Tag Tactics

Tag Tactics

Ferguson’s right-back question

October 2, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 14 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson likes width. Throughout the 69-year-old’s tactical tinkering over the years the one constant has been his reliance on wingers, or at least wide-men. United’s recent game against Norwich City at Old Trafford epitomises the Scot’s philosophy.

On Saturday United found it difficult to break down a well organised Norwich defence and Sir Alex’ solution during the second half was to move Ji-Sung Park to the right and have the South Korean cut in and then provide cover for a marauding Antonio Valencia, who had the game at right-back.

There were a number of options open to the Scot. United could have, for example, introduced a more advanced midfielder, or deployed Wayne Rooney deeper, to facilitate play in the middle of the pitch. Instead, the United manager opted for width, as he so often does.

​In this there is also a curiosity. In Ferguson’s recent teams United has, more often than not, deployed right-backs that tend to be less attacking than their counterparts on the left. Another puzzling fact is that frequently United’s right-backs have been converted centre-backs. Over the past two decades Chris Casper, Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Chris Smalling are all natural centre-backs who have filled in on the right. Even Gary Neville played many games in the centre as a youth.

​One reason for this phenomenon is availability. These centre-backs have often been forced into stints on the right because United had no ‘proper’ attacking right-backs. Indeed, before the Da Silva twins arrived at Old Trafford in 2008, United hadn’t been particularly blessed in the area of attacking right full-backs.

Yet a ​more probable explanation involves tactics. Sir Alex’ claim that he has “never used” 4-4-2 notwithstanding, United’s tactics have involved close variants of the system over the years. In the Premier League, where 4-4-2 remains the formation du jour, United cannot deploy two attacking full-backs unless a midfielder holds deep, lest United faces an two versus two at the back.​

Asking one full-back to hold back is a realistic option, which frees central midfielders to concentrate solely on running the game. The loss, of course, is that the thrust from deep is lessened when deploying less attacking full-backs. The blow is softened should the winger ahead of him provide genuine width, which is, of course, something that Luis Nani or Valencia do very well. The benefit of freeing your full-backs from creative burdens is that the man remains fully focused on defence, becoming an auxiliary centre-back in the process. In such cases a centre-back playing wide doesn’t seem so alien an idea after all.

There is another issue. ​Ferguson’s current version of 4-4-2 features no dedicated defensive midfielder – not even on the rare occasions Darren Fletcher is playing. In fact more often than not two central midfielders have bombed on this season, so the fact that United’s right-back, usually Smalling, holds back more often than Patrice Evra on the left, and that the former Fulham man has been preferred to Fabio, suggests that the United manager has been instructing his right-back to be more defensive. It’s a tactical plan fully supported by the theory presented above. The question is whether this is enough to maintain a sound defence.

The evidence suggests otherwise. ​David De Gea has been forced into more saves than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League. This statistic suggests that United’s defence has been rather porous. In fact, the open defence has started to hinder United’s attack by allowing the opposition more time on the ball than deserved. This is a problem that needs to be fixed soon.

One option open to Ferguson is to further instruct United’s full-backs to limit their forages forward, retaining three at the back more often. Another is to replace the current ad hoc system of one central midfielder holding while the other joins the attack, with a more rigid system and a traditional holding player.

Fans might bristle at the suggestion of being more defensive but they must remember the dictum that solid defense wins trophies. Following United’s 3-3 draw with FC Basel in midweek it is a point openly made by Ferguson too.

Why Fergie may persist with youth

August 30, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 20 comments

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.

Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney positions

Credit: Guardian Chalkboards

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.

United average positions

Credit: Total Football iPhone App

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.

Champions League final 2011: tactical preview

May 23, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 31 comments

With the Champions League final approaching, Sir Alex Ferguson must find answers to several key tactical questions ahead of the game at Wembley next weekend – from Manchester United’s formation, to dealing with Barcelona’s plethora of attacking options. In the first of a week-long series of build up articles, Rant’s Jay Shon looks at the key tactical decisions facing United ahead of the final…

With United generally being more defensive in Europe than in domestic games – Ferguson’s side is yet to concede away from home in the Champions League – one might be tempted into thinking that United might go for a 4-3-3.  Indeed, the Reds have used the formation featuring two ball winners and a deep-lying midfielder as the midfield trio in recent years.

