Tag Tactics

Tag Tactics

United’s new four four two – revisited

December 27, 2010 Tags: Reads 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.

Why Park is doing great but could still be sold

December 18, 2010 Tags: , Reads 26 comments

In the past, one could forgive Wayne Rooney’s lack of goals on the rationale that he adds much more to the game than pure goal scoring. No longer of course but it follows logically that one can also criticise a player for doing little but scoring goals. It is perhaps a little harsh to apply the same argument to Park Ji Sung, who is not a goalscorer.

Crucial then that the Korean does add a lot more to the Manchester United side than few goals here and there.

Previously, this column argued that Park isn’t suited to a traditional 4-4-2, where players line up in broadly three ‘bands.’ The terms ‘wingers’ and ‘wide midfielders’ are used interchangeably. In practice it is a lot more nuanced than that of course; some players more attacking, some offer defensive support.

A subspecies of wingers, one that boasts Park and Dirk Kuyt, specialise less in wing wizardry but in defence. Still working high up the pitch, these players succeed in placing pressure on the opposition full-back.

Park’s greatest strength is his intelligence. His understanding and use of space and geometry on the pitch is second only to Rooney in the United squad. As such, the South Korean captain looks to roam, taking advantage of space and creating it for others.

Park’s movement enhances United’s dynamic front line. On the left of a 4-2-3-1 the South Korean’s nominal job is to mark the full-back. Yet, even if the full-back moves infield Park can, and often does, follow his opponent. Frequently United’s attacking central midfielder breaks ahead of the ball, and the lone forward – in that system – shifts to the flank in response.

This particular example is one of many team movements that happen in real games because of Park’s involvement. It is no accident that some recent hammerings handed out by United, such as the home game against Milan and away against Arsenal last season, involved Park – fluid movements can unsettle even the toughest of defence.

In flexible formations United’s players are in close proximity to Park and can switch position. By contrast, n classical 4-4-2 similar movements are harder and often unsettling. After all, an attacking central midfielder doing a stint up-front is easier conceptually than a striker dropping into central midfield. As such, when deployed in a 4-4-2, Park must stick closely to his position or risk leaving United vulnerable to counters. The ultimate irony of using a defensive winger – a tactic that is rather cowardly – is that it often results in fluid movement, the hallmark of modern attacking football.

Adding to the irony is the fact that defensive wingers like Park often require a high tempo, pressing game with a high line. It’s another trait of the modern game. Much of Park’s defensive role is based on tireless harrying, forcing the team to press and United’s defence to push up. Most of the time, United’s players are prescient enough to move up or drop deep depending on the situation. Last Monday United defended deep and played a pressing game contemporaneously – a tactical marvel.

Since Park’s game is much more suited to flexible systems, it is no mystery that he play’s better when the Reds deploy various takes on 4-5-1. But fluidity only partially makes up for the former PSV player’s limited technique. When Park is in a good patch of form, he can control the ball at least long enough to pass it. When the Korean is playing badly, he gives the ball away cheaply.

Technically exceptional players are also much less prone to losing possession under pressure. As such, gifted opposition players can play around Park and exploit the gap that pops up as United players shift position. The Champions League Final against Barcelona a year ago is an example.

With Gabriel Obertan and Bébé making little notable progress, Park will remain first choice. But as the Korean will soon leave for the Asian Cup, United will have to experiment with existing players, perhaps recalling Cleverley from loan, or bring in somebody new.

With impending retirements of senior figures, availability of classy playmakers on the market, promise of youngsters on the wing and a supposedly sizeable transfer kitty the safest option might be to purchase Javier Pastore – a central midfield playermaker – and push Rooney to the left.

Another option is to bequeath the playmaking role to Anderson, push Rooney left and trust Dimitar Berbatov or Javier Hernández up-front. And if United can make it work without him, Park is likely to be moved on in the coming summer, for there are many reasons for his departure.

The South Korea captain leaves for the Asian Cup at the end of December, at conclusion of which he will retire from the national team, citing his wish to concentrate on his club career. It’s an important winter for the player who is about to turn thirty.

Yet, his national service swan song could be swiftly met by an adieu from United.

Chelsea vs. United: a tactical preview

December 17, 2010 Tags: , , Matches 40 comments

Manchester United fans have no reason to like John Obi Mikel, the man who forced a move to Chelsea in 2006. Even Chelsea fans are ambivalent about the Nigerian who seemingly does little but pass the ball to Michael Essien and Frank Lampard. However, Obi Mikel is as important to Chelsea as Jack Wilshere is to Arsenal.

