Sir Alex Ferguson has done it again; the 69-year-old Manchester United manager has created a new tactical template, with players to go with it. United’s formation this season might nominally be a traditional 4-4-2, yet the deployment is anything but ordinary. Two, not one, strikers drop deep as wingers push forward. With no dedicated holding player, both central midfielders – Anderson and Tom Cleverley – maraud into the attacking midfield positions. Ferguson’s attacking six players converge in the same area and have created some beautiful football – as the recent 8-2 victory over Arsenal suggests.
And it is the young players that are key to making the system work, in particular Danny Welbeck. Tall and strong, the 20-year-old can play the traditional target man with whom United can relieve opposition pressure. The English striker also operates as a traditional number nine that diligently works the channels. He can also beat a man using pace and skills – something that Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández cannot offer on consistent basis. Crucially, Welbeck is comfortable operating a little deeper (see figure 1, below), often occupying the same spaces at ‘deep-lying’ Wayne Rooney.
It is, perhaps, a touch too early to call Welbeck a complete striker but he is more complete than both Berbatov and Hernández. It is this well-roundedness that has seen Welbeck preferred over his more established colleagues in the current, fluid system.
Guardian writer Sid Lowe suggests that tiki-taka style of football deployed by Barcelona is as defensive as it is aesthetically pleasing. After all, the opposition can’t score if they don’t have the ball. Ferguson’s deployment last season of two ball-playing midfielders, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, in a 4-4-1-1 was forced by necessity. Darren Fletcher, a more destructive player, would surely have been preferred had he been fit during the closing weeks of the season.
Still, the system worked a treat for Ferguson and United. Carrick and Giggs, along with Rooney, maintained the ball so well that it was not necessary to deploy a holding player to disrupt the opposition play. At least until United met Barça in the Champions League final, with the Catalans playing tiki-taka better than anyone else.
This season, Ferguson has upped the ante. Central midfielders, wingers and strikers congregate in the same area (see Figure 2, below) to form, effectively, a 4-2-4-0 or a 4-6-0 system. With so many players in close proximity any given player has multiple teammates to pass to. United has maintained possession well, including 60 per cent of the ball enjoyed in the 3-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur recently at Old Trafford. With central midfielders requiring dynamism in the new system, Carrick and Giggs have been discarded in favor of Cleverley and Anderson.
However, with no holding midfielder screening play and the attacking six pressing like there’s no tomorrow the United defence faces two very tough choices: risk a high defensive line or; play deeper and isolate the attacking six. The first option would not have been possible with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. The older duo is slower than Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, leaving United vulnerable to pace and the ball over-the-top. Even when Jones and Evans have been pushed deeper the presence of David de Gea – an excellent distributor – allows the ball to move forward.
That isn’t to say that the older players will forever play second-fiddle this season. The downside of fluid systems is that they tend to fail spectacularly. Recall Roma’s 7-1 defeat at United’s hand in 2006/07. Sir Alex will likely go for more rigid formations in Europe to combat the defensive frailties inherent in the a system that features no holding midfielders. Even should the Scot persist with the current formation, players will be rotated for the system places great physical demands on players. The workrate put in by Ashley Young and Nani, who regularly cover for the defensive, is an example. Yet, the way Ferguson’s youngsters are playing, the old guard will have to work hard to play. After all, Ferguson, the notorious tinkerer, would never have selected the same line-up twice in a row had he not been impressed.