However, with Darren Fletcher likely to miss the game after missing much of United’s run-in, Ferguson’s squad lacks a genuine ball winner in midfield to attempt the system. In addition, the second ball winner – Anderson or Darron Gibson – is known to squander possession. It is a sin that cannot be tolerated against Barcelona where possession comes at a premium.

In fact United is more likely to line up in a shape similar to the side’s that faced Chelsea and Shalke in previous rounds, although not in a 4-4-1-1 system.  It is a formation that requires wide players to work alongside central midfielders, as opposed to playing as pure attacking midfielders. Such placement will allow Barcelona’s full-backs too much time and space. Indeed, one of the reasons United lost the recent Arsenal game is because Nani and Ji-Sung Park couldn’t get at the Arsenal full-backs. The mistake cannot be replicated against Barça whose full-backs are even more dangerous than Arsenal’s. To counter, United must deploy a 4-2-3-1 system, pushing both Valencia and Park further forward.

With Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs expected to play, ball winning is a concern for Ferguson. However, Park, Valencia and Wayne Rooney all do plenty enough running and tracking back to cover for lack of a dedicated ball winner in the central midfield.  Ultimately, United’s formation will be key – the Reds lost the 2009 final against Barcelona thanks, frankly, to the baffling 4-4-2 shape. Ferguson must not repeat the same mistake.

Meanwhile, United must also counter key Barcelona threats. Lionel Messi is acknowledged to be the most dangerous man in football and stopping the Argentinean is essential to a United victory. In the previous meeting, Messi was a deployed as a “false 9,” a centre forward who drops deep, to great effect. United could not cope with his movement and Messi was left free for majority of the game. There are no excuses this time as Messi has been used solely in the role this season. Ferguson and his players should be well prepared.

Perhaps the most obvious solution, since Barça plays with a lone forward, is to have one of United’s centre-backs to push into midfielder to meet Messi. However, with David Villa playing on the shoulder of last defender, leaving a gap in defence might not be the best response. Should United choose to take this route, full-backs Patrice Evra and Fabio da Silva must either play extremely defensively to keep numbers at the back, or offensively, pinning back Barça’s wingers.

Alternatively, Ferguson may opt to play a high line and deny Messi the space to turn. United will be susceptible to quick balls over the top or exquisite through balls, both of which Barça are very capable of, but it’s a tactic that will work if United can maintain a decent amount of possession.

This Messi conundrum is caused because United’s midfield trio is matched by Barcelona’s inverted triangle, leaving no free man in either side’s midfield. It might just be that Michael Carrick, the more defensively aware of United’s central midfield duo, will have to drop deep every now and then to pick up the little Argentinian.

Another principal tactical threat to United comes in the shape of Dani Alves, who is widely considered to be the best attacking right full-back in the game. Given Sir Alex’s usual tactics over the years, Park will almost certainly be deployed to do a defensive job on the Brazilian. However, the gap that Alves leaves behind by him also presents an attacking opportunity for United. Barça play a very high line, which is compounded by the gap left in the Catalans’ right channel. It leaves Barça defense vulnerable to pace of Javier Hernández and Rooney. In fact, it might be worth a gamble by deploying Nani on the left to aggressively take advantage of this opportunity.

Champions League Final 2009: a tactical retrospective

May 6, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 35 comments

Barcelona vs Manchester United, Stadio Olimpico, Rome. 27 May 2009.

The 2009 Champions League final, which will be repeated at Wembley in 22 days time, resulted in a hugely disappointing loss to Barcelona in the final. Rant looks back on that final and wonders whether Manchester United will make the same tactical mistakes again?

Both teams lined up as expected; United missed out on Darren Fletcher after Scotland captain’s unfortunate booking in the semi-final with Arsenal. Meanwhile, an injury crisis forced Barcelona into fielding a makeshift back-four including Yaya Touré in central defence.

For United, Cristiano Ronaldo led the line, with Sir Alex Ferguson deploying Wayne Rooney and Park Ji-Sung in wide positions, aiming to contain Barça’s fullbacks. Barça used Lionel Messi in the now familiar “false 9” role, forcing Samuel Eto’o wide.