Obi Mikel is the passer who takes the easy ball from defense and distributes it to players further up field. He might not have the twinkle toes of Wilshere but he is physically strong and has a better range of passing than the Englishman, which arguably makes the Chelsea midfielder better suited for the role.

Indeed, it is Obi Mikel’s brawn that allows Chelsea to play Essien not as a water carrier but as an all-action, box-to-box player alongside a creative midfielder such as Lampard in a very aggressive 4-3-3.

Obi Mikel’s role is made even more integral to the Blues given the uneasiness of Chelsea centre-backs on the ball, especially John Terry. By neutralising Obi Mikel, United can “break” Chelsea – without the Nigerian to link the defence and attack, Terry and Branislav Ivanovic will attempt fortuitous long balls.

However, the above analysis is rather simple considering that Chelsea’s first XI will most likely feature Ashley Cole and Paolo Ferreira – two excellent attacking full-backs who are comfortable carrying the ball forward. To combat the threat down the wings, Nani and Ji-Sung Park will likely be deployed on United’s flanks, ensuring direct markers to the opposition full-backs.

Furthermore, Ferguson will probably deploy Park on the right and Nani on the left. While Nani has shown this season that he is a capable defensive player, Park is in a class of his own in this respect and will be deployed to mark Cole. The England full-back, like Obi Mikel, is more important to the current Chelsea side than in the past because Chelsea’s centre-backs are not comfortable on the ball.

Chelsea’s reliance on full-backs and Obi Mikel to start their attacks was exploited brilliantly by Sunderland who defeated Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge this season. The Black Cats achieved the historic win by deploying a high-pressing 4-4-2. Danny Welbeck et al hassled the Chelsea defence all game, while Kieron Richardson man-marked Cole. Chelsea found it extremely difficult to connect passes and succumbed to the pace of Sunderland’s strikers on the counter.

It is unlikely that Javier Hernández will be risked given his inexperience. Meanwhile Dimitar Berbatov is far from lazy but the Bulgarian isn’t exactly mobile either and rarely hassles his opponents or make runs down the channel to create space. Given the personnel available, 4-4-2 remains a touch too risky and Sir Alex Ferguson will most likely choose a trusted variant on 4-5-1.

Last Monday, Sir Alex deployed 4-3-3 to mirror Arsenal’s formation and to ensure that each of the Londoners’ players had a direct opponent. Similarly, the Scot will go for 4-2-3-1 on Sunday – the usual back four supported by Edwin Van der Sar, with Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher holding and an attacking midfield trio of Nani, Anderson and Park, spearheaded by Wayne Rooney to mirror Chelsea’s 4-3-3.

The game will likely be livelier than the Arsenal fixture too. Pressing is key to defeating Chelsea as Sunderland has already shown this season. United will attempt to take the game to the home side. Chelsea forwards aren’t particularly fast and the Reds will gain an advantage by setting up a high line to facilitate the pressing game.

With Chelsea’s back-four shaky, Lampard just coming into the side after a lengthy spell on the sidelines and Didier Drogba et al having a poor season, United fans can realistically expect a first Reds’ victory at Stamford Bridge since 2002.

Arsenal: stop Wilshere, win the game

December 13, 2010 Tags: , , , Reads 11 comments

Normally one assumes that the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 is the most influential player. No longer necessarily so – this might be so in terms of assists and/or goals but not so if one is to canvass the game as a whole. Possession is not a luxury, but a necessity and in the modern game, teams gets nowhere without keeping the ball. 

Indeed, the front three could consist of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi but the team will not score if they can’t get the ball and feed the front three. Crucially, the opposition can’t do anything if you have the ball. Tiki-taka, as played by Barcelona, is as defensive as it is aesthetically pleasing. 

Arguably, the player who harnesses the most possession is the most influential. The idea of a playmaker stems from this school of thought. Possession without intent is just as useless as having no possession at all. After all, football matches are won with goals, not possession statistics. 

But the theory behind playmakers is to have an intelligent player, such as Zinedine Zidane and Xavi Hernandez, direct possession and take advantage by channeling possession through him; to provide the team’s direction. Because most of possession goes through him, the playmaker often ends up receiving and making the greatest number of passes in his side. 

With an abundance of players like Claude Makelele and tactics that are geared to stop the playmakers, the playmakers of the late naughties have been pushed away from their traditional hunting ground. Some, like Messi, found refuge on the flanks. Others such as Andreas Pirlo and Paul Scholes shifted their trade deeper. 

