Wayne Rooney frequently dropped deep against Sunderland, often to wide left and central midfield areas. That is surprising considering that he was almost always deployed as a number nine last season. Dimitar Berbatov also worked the channels, especially wide right, or dropped deep into wide midfield. Consequently, the Reds’ strikers were often level with, if not behind, the ball entirely. Arguably, this new 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 is actually a 4-2-4-0.

The movement of United’s front men dragged Sunderland’s defence out of shaped and allowed the wingers and Anderson to take advantage. Sunderland simply could not cope with United’s fluidity and capitulated. Conscious of upcoming fixtures, United took it easy and settled into a more rigid formation to see out the game. There is no telling what the score could have been had Ferguson gone for the kill.

This isn’t the first time Ferguson has dabbled in striker-less formations. The trophy haul of 07/08 was largely the result of tactics similar to the one used against Blackburn Rovers and Sunderland this season. But it is rather telling that the Scot abandoned the system in favour of a more solid approach by bringing in Berbatov in the summer of 2008.

Striker-less formations are, simply put, a ploy to take advantage of clever movements. As such they take a lot of work to get right – the relative slow start in 07/08 can be attributed to the fact that Carlos Tevez, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo simply hadn’t clicked together.

The formation is also very demanding on the team. Without a man or two up-front to relieve pressure the team must move up and down the pitch in unison to keep hold of the ball – a pressing game with a high line ensues naturally.

In addition, fluid formations don’t lend themselves to a defensive game. Players don’t stick to their positions so they must constantly assess and adjust the marking scheme – a very demanding task. As such when things go wrong for striker-less formations, they do so spectacularly. AS Roma, the first European side to consistently use such a system under coach Luigi Spaletti, found out the hard way at Old Trafford in April 2007.

This new 4-4-2/4-2-4-0 clearly isn’t going to be used in big games though; Sir Alex is too risk-averse to attempt it. However, the new formation does give United a potent weapon to combat sides that look mostly to defend.

Recent tactical developments suggest that Sir Alex is intent as ever on pushing for European glory. As mentioned, striker-less formations require extensive work in training. The fact that Ferguson has committed the hours necessary indicates that he desperately wants to take advantage of Chelsea’s poor form by building a comfortable lead in the Premier League.

With a safety net in place the Reds will be able to concentrate more on the European challenge come the knock-out stages. The longest serving United manager is no saint – the Rock of Gibraltar incident and the resulting association with the Glazers will forever accompany his achievements – but even his harshest critic cannot deny his insane desire to win.


danniitronix - December 27, 2010 Reply

Didn’t understand that after the first sentence so never bothered with the rest.

What you need to understand though is that in today’s game to adopt a rigid system of play is folly. Why restrict yourself to a set formation in a game let alone, playing home or away. The most successful all round sides are able to staff their squads to play home and away in the main three formations


if you are able to do that and be able NOT to be stuck in your ways and be flexible about it, you have the right set up to defend, create and win, consistently throughout a season.

Last time we did that, we had it in Moscow. The last club side to have that was Mourinho’s, Inter.

uncleknobheadforfucksake - December 28, 2010 Reply

this aint table football, players move about

except valencia, one dimensional villa shitehouse

50ftdubdemon - December 28, 2010 Reply

great read.. have to admit this stuff usually passes me by so nice to read articles that delve into tactics.

system should certainly suit giggs.. saw a lot of him drifting inside and linking up with rooney last season. cant wait for those two to get another run in the team together

Leon-lioN - December 28, 2010 Reply

@ danniitronix, what is there not to understand, you must
be illiterate or something. I understood every word and it does
make sense what he is saying. A very good article indeed.

andrew - December 28, 2010 Reply

Dannii, you’re a clown. Opinions elsewhere please. Great article.

Bill - December 28, 2010 Reply

Yep an interesting article. However it has to be said that football is more fluid and reliant on the decision making as well as flair of individuals than the rigid coaching/tactics of other sports.

Effanga - December 28, 2010 Reply

this whole strikerless thing is the same formation barca used to rip real apart. there’s no striker so the opposing defence plays a high line. the thru ball breaks between center back and wing back n the attacking winger latchhes on sping to goal… just that in the united version there’s power, pace and penetration involved. classic stuff

captainhormone - December 28, 2010 Reply


Spike - December 28, 2010 Reply


bad - December 29, 2010 Reply

We started playing this formation when we signed Tevez….

Bill - December 29, 2010 Reply

Ok then in this 4-2-4-0 what are the 3rd 4? They obviously can’t be strikers or midfielders.

jeff - January 3, 2011 Reply

just no AGAIN
im sorry

bman - January 8, 2011 Reply


Really excellent analysis of United’s play this season compared with the last few, focusing on the Berba vs. Rooney question. I think it’s written by the bloke who does zonalmarking.

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