Surprisingly, United initially lined up in 4-4-2 with Ryan Giggs playing as a supporting striker – it was perhaps an attempt to press and take the game to Barça, although Giggs floated too much to get a sense of how United lined up at any given time.

United started the game brightly though with Victor Valdes saving an excellent Ronaldo free kick early in the game. After all, the Reds had been pre-match favourites.

Eto’o and Messi kept changing position as game settled into a pattern, which caused United considerable problems. Ultimately when Messi dropped deep in the ninth minute, not a single United midfielder picked him up. The Argentinean pulled Andreas Iniesta’s marker out of position, which afforded the Spanish international a free dribble, eventually allowing Eto’o to score past Edwin van der Sar at the near post.

The goal could have easily prevented had United maintained a more disciplined shape.

United persisted with a 4-4-2, (see figure 1, below) which Barça negated by simply passing around the oncoming Red midfielders. The shape also meant that Park and Rooney had to form a second line of defence with United on the back foot. It took the pair away from Barcelona’s full-backs, enabling Puyol and Sylvinho’s influence on the game to grow.

Figure 1

United was unable to cope with Barça’s relentless pressing. United chances were then limited to long balls down the flanks, while Messi was also left without a marker for most of the game (see figure 2, below).

Lack of organised pressing, resulting from United’s rather limiting formation, allowed Barça to get hold of the game. United players could not abandon a post without leaving a an opponent free, while Barcelona stroked the ball around freely. United sorely missed a dedicated ball-winner.

By the end of first half, United swapped Giggs and Rooney’s positions to little effect. In another change, the half-time interval saw Carlos Tevez’s introduction at Anderson’s expense. Giggs was pushed deeper to maintain a 4-4-2ish shape and again Messi was to left roam free by United.

Figure 2

Sir Alex soon substituted Park for Dimitar Berbatov allowing Ronaldo to occupy a more familiar left-wing role. With United enjoying some success on the wings, it was a move that made sense, also introducing some height to the penalty box.

The changes were soon negated though, with Messi scoring a free header in the 69th minute; he had been left without a marker for much of the game. The player’s excellent movement and Xavi Hernandez’ exquisite cross should be commended but Ferguson must also take some of the blame for picking a shape that left the most dangerous opposition player free to do as he wished.

After the second goal, Barça comfortably saw the game out.

While it is true that almost the whole United side had an “off day”, Ferguson’s team was also hampered by frankly baffling tactics. United lost the midfield battle – a failure to be placed on the Scot’s head, who decided to play two central midfielders, including Anderson and Michael Carrick. Park’s headless running on the wing was also a factor of United’s shape.

United lost because for two reasons: the team shape and a complete lack of pressing. The question is – will United repeat the same mistake again on 28 May?

Wingless Ferguson

May 1, 2011 Tags: , , , Reads 16 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson is on record stating that he has never used a traditional 4-4-2. It is true, however, that systems he has used over the years, including 4-2-3-1, are cousins of the orthodox 4-4-2. It is not true though that Ferguson is tactically inflexible; he has used variants of 4-3-3 and even three-at-the-back systems over the years. However, one thing is consistent over all these years – no matter what Ferguson’s tactics, he has always used wingers.

It is no great wonder that the Scot prefers wingers in his side – Manchester United has been particularly blessed in the department. However, Ferguson’s luck with wingers is  running out and it may prompt a change.

Antonio Valencia, whilst good, is a limited player. Ferguson’s comment that the Ecuadorian would have been purchased regardless of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure suggests that Valencia was bought not as an indirect replacement for the Portuguese, but to take Park’s place as someone who can be deployed in big games to pin back full-backs. Nani, on the other hand, has come leaps and bounds this season, although the issue of consistency still lingers, and media reports that Nani is positioning for a move to Italy cannot be ignored.

It also remains a problem that Valencia and Nani are both naturally right wingers. This column has previously discussed why Nani performs better on the right. Valencia, being a more limited player, simply cannot play on the left. An easy out is to purchase a left sided player – it is perhaps the reason why Ashley Young has been linked to United in the press.

Even if Ferguson’s situation with his wingers is resolved, the midfield remains a problem. This column has previously argued that United will probably persist with 4-2-3-1 based systems and purchase an advanced or deep-lying playmaker to add some “stardust” to the team. It was an argument made before the burgeoning partnership between Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández.