But things just aren’t the same as the past. On the wings, the playmaker naturally became more of a winger. As a modern winger , the playmaker became more of a goal scorer than a creator. Deep-lying playmakers briefly flourished – they found their job easier for they had more time and space to pick out passes. These players also found their job harder for they were stationed further away from their colleagues in attack. In essence they had bought few extra seconds on the ball with impact. 

This change also required another player step into the hole and links the midfield with the offense. Playmakers made a comeback but they weren’t of the old ilk. The modern playmaker still looks for the killer ball but, unlike his predecessor, leaves the possession maintenance to players behind him. In essence, the traditional playmaker has split into two – the deeper player recycles ball out of defense and the advanced player deploys the killer ball. 

Indeed, a modern central midfield trio is often composed of a passer, a destroyer and a creator/dribbler. Think of Barcelona’s trio of Xavi (passer), Sergio Busquets (destroyer) and Andreas Iniesta (a creator/dribbler). 

The further specialisation of midfielders has made the job of countering them harder. Stop Iniesta the creator, then Xavi the passer just directs the play towards the wings. Some argue it is more important to stop the passer. Cut off the supply, and the destroyer and creator become disjointed, ending up with two sub-teams each specialising in defense and attack but with little linking between. 

Tonight’s match is a case in point. Jack Wilshere is Arsenal’s passer. To ‘break’ Arsenal, Manchester United must stop Wilshere. Arguably, the young English midfielder is more important to the current Arsenal side in the absence of Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard is a phenomenally gifted player who has a fine sense of geometry on the pitch and naturally roams to make full use of the space. Without him, Robin Van Persie will fill in but the Dutchman is more of a second forward than a midfielder and he will not be able to make Arsenal the cohesive unit to the extent that Fabregas does. Thus Wilshere must shoulder the greater creative burden. 

Source: Guardian Chalkboards

 

Which of course pushes Wilshere to the top of United’s ‘to stop’ list. If United lines up as expected in a nominal 4-4-2, Rooney or Dimitar Berbatov will have to drop deep and pick up Wilshere when the Reds don’t have the ball. Should United line up in a variant of 4-5-1 – be it 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 – the most advanced midfielder will mark the Englishman. Ji-Sung Park did a similar job on Pirlo last season in the Champions League. The South Korean could also play the defensive attacking midfielder role with Rooney filling in on the left, where a more draconian option would see Rooney spearhead the attack alone and play Park, Anderson and Nani as United’s attacking midfielders. 

An intriguing option – and very unlikely – is to use Javier Hernández, enabling United to line-up deep with Rooney, Park and Nani supporting the Mexican. After all, the Arsenal backline remains extremely vulnerable to the counter-attack that the pace of Rooney, Nani and Hernández could bring. 

However, Arsenal has been undone twice by more or less this same tactic in recent seasons. Will Sir Alex Ferguson so again? After all, the current Arsenal side remains predictable tactically and has little palpable defense against United’s counter attacking system. 

All that remains is for United to get the ball.

Wrong footed full-backs

December 8, 2010 Tags: , , Reads 17 comments

Wrong footed full-backs have always existed of course – Phil Neville, Dennis Irwin and John O’Shea – right-footed players, have often been deployed on the left. It didn’t matter all that much. Defenders did very little but defend, especially in the Premier League where the classical, rigid 4-4-2 has been the formation du jour. But football evolves.

Consider two teams playing plain old 4-4-2. Each player, apart from the full-backs, has a corresponding opposition player directly marking him – strikers on central defenders, defensive midfielders on on attacking, for example. Full-backs therefore are often the only players with additional time and space.

Indeed, the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson considers the full-back “the most important position in football.” As ludicrous as the statement might sound, full-backs do enough damage to warrant a new breed of players such as Park Ji-Sung and Dirk Kuyt whose raison d’etre is ostensibly to mark full-backs.

Tactics have progressed though and even in the Premier League, teams rarely plays the old fashioned 4-4-2 these days. Those teams that play 4-4-2 do, often do so with a modern twist.

Indeed, a myriad of factors including the increasing athleticism and the liberalisation of offside laws have stretched the field of play. Teams rarely play midfielders in a straight line; they are staggered across defensive, central and attacking stratums. 4-4-2 uses three bands of players; modern formations such as 4-2-3-1 use four.

Wide midfielders in the classical 4-4-2 become wingers who are deployed higher up on the pitch in four-band systems. This is because wide midfielders, even the fittest of them, can’t “bomb up and down that bloody wing” all day, as Sir Alex Ferguson might put it.

Midfielders in four-band systems are also forced to become much more functional and less box-to-box. Darren Fletcher, for example, might regularly step up from the defensive midfield stratum to the central midfield stratum but even a player as fit as the Scot can’t be expected to do this ad infinitum without rendering himself useless by the sixtieth minute.

