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.
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.