In recent games Rooney has been deployed in deep roles;  deeper than he has ever played in his career. The English international has revelled in the freedom afforded by depth. With Hernández stretching the play, Rooney has all the time and space to do whatever he wants. Hernández is the key – the opposition defensive line drops so deep to pick him up that Rooney is often left without a marker. This is a great partnership and one that shouldn’t be altered.

Does this mean that an exciting attacking midfielder can’t be brought into the club this summer, and must United persist with wingers? An attacking midfielder, for argument’s sake let’s say Javier Pastore, can be bought and played in a 4-3-1-2, with Rooney and Hernández deployed up top. However, a deep-lying playmaker in the mould of Luka Modric can be bought and fit into the existing system. It is, indeed, a more likely option.

But what stops the old Scot from making one last big tactical change before retirement? After all, Ferguson has shown over the years that he isn’t afraid of the change.

Ferguson has already tried out the wingerless system in the League Cup game against Southampton. The game ended disastrously, as the midfield failed to perform.  The issue with such systems is width. Midfielders and strikers must work tirelessly to provide it in lieu of traditional wingers. But United does have players like Rooney and Darren Fletcher, who are tailor made for such roles.

Another boon of using a wingerless system is that Michael Carrick would be freed. With so many players around him, the Englishman won’t be pressured as much and will be able to provide calm passing from deep.

However, another concern with the 4-3-1-2  system is facing teams that do utilise width extensively. AC Milan was destroyed by Tottenham Hotspur this season for precisely this reason. In such matches United can revert to 4-2-3-1, placing wingers or players such as Rooney in wide positions to counter the threat. Additionally, Chelsea showed last season that wingless formations can work in the Premier League if the team is good enough.

The coming summer will be exciting for many reasons. One of them could be that Sir Alex abandons his only tactical constant.

Ferguson and 4-2-3-1: a love affair

March 10, 2011 Tags: , Reads 22 comments

There are certain supporters and pundits who paint Sir Alex Ferguson as an angry, old man who shouts a lot to get results. Such lazy depictions are, frankly, dead wrong. Consider this very simple ontological argument; if the Scot were such a simple-minded manager, would he have lasted this long at Manchester United?

United’s gradual and painful assimilation to four-band systems such as 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 has been credited by fans to Carlos Queiroz. After all, the barren period at United coincided with the Portuguese’s arrival. Given that the former Real Madrid manager is famous for his striker-less experiments during his days as Portugal’s youth manager, it probably is true that the radical experiments that took place between 2006 and 2008 were instigated by Queiroz – but it is not true that he brought about the shift to four-band systems.

For one, Ferguson started the shift a year before the former Portugal manager came to Old Trafford. Queiroz arrived in 2002 but it was in 2001 that Juan Sebastian Veron was purchased. With Veron and Roy Keane at the base, the former Aberdeen manager played Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs off Ruud Van Nistelrooy in distinctly 4-2-3-1 ish system.
The Guardian’s season guide to 09/10 predicted that United would utilize 4-4-1-1 – Ferguson’s “love of his sporting life.”

Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson argued, in an interview conducted by Gialuca Vialli, that he never used the traditional 4-4-2 during his time at Manchester United. The statement is not as outrageous as it sounds – for example, United’s 4-4-2 this season has been anything but traditional.

Ferguson’s first great team, despite being labeled as a 4-4-2, played in a distinctly four-band system. Keane and Paul Ince sat deep with Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis placed higher on the pitch than their nominal wide midfielder positions called for. Mark Hughes led the line with Eric Cantona off him. Cantona wasn’t a second forward – he floated around too much. One may justifiably argue that this is all matter of semantics but the Frenchman was more a trequartista than a forward.

Even teams that looked like 4-4-2 never really matched the traditional kind. The second great Ferguson side that won the Champions League in Nou Camp is probably the closest the Scot got to using the traditional 4-4-2 model. Even then, the team always featured a striker who dropped deep, a la Dwight Yorke. Also with David Beckham playing deeper than Giggs, the system at times looked more like a lopsided 4-3-3 than a 4-4-2.