So, with direct opposition, do fullbacks become less potent? Yes and no. Defensive wingers, amazingly speedy players like Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon and modern wingers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Lionel Messi limit full-backs’ forward forages.

Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva, who are more often found in the opposition half against Premier League minnows, limit forward runs against players like Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben to deny the opposition space behind.

Today, wingers are more prone to drift in field than ever. These out-to-in movements can be extremely dangerous but they do narrow the field of play. To make sure that the field of play doesn’t become overly narrow, which of course makes the opposition’s defensive job easier, full-backs now provide the once traditional width that wingers provided.

Arguably, the most important job of wide men is crossing, which is why wingers have traditionally been “correct-footed”. Fabio da Silva, whose opportunities have been limited because of injuries and Evra’s lack of them, is interesting in that he plays as a left full-back despite being clearly right footed.

Fabio is capable with his left foot although he seems to use it only as a last resort. The uneasiness remains a worry.

But the apprehension is more than offset by the intriguing prospect brought up by his wrong-footedness. With an abundance of modern wingers, most of them wrong-footed also, Fabio might very well have an advantage over left footed full-backs such as Evra. When facing a player like Messi, Fabio can tackle with his dominant foot. Crucially the angle of tackle in such situations will be natural to Fabio and the tackles will be more clean than those made by left footed players.

The tendency towards the right also brings up interesting possibilities vis-a-vis team movements. Fabio attacks the box almost as regularly as he goes for the byline. When attacking the box, his right-footedness becomes an asset. After all, despite nominally being a defender, Fabio was the top scorer in the U-17 World Cup in 2007.

To indulge this movement, United’s left winger can move laterally towards the middle. This particular set of movements comes easily to both Park and Wayne Rooney. And one of the central or defensive midfielders behind will move to the left flank providing the width from deep.

This, of course, requires a left-footed and athletically gifted central midfielder who can do a job on the flank.

One wonders if United has someone like that on the book?

The striking penny drops

November 30, 2010 Tags: , , Reads 7 comments

Two misleading assumptions in football surround Manchester United’s strike pairing Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney; assumptions that have grown despite evidence to the contrary. Yet, something happened at the weekend that hadn’t before – the pair took to the Old Trafford field ostensibly in their ‘correct’ positions.

The widely held – arguably false – view that Berbatov’s role is principally ‘in the hole’ was reinforced last season by Rooney’s transformation to a central striker. There is no little irony in neither striker playing these roles at international level.

Those familiar with this site’s regular podcast, Rant Cast, will recognise this oft-used refrain.

Indeed, Berbatov had led Bulgaria’s attack – until retirement this past summer – and scored 48 goals in 77 internationals as a central striker. The Bulgarian was largely deployed as a conventional striker, albeit one with an outstanding first touch and unsurpassed awareness of space in the box, in two successful seasons at Tottenham Hotspur, with Robbie Keane given license to roam, and before that at Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen.

Not until the 29-year-old’s arrival at Old Trafford did Berbatov more consistently operate in a deeper position, one that Sir Alex Ferguson admitted was the wrong one in the summer of 2009 after a frustrating opening season for the club.

“We were a bit unfair to him last season because we asked him to play too deep,” admitted Ferguson in August 2009.

“We thought that suited him but we were wrong. We realise now he is at his best in the final third of the pitch, where he’s a real threat. We know how to use him this season and he won’t change from that.”

It proved a false dawn for the six-times Bulgarian Player of the Year. Throughout the last season’s campaign, with Rooney often preferred as a lone striker in a 451 formation, Ferguson failed to correct the problem he had already identified, deploying Berbatov sporadically, or in roles not suited to the Bulgarian – deeper when paired with Rooney, or as a lone-forward when not.

Meanwhile, Rooney made his name and continues to thrive for England in a far deeper role than he has ever played for United. The former Evertonian’s flexibility, vision and excellent technique have always lent themselves to the role he now occupies for Fabio Capello, around 15 yards deeper than a ‘number nine’ – Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch, or Jermain Defoe.

Recalling the precocious forward’s debut, aged 17, against Australia followed by a stunning display against Turkey in a Euro2004 qualifier, it was clear from a very young age that Rooney operated with a mature view of the pitch and play around him. It is tempting to suggest that only in England would Rooney’s skills have been harnessed as a lone-striker.

Yet, it is to Rooney’s credit and range of skills that he so seamlessly migrated into the ‘number nine’ role that brought a tally of 34 goals in all competitions last season. But for a serious ankle injury against Bayern Munich, Rooney may even have reached the 40 goal tally achieved previously by Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo in the modern era.

On Saturday, Rooney produced his best performance in a United shirt for eight months, noticeably dropping deeper than Berbatov, producing a series of stunning cross-field passes and linking smoothly with his partner. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian plundered his biggest goal haul in a single game during his time in England.

Coincidence? Probably not.

Source: ESPN

Source: ESPN

Tactics are not as simple as heat maps and chalkboards of course and Berbatov’s tendency to roam is still evident (above) and he is unlikely to become a van Nistelrooy-esque goalhanger any time soon. But intuitively, Rooney’s role on Saturday was very specifically deeper than his colleague’s – it paid handsome dividends for both men.

Ferguson’s reluctance to countenance deploying Rooney ‘in the hole’ behind Berbatov as United’s ‘number nine’ is understandable though. Berbatov has not proven himself a reliable finisher – Rooney has – while the Bulgarian’s relative lack of pace is often not thought conducive to playing on the should of the last defender.

Berbatov’s creative eye is also misleading. While the Bulgarian often tops the charts for creating the most goal-scoring chances, it is in and around the box that his technique really counts, not when dropping back towards the half-way line.

On the other hand Rooney, as England discovered during an excellent World Cup qualifying programme – if not tournament itself – thrives in the deeper role.

The question now is whether Blackburn represents a one-off or a permanent change in tack from United’s management.

Rooney: an argument for the left

November 24, 2010 Tags: , Reads 18 comments

The Prodigal Son – remarkably appropriate given the plot of the parable from which the phrase originates – returned on Saturday. Despite the sporadic chants of “Rooney! Rooney!”, the ambience was decidedly uneasy – it is unclear whether Wayne Rooney’s former hero status among the fans will ever be restored.

Rooney’s thirty odd minute stint was average; he looked fit, forced a good save but missed a rather easy chance.

Most fans expected more from Rooney, given the numerical advantage Manchester United enjoyed in the second half. Rooney’s petulant and decidedly unprofessional media stunt over the contract and the resulting mega-pound deal put great pressure on the striker to recapture the form of last season.

Rooney partnered Javier Hernández upfront in a classical 442 for the last 30 minutes of Saturday’s match. Notice though that Rooney has spent much of the Wigan game on the left (see graphic, below). Rooney has always had a tendency towards the left.

He might not know how to spell the word ‘professional’ but Rooney’s reading of the game is excellent. The 25-year-old naturally looks to roam in search of space – particularly towards the left – when he plays as a striker.

Fabio Capello, before the disastrous change to a 442 in the World Cup, took advantage of the Rooney’s leftie tendency by deploying Steven Gerrard on the left-wing. Gerrard, a right footed player, looked to cut inside and Rooney often moved to the left to indulge the Liverpool captain.

Wayne Rooney Javier Hernandez

England, notoriously devoid of intelligent movement, did well in the qualifying campaign mostly because of the fluidity brought on by the link between Gerrard and Rooney.

At United, before the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney was often deployed on the left either as a defensive winger – just like Park Ji-Sung – or as a modern winger. Except, unlike Park, Rooney can actually pass, cross and shoot, of course!

Indeed, with Hernández doing well, deploying Rooney on the left to accommodate the Mexican and Nani sounds tempting. Certainly Rooney is a good left winger. He is no Lionel Messi when it comes to trickery but his physical strength and speed afford him the direct, penetrating runs.

Perhaps his movement and all around game intelligence, the strength of Rooney, would serve him better on the flank, given the current set up.

On the left, Rooney drifts in-field in search of space, not the other way around. This movement is also aided by being right-footed and he is no slouch with his left meaning that many of reasons why Nani does so well on the right apply to Rooney. In other words, Rooney the winger will move towards the goal.

It is hard to argue with statistics though. In 2008/09, when he was often deployed on the left, Rooney scored 20 times in 49 appearances. Last season’s figure was 34 goals in 44 appearances.

Of course, the improvement in Rooney’s scoring rate can’t solely be attributed to the change in position. Rooney’s records in 2007/08 (18 in 43) when he was deployed in partnership with Tevez and in 2006/07 – (23 in 55) when he played just behind Louis Saha, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Alan Smith – the position commonly thought as Rooney’s best – provide strong counter-examples.

The caveat of course is that in these two seasons Rooney notched up many more assists than he did in 2009/10 but he didn’t put in nearly enough to offset the relative lack of goals.