Why has Ferguson been this obsessed with four-band systems? After all, 4-4-2 has plenty of high-profile supporters. Arrigo Sacchi and Arsène Wenger are both fans of the system – they argue that, with intense pressing, the formation dominates the pitch in the most symmetric fashion.

There are many tactical issues with playing 4-4-2 that have already been discussed by this column and by many others. It is also worth noting that intense pressing is extremely hard. It is physically exhausting – even Barcelona cannot keep up the pressure throughout the game. The pressing game also requires a high workload on the training ground – Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side disintegrated as star players simply became fed up with the workload.

A big problem – if not the problem – is finding the right players. Four midfielders must have great engines; they must run from box-to-box, providing presence all over the pitch. Fitting in wingers to the wide spots is possible perhaps but finding box-to-box central midfielders is much harder task.

In continental Europe, where 4-4-2 has largely been discarded, there are almost no players that fit the description. Players who are used to more specialized roles find it extremely difficult to play box-to-box. Even in England, midfielders coming through have been brought up in the continental fashion – Jack Wilshere, for example, does not play like the Scholes of old.

The recent rumors about Javier Pastore, like many other ‘reports,’ are not conclusive but United’s interest in the player is genuine – the Reds attempted to buy the player before he went to Italy. United’s interest – disregarding finance for the time being – is interesting, given Sir Alex’ infatuation with 4-2-3-1.

After defeat, what next?

March 2, 2011 Tags: , , , Reads 52 comments

The matches against Crawley Town and Marseille were unbearable for most Manchester United fans. Old Trafford, famous for fans loudly urging the team to attack, has become a boring place of late – a sad thought for anyone who has witnessed classic matches at the stadium. Despite United scoring more goals than any other side in the Premier League, the Reds performances have also been sub-par this season.

The problem lies in the squad. United does not lack numbers but the quality is noticeably missing. Pundits, such as Didier Deschamps last week, have long pointed out the lack of “stardust” in midfield, with Michael Carrick and Anderson performing poorly and Paul Scholes no longer able to cope with pressure. The engine room is remarkably pedestrian.

Fans point to Mesut Özil and Rafael Van der Vaart as missed opportunities but neither of the two would have fitted in well at Old Trafford. Panic buys are not the answer either but, at the same time, it is hard not to blame Sir Alex Ferguson and his scouts when another outstanding midfielder, Shinji Kagawa, was purchased for almost nothing in the summer.

Just as the season before, Ferguson probably intended to funnel attacks through wide men this campaign. Ferguson’s tactical experiments this season – the new 4-4-2 and the gridiron style 4-5-1 – rely heavily on wingers. The plan has worked to a degree – after all, only Barcelona has scored more domestically than United in major European leagues.

It remains a doubt whether the anticipated return of Antonio Valencia will help United though – after all, there is no guarantee that the Ecuadorian will regain his pre-injury form. Even should the winger miraculously recover, the 25-year-old’s return to the first eleven will see Nani moved to the left. On the left, the Portuguese is predictable and easy to defend against. It is true that Nani has become much better decision maker this season but there is no guarantee that he will perform on the left as well as he has on the right.

Indeed, the most realistic scenario is playing Park Ji-Sung on the left, once he comes back from his knee injury. United will most probably persist with the 4-5-1 and rely on Nani and Rooney to come up with moments of magic. But as previously noted, the 4-5-1 system stifles United’s full-backs and John O’Shea will normally be preferred to Rafael da Silva in the formation. It remains to be seen whether Rio Ferdinand’s return will prompt Sir Alex to reinstate the Brazilian full-back – after all, the need to protect the “quarterback” trumps having an attacking right full-back.

United is in perilous position after the defeat at Stamford Bridge last night. Given the hamstrung morale of Arsenal after the Carling Cup final loss, the Red Devils still remain the favorite for the league. Most realistic challengers to the FA Cup have already been knocked out and United will be the main contender for the Cup should the Reds triumph against Leyton Orient or Arsenal.

It is harder to judge United’s prospect in Europe though – it isn’t bright but the semi-final remains a viable goal assuming a kind quarter-final draw.

There is a more interesting question is about the future though. How can United turn its fortunes around and fashion both an exciting and winning team? Fluidity is hard – the club cannot simply buy it’s way to becoming Barcelona overnight. Indeed, United has an effective set-up and Ferguson will probably invest in only a player or two to fit into the current system, rather than attempt a complete overhaul.