It is also hard to argue that wingers, particularly the modern kind, cannot be as prolific as more central forwards when Cristiano Ronaldo continues to bang in goals from the flank. Moreover, when Rooney is up-front, he sees less of the ball. Therefore the team doesn’t take the full advantage of his strengths.

On the flank Rooney sees more of the ball and consequently does more with it. In the current United set-up, there is a distinct lack of drive from the central midfield. The creativity must come United’s width and deploying Rooney there is an obvious solution. And since Rooney can play as a modern winger, he can easily be accommodated in United’s new 442.

Rooney can also play in the hole with two holding midfielders behind him as pivots. It’s a compelling argument that many United supporters take up. Deployed in the hole, Rooney is afforded even greater room and scope to move around.

We must also keep in mind the impending retirement of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs and the pair’s declining role in the team. And the transfer market is no less difficult to navigate. Paulo Henrique Chagas de Lima – ‘Ganso’ – and Javier Pastore, two of the most exciting young playmakers, are not on the books of Europe’s elite clubs and remain realistic targets for United – even in the winter transfer market since neither plays in the Champions League.

There are also well-established players like Wesley Sneijder and Bastian Schweinsteiger who could be available – for a price.

However, a left winger of similar stature and/or promise is much harder to find. Juan Mata and Stevan Jovetić are perhaps the only two names that come to mind.

A central playmaker remains more of a priority than a left winger though. United already has Gabriel Obertan, Bébé, Park and Tom Cleverley in the wing department. Aside from promising youngsters like Ravel Morrison and Magnus Eikrem there is a distinct lack of playmakers at United.

As tempting as it is to play Rooney as a trequartista, it is surely be better in the long-term to start playing the former Evertonian on the left.

All the off-field histrionics notwithstanding, Rooney has blossomed into a fine player in his time at United. He will do well just about anywhere across the attacking midfield stratum and up-front.

But with the promise Hernández and Federico Macheda are showing, the lack of a classy left winger at the club, and the potential availability of promising playmakers in the market, the left beckons for Rooney.

United’s new four four two

November 15, 2010 Tags: Reads 16 comments

It is often bemusing to hear fans and pundits alike moan about playing “only one up top.” After all deploying two strikers in the side is no guarantee of goals. Indeed, Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of Europe’s most attacking sides, line up with a lone striker and a variety of other attacking players in formations that are far from traditional 442.

Indeed, 442 is a fine formation defensively, with sides able to fall back into two banks of four defenders when under pressure, but in the modern game the formation has become far too predictable going forward.

By simply mirroring the formation, the opposing side can have at least one defending player picking up each attacking player, with few if any players deployed ‘between the lines’. Straight 442 versus 442 thus often descends into an ‘end to end’ battle as each side looks to get the ball forward, hoping for gratuitous breaks and defensive mistakes.

The crucial weakness of 442 is of course that teams can be outnumbered in midfield against systems with three central midfielders, which will inevitably claim more possession and control the match. To avoid being starved of the ball, the side playing 442 must then drop a striker or a winger into the middle, which of course defeats the purpose of playing 442 in the first place.

In recent times Manchester United, lacking a classic playmaker in the Xavi or Wesley Sneijder mould, has struggled to play 433 or even 4231 without becoming overly negative and unimaginative. The midweek game against Manchester City demonstrated this fact amply. Darren Fletcher, of the starting XI, was the only midfielder comfortable breaking ahead of the ball and pushing forward. Comfortable the Scot may have been and Fletcher is a fine player but he is not and never will be a ‘number ten’.

The obvious lack of a creative goalscoring midfield in United’s squad has often forced Sir Alex Ferguson to deploy a fairly rigid 442 against teams that look to defend first. Sir Alex Ferguson, who rarely gets enough credit for his tactical acumen, has attempted to counter the deficiencies in the system with a modern variant on 442 that is more unpredictable, and hence more potent, in attack than the traditional variety.

United’s 442 is classical in defense – two banks of four with two strikers putting pressure on opposition defenders. One of United’s strikers usually drops deeper into midfield when under pressure.

Central midfielders hold their positions and strikers look to stretch the defence. United’s forwards have generally taken turns dropping deep this season but spend more time on the shoulders of opposition defenders than coming into midfield.

With ample room in the area that is occupied by an attacking central midfielder, midfielder running ahead of the ball or a striker dropping deep, United’s wingers cut in. Width is provided by the full-backs who take up the vacated positions in wide areas.

The recent match against Aston Villa offers some insight into United’s tactics and limitations. Above, Michael Carrick and Nani both cut infield – Park Ji-Sung and Carrick having swapped positions. Notice that both Wes Brown (top) and Patrice Evra (out of shot) have remained deeper.  The area of play is therefore extremely narrow and this played into Aston Villa’s hands.

United found it extremely hard to break Aston Villa down in the first half because both full-backs, perhaps wary of the Brummie’s pace in wide areas, simply didn’t break forward enough.

Ferguson’s new take on 442 is a brilliant idea on paper; it takes advantage of the Reds’ strengths – an abundance of modern wingers who like to cut in and attacking full-backs – and masks the obvious  weakness, the lack of a classy attacking central midfielder.

The system is vulnerable to quick balls down the flank when play breaks down but the risk is minimal given Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s class and the presence of two relatively deep central midfielders.

Arguably, the bigger danger to United’s success is that creative responsibilities are placed upon Ferguson’s full-backs, with back-up players Brown and John O’Shea simply not good enough creatively to play in such roles.

As with any new formation, it takes time for a team to really grow into the system. Fans should not expect miracles but they have every reason to be optimistic too – the game against Tottenham Hotspur is an example of how effective United’s particular take on 442 can be.

More Italian than the Italians

October 1, 2010 Tags: , Reads 22 comments

When Luca Spalletti made the now infamous remark that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had evolved beyond the swashbuckling outfit that took the 1999 Champions League, the Italian struck close to the bone. United supporters, brought up on generations of attacking play, are now served something very different when the Reds play in Europe.

Ferguson’s approach to football has developed, of course, culminating for some in the April 2008 match with Roma, in which United eked out a narrow win at Stadio Olympico. The Reds’ cautious approach, soaking up pressure and hitting Roma on the break, was indeed ‘more Italian than the Italians’. Generations of Azurre coaches schooling players in catenaccio could not have surmised United’s approach better than Spalletti’s subtle dig.

Many believe that the Scots tactics had to change; those who stand still in football are normally left behind. When ( the original) Ronaldo’s Real Madrid came to Old Trafford in 2000 and won handsomely to knock United out of the Champions League some say Ferguson’s mind was already made up.

United’s move away from the traditional 4-4-2 was no eureka moment. Madrid’s raid on United’s European crown, Roy Keane’s ailing legs and the club’s failure to make another final in almost a decade each contributed to Ferguson’s new mindset. It is also a charge many United supporters lay at Carlos Quieroz’ door.

Today, rarely does the Scot deploy two strikers in the Champions League as he did when United stormed to the ’99 title. Whether the Reds’ current brand of European football is entertainment, is another question altogether.

On Wednesday night United’s approach was as cautious as it ever has been, with restored defender Rio Ferdinand loudly proclaiming that United had gained the 1-0 victory they had sought in Spain’s third city. Traditionalists be dammed, as United’s erstwhile Rolls Royce defender preached at the altar of Mourinhoism.

For many it was neither pretty, nor clever.

Despite, or perhaps because of, three shaky defensive performances away from home in the Premier League this season, United’s approach to the match in Valencia surprised few. Michael Carrick, now fit after a hamstring problem, joined Darren Fletcher in a protective two-man screen in front of United’s defence in the 4-2-3-1 formation du jour.

Yet Ferguson took the system a little further still, deploying Anderson loosely behind lone forward Dimitar Berbatov, not as the creative heartbeat many fans wish the Brazilian to become, but to man mark the hosts’ own defensive screen, David Albelda. It worked as a destructive tactic, with Valencia unable to break quickly on United and often losing possession.

The flip-side, of course, in United’s transformed tactics and concentration on the defensive side of the game, is that the Scot is more often criticised for failing to play ‘the United way.’ It’s a fair challenge by those traditionalists who want United to play with flair, whether home or away.

The late Javier Hernández winner on Wednesday eliminates many concerns over the team’s style of course. It’s easy to forgive seemingly negative tactics if the team is on the road to eventual glory. Indeed, United’s 2008 campaign rarely hit previous heights but for supporters, frankly, when their club is European champions, who cares?

There’s little to suggest that United’s tactics will change anytime soon either. The defensive set-up will certainly be in place for the knock-out rounds, although Ferguson could gamble on two strikers in the upcoming double-header with Bursaspor.

The problem comes with the balance in United’s squad though. Lacking a true playmaker – at least one that crosses the centre circle – or a midfielder prepared to get ahead of the ball, United’s midfield can seem pedestrian with three in the centre. Against better opposition than Valencia, United may well struggle to break sides down.

By contrast the range of choices that Ferguson now possess at centre-forward is greater than at any point in recent seasons. There is no Cristiano Ronaldo of course but five strikers each of whom add something different are available to the manager.