Moreover, the current 4-5-1 can be entertaining; theoretically, the emphasis is on width and tempo. The key is the deep-lying playmaker. He must be able to withstand pressure, in order to free both full-backs. A physically robust “quarterback” will allow Rafael to play, instead of O’Shea.

In this system, the “quarterback” starts all the attacks, mainly through balls out to flanks, so he can’t just be a defensive midfielder either. Candidates include Nuri Sahin of Dortmund, Ever Banega of Valencia, Luka Modric of Tottenham, Sergio Busquets of Barcelona and Bastian Schweinsteiger of Bayern Munchen.

Another feasible idea is to acquire a playmaker and deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation. With two defensive midfielders, the full-backs are freed. It has another benefit – with lots of players in the middle, possession maintenance is easy. Counter-attacking football, against sides that perhaps take the initiative, is also easier with two wingers placed high up the pitch. The system is also tailor-made for high-tempo, attacking game – the system was conceived in Spain to press.

Finding a playmaker to fit in such system is slightly more nuanced than it appears though – classic trequartisti are much harder to build a side around than their modern cousins who are more direct and busy. Candidates include Luka Modric of Tottenham, Kagawa of Dortmund and Javier Pastore of Palermo.

A left-winger also remains an issue. This column has extensively written on Park and specifically why playing a defensive winger is actually a bad idea. Ryan Giggs can’t play forever and Nani’s ability to play on the left is questionable. Juan Mata of Valencia, Ashley Young of Aston Villa and Stevan Jovetic of Fiorentina are possible targets.

Other options exist too. Mario Gotze of Dortmund, Kagawa and Modric are playmakers by trade but they have all played on the left. In fact, buying a playmaker who can play on the left will allow United to rotate players on the fringe – Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernández and Valencia – with ease.

United is still on course for a pretty good season – just a player or two away from becoming more entertaining. The dull games over the past two seasons have been painful but United fans must not forget that they been more blessed than most football fans in experiencing glory and good football. The very ability to soldier through bad times separates the real fans from the fair-weather ones – after all, the option to “fuck off and support Chelsea” or any other fashionable team always exists.

How Gridiron inspired Fergie

February 21, 2011 Tags: , Reads 28 comments

In American football, the “offense” and the “defense” form a line of scrimmage. The offensive line protects the passer, usually the quarterback, and clears the way for runners. Runners, usually receivers positioned wide, carry the ball forward. Despite the prevalent perception, Sir Alex Ferguson is quite a tactician. He has – perhaps anticipating upcoming European games – revamped the 4-5-1 that Manchester United has used in tough games. Indeed, Ferguson’s 4-5-1 is very reminiscent of Gridiron.

In Ferguson’s system two central midfielders, usually Anderson and Darren Fletcher, charge forward and engage opposition midfielders. Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick plays the deep-lying playmaking role – aided by the extra space afforded by the two midfield runners. The ‘quarterback’ often passes to one of the wingers. Wingers carry the biggest creative load in the system – they have to either make the defense splitting balls to the lone forward, usually Wayne Rooney, or run with the ball and score.

However, wingers are aptly aided by Rooney, with the former Evertonian playing the ‘false nine’ role. A false nine is a striker who drops deep from the nominal number nine position. Such movements can be very deadly as an opposition centre-back or two can be dragged out of position. Should a centre-back follow Rooney deep, United’s wingers then have room for maneuver. Even if opposition centre-backs are disciplined in their positioning, Rooney then links with the Reds’ midfielders and helps maintain possession – allowing United’s defence to creep up and help out.

United's 4-5-1This variant on Ferguson’s 4-5-1 has worked well in home games against Arsenal and Manchester City this season and is likely to be used in a tough away game against Olympique de Marseille in the coming week.

It’s not the first time Ferguson has experimented this season – a prototype to the new system was also used in away games against Birmingham City and Blackpool, although the attempt failed miserably, despite a win and a draw. The two failed attempts can perhaps be written off as an unfortunate, but natural, consequence of any experiment.

The new system does have few glaring weaknesses though. One obvious fault is predictability. The plan: Fletcher and Anderson make forward runs and keep opposition midfielders occupied; Scholes or Carrick pass to Nani, Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park or AntonioValencia; Rooney drops deep to create space; the winger tries to score. However, unless Rooney comes into the goal-scoring form of last season, the new 4-5-1 will remain far too predictable. The opposition can simply sit deep and deny space.

Another weakness is the burden placed on the deep-lying playmaker. With Carrick in poor form and Scholes no longer able to cope with a fast-pressing game, the ‘quarterback’ in the new tactic can easily be nipped in the bud. In the recent Manchester derby, Sir Alex protected Scholes by playing John O’Shea instead of Rafael. Indeed, the formation stifles United’s full-backs.

With Fletcher and Anderson making frequent forward runs, Evra and Rafael must help protect the Reds’ deep-lying playmaker. In addition to the defensive role, they also have to motor forward and provide auxiliary width as wingers cut inside.

Theoretically, two full-backs can help out the quarterback and then motor forward as the quarterback drops deep to form a temporary back three as necessary. It remains to be seen whether the abstract thinking can work on the pitch of course. United’s full-backs will be more conservative away from home but this instruction ensures an already predictable system is even more readable.

United's 4-2-3-1Moreover, Sir Alex appears very concerned with his new 4-5-1. For example, in the recent FA Cup tie against Crawley Town he deployed the new system – probably to fine tune the formation. Events changed the match though – the 69-year-old Scot introduced Rooney and played 4-2-3-1 in the second half. But Gabriel Obertan and Bébé’s poor form, in addition to the Da Silva twins’ injuries, rendered United narrow and allowed Crawley to take the initiative.

Disastrous, and frankly painful to watch as the match might have been, the interesting thing was the Scot changing United’s formation during the interval. In using 4-2-3-1, Ferguson added another midfielder alongside the quarterback, providing extra protection and allowing the full-backs to bomb forward more easily.

It is quite clear that Sir Alex counts his full-backs as a major source of creativity. It is also palpable that the United manager is still unconvinced by the new 4-5-1.

Fergie’s deployment of O’Shea proves masterstroke

February 13, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 62 comments

With Rafael da Silva in fine form, few expected John O’Shea to start yesterday’s Manchester derby. The Irishman, who is known more for his versatility than virtuosity, has been in poor form this season but his deployment was crucial to Manchester United’s 2-1 victory at Old Trafford.

There is no doubting Rio Ferdinand’s importance to United’s defence; a leader on the pitch, the English defender provides composure to the back line. United’s defence is much more prone to jittery moments without Ferdinand. With inexperienced Chris Smalling playing alongside Nemanja Vidic yesterday, it would have been too risky to play two attacking full-backs in Rafael and Patrice Evra. O’Shea limited his forward forages and helped stabilise the defence by providing extra cover.

It was a brilliant decision by Sir Alex Ferguson.

This column has previously argued that United’s deployment of two attacking defenders in a 4-4-2 based system has been responsible for United central midfielders’ collective poor form this season. Even against teams playing a lone forward, the Reds’ two at the back are exposed to too much pressure without support from central midfield. United’s central midfielders need to combat opposition midfielders, provide ammunition to forward players and defend as well; they end up trying to do everything and failing all.

With O’Shea, Smalling and Vidic staying back yesterday, Manchester City’s forwards were completely neutralised. United midfielders and forwards were freed by the extra defensive player at the back.

This freedom was particularly appreciated by Paul Scholes. As brilliant as he is, the English midfielder has performed noticeably worse in games where he is exposed to great pressure. Ferguson deployed Scholes deep to afford the midfield maestro extra time but even in this role, the midfielder was pressured as City played pressing game as a response to United’s deep line. With three behind him – instead of the usual two – Scholes always had an easy option to recycle possession.

In addition, Darren Fletcher and Anderson could play box-to-box roles because of the defensive stability brought on by O’Shea. O’Shea allowed Scholes to dictate the play and Fletcher and Anderson could make runs from deep, instead of helping out at the back.

Fletcher and Anderson’s running had two effects. Firstly, Scholes was afforded even more protection as United’s midfield runners pinned back City’s midfield players. Secondly, City’s defensive midfielders could not double up on Giggs and Nani.