Yet, even after the role played by Federico Macheda and Hernández in United’s win neither is likely to start United’s first knock-out fixture. Unless, Ferguson moves Rooney to the left-wing, neither is one of the Scouser or Dimitar Berbatov.

It’s a dilemma Ferguson is paid to solve of course. Come the spring United will face some of its toughest fixtures. While the great Scot will gamble when necessary the overall approach to European football will certainly be more negative than in the past.

The question for supporters is whether the change is worth it unless United leave Wembley in May with the trophy.

Away form creates tactical dilemma

September 27, 2010 Tags: Reads 23 comments

Coming off the back of Manchester United’s draw with Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson must wonder about the cause of his side’s indifferent form. Few could argue that Bolton, Fulham or Everton are easy away games, but they are the sort of matches that a side with serious title ambitions probably has to win.

Even more worrying is the nature of United’s three Premier League draws this season. It is one thing to come away with a point in a tight 0-0 away from Old Trafford, but to concede seven goals in three away games is unacceptable, especially against teams not noted for their attacking prowess.

Reasons for these defensive lapses can be found in the form of Jonny Evans who, despite looking solid for most of the previous season, now appears daunted by his key role in the team. The Irishman’s performances of late have been undoubtedly below par with a string of errors offering chances up on a plate for the opposition. Most recently Evans allowed Zat Knight to score from a corner.

With Rio Ferdinand returning, however, many will hope that United’s defence will be stronger and can once again thrive through the key personalities of the England captain, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. Ferguson will hope that all three will start together for the first time this season when the team travels to Valencia for another key away tie this week.

Of greater concern, however, is the fact that defensive personnel are not purely to blame. For the first time in many seasons, Alex Ferguson has chosen to play an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation, even away from home. It could well be this tactical change which has resulted in so many goals being conceded.

Without three midfield players in the centre of the park, United’s opposition have been afforded more time and space with which to move forward. This season in particular, the problems of playing only two central midfielders have been prevalent, with Paul Scholes providing little to no defensive cover and Darren Fletcher attacking more than an out-and-out anchor man might.

In fact United is one of the few elite clubs to play without a traditional holding player. Taking a quick glance at Europe’s top clubs, it’s clear most invariably operate with three central midfielders, one at least of which is defensive minded:

  • Real Madrid – Khedira, Alonso, Kaka/Özil
  • Barcelona – Busquets/Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta
  • Chelsea – Essien, Mikel/Ramires, Lampard
  • Inter Milan – Cambiasso, Muntari, Sneijder
  • Bayern Munich – Van Bommel, Schweinsteiger, Müller/Kroos

It is no coincidence that Europe’s elite has turned to the system, with games won and lost in midfield. The dominant formation at the World Cup included two defensive midfielders. It is also no coincidence that United’s best seasons of late have come when predominantly playing three in the middle of the park.

Even in United’s 2008 European Cup winning season as Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez often played together upfront, the pair’s tireless nature made up for the missing midfielder, with one tracking back on almost every occasion.

While a return to 4-3-3 – or 4-5-1 depending on your outlook – might be the answer for the current Old Trafford outfit it is no longer easy for Ferguson to play the formation given the personnel available. As noted earlier, Dimitar Berbatov cannot play alone up-front and in his current form it would be folly to drop him to the bench.

The other option, it seems, is to operate in a 4-3-3 formation with Rooney returning to the left of a front three that includes Berbatov and Nani.

Many fans recoil at the suggestion, dreading the waste of talent that comes with Rooney playing on the left. It doesn’t have to be the case and may liberate the former Everton player.

Rooney has been poor this season, looking lacklustre in possession and almost frightened to take on a shot such is the pressure piled on the 24-year-old. Moving Rooney wide may ease much of the pressure on him to score goals, allowing the striker to create but without the weight of providing another 35-goal season.

Alongside Nani, Rooney could provide enough support for Berbatov to play competently up-front, thus solving the old problem of the Bulgarian failing to spearhead United’s attack.

Besides, it is not uncommon for a talented forward to play wide. David Villa almost exclusively played on the left-side of a front three for Spain at the World Cup, as did Luis Suarez for Uruguay. Lionel Messi and, obviously, Cristiano Ronaldo have also shone in a wide position in club football.

The point being United’s only way of solving the current ‘defensive question’ is to return to three in midfield, pushing Rooney wide. It could even solve the ‘Rooney question’ too.

Fergie is very likely to pack the midfield against Valencia in such an important European away game. Those crying out for a change from a 4-4-2 formation that is reaping few defensive rewards, will agree.