City introduced Edin Džeko in the second half and switched to a 4-4-2. O’Shea’s presence allowed United to introduce Berbatov and match City’s system without Vidic and Smalling being overwhelmed by Džeko and Carlos Tevez.

O’Shea didn’t have a particularly spectacular game but he did what Ferguson had in mind. The game was won by a spectacular Wayne Rooney strike but the scene was very aptly set up by the Scot and his Irish defender.

John O'Shea Tactics Board

Credit: Guardian Chalkboards

Rafael’s promise a blessing and a curse

January 25, 2011 Tags: , Reads 14 comments

Despite his crossing ability, Gary Neville has been more a full-back who can attack than a proper attacking player in the mould of Cafu. Yet, Rafael da Silva’s emergence this season has allowed Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps for the first time in his Manchester United career, to depend on his right full-back to provide genuine creativity.

And while it is plain, even to the most casual of fans, that United lacks a creative central player, Ferguson clearly recognises the issue. United’s tactical focus this season has been to flood the attacking central midfield area with numbers – a ‘quantity over quality’ approach.

United’s base system of 4-4-2 cum 4-2-2-2 cum 4-2-4-0 has born some fruit in the home games against Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Birmingham City. An argument can be made though that United’s new 4-4-2 is as much about providing a platform to best utilise the Brazilian full-back as it is about masking the lack of a playmaker.

Rafael has noticeably matured this season even if he remains hot-headed for a defender. United’s system plays to his strengths – by playing a nominal 4-4-2 Rafael has a wide man ahead who provides cover. And because the right winger, usually Nani, is encouraged to cut in, Rafael also has space when in possession.

The twenty-year-old is a genuine attacking threat. Rafael’s blistering pace is buttressed by excellent close control and dribbling. The Brazilian’s passing and crossing are technically proficient even if his decision-making lets him down. Age and experience should improve the timing and reading of the game.

On paper, Rafael’s progress is exciting. Surely, one more avenue of attack will make United even more exciting. However, one must not forget that Patrice Evra is also very attacking.

Take infantry as an analogy – organised by ‘fireteams,’ the idea is to have one soldier charge and gain ground while his or her partner covers the runner. Defence in football operates on the same idea. One-to-one battles are not desirable – once a defender is beaten, the attacker has a free shot at goal.

Football managers have thus always sought a spare man at the back to provide additional cover. For example, one can play three centre-backs to counter two strikers. Or in four-man defensive systems, managers often have a full-back or a midfielder stay behind and form a defensive unit with the centre-backs.

With Rafael and Evra both charging ahead, United faces an undesirable two versus two at the back, especially against teams playing 4-4-2. Even against systems that nominally feature only one striker, such as 4-2-3-1, leaving two men back is risky because of the opposition player ‘in the hole.’

Compensation comes at a cost – a central midfield player can drop deep and provide cover, but the team then gets outmanned in the middle.

United’s response has been interesting. Wayne Rooney has been playing very deep of late and that has ensured United does not get overrun in central midfield. But in the recent away game at White Hart Lane, United suffered simply because Rooney had a bad day.

Indeed, therein lies the problem. United’s new 4-4-2 is a great idea but it can only be a temporary fix. Ferguson’s system asks the midfielders, and one of the strikers, to essentially play two roles. It is arguable that Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are playing badly this season simply because they are being asked to do too much.

The system works fine when United can hold the ball and play a high line. Yet, in less fluid games the team gets stretched and players find themselves covering a too much ground and running themselves into submission.

With a marquee signing looking increasingly unlikely United will have to make do with existing players. If the answer doesn’t come in the market perhaps one solution to this dilemma is tactical, by deploying a 4-2-3-1, with Rooney as a central attacking midfielder rather than striker. While Rooney has never been – and never will be – a proper playmaker beggars cannot be choosers.

Another, more familiar, option is to play Rooney as lone striker in a variant of 4-5-1. This less fluid system allows players to domore specialised – hence easier – roles. With central midfielders in their proper place the Reds will hold onto the ball more easily, which of course relieves pressure and further reduces the chance of anyone being caught out of position.

United’s 4-4-2 is an exciting, fluid system. It has the potential to do some real damage as Blackburn found out the hard way. But one cannot persist with a system that puts intolerable pressure on central midfield for the possibility of great football.

We must keep in mind the dictum that sound defence wins championships.