A large number of Reds seem convinced that the coming season will see an evolution to a more fluid system. 4-2-3-1 has been widely assumed to be our formation of choice; with even rumoured aquisitions being evaluated on how they would fit into this system, rather than the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 we were wedded to for the majority of last season. This belief has come from two encouraging signals: the signing of Kagawa, who is most at home in an attacking midfield trio, and comments from Dimitar Berbatov’s agent that Ferguson had indicated a move to a faster, more fluid offensive style.
I would still question however whether indications have been strong enough to warrant this common assumption.
Kagawa aside, the players competing for a place in the starting eleven have not changed from last season. Nick Powell is an exciting signing but has to be allowed time to develop before we consider him a first team contender. If Ferguson didn’t use 4-2-3-1 with these players last year, why would he change now? Kagawa might represent the key to a more fluid system, as arguably Cleverley might have last season, yet in attacking roles we possessed the personnel capable of playing this way. Nani, Young and Rooney could play in any of the attacking midfield roles. Giggs, Valencia, Park and Welbeck could all be realistically expected to carry out at least one of the roles in an attacking midfield trio.
Yet this didn’t happen. Ferguson remained focused on a midfield four – the only alteration being the remit of Rooney depending on the opposition (something he often seems to lack the tactical awareness to carry out). An argument could be made that the signing of Kagawa, rather than signalling a new direction, merely heralds the reversion of Rooney to a striking role with the Japanese playmaker tucked in behind.
Why the pessimism? Well, perhaps I’ve been overly harsh on Ferguson. He has proven not to be the tactical dinosaur many suspected him of being a decade ago; the vintage Champions League winning side was a festival of movement, unpredictability and innovation. Opponents weren’t sure whether they would be facing Tevez, Rooney or Ronaldo as their central striker. Carrick, Scholes, Park, Fletcher, Anderson, Giggs and Hargreaves offered a variety of options in the midfield behind. The opportunities that should have been rife for attacking full backs to exploit were shut down by the lateral movement from one of our energetic midfield three to act as a barrier to the counter attack. In tight away games this system swiftly became 4-5-1 as both Rooney and Tevez tracked full backs ensuring a solid defensive shape and numbers in midfield capable of controlling possession.
The current squad is a different story; not only do we lack the consistent excellency of the forward line, the midfield options are feeble by comparison. The pool of midfielders to be entrusted with the essential role of managing the central zone possesses just two who are naturally suited to the task: Scholes and Carrick. Even then, the veteran’s depleted mobility means that alert sprints to snuff out counter attacks from behind the wide midfielder or full back are a collectors’ item. As a result the wide men are regularly stationed alongside, rather than advance of, the central duo when put of possession. As a result winning the ball high up the pitch is a rare occurrence meaning when we do gain possession, we are consistently in a 4-4-1-1 shape.
It is no coincidence that flying counter attacks were an unusual sight last season compared to the 4-3-3 shape that conquered Europe. More worryingly, the ease with which we are outnumbered in the crucial central zone last season was exasperating. Too easily sides who in theory were inferior seemed capable of stultifying our attacks, leaving us to rely on late sieges or individual moments of brilliance to earn us the points rather than a cogent style of play. We can still rain down attacks on opposition like few others and against most defences we face our sheer quality will win through; but these tactics fall short against the sides we aim to compete with for honours.
As you may have twigged, I would love to see a move towards a formation with more opportunity for variation and an emphasis on asserting our control of midfield and winning the ball in more threatening areas. For this to happen the manager needs to be bold – entrusting less experienced players such as Cleverley and Jones to grow into roles. The flaw of this at United however is the minimum requirement is victory; therefore two or three dodgy results and a reversion to tried and trusted follows (as we saw post-derby last Autumn).
Ferguson has never lacked the cojones to take brave decisions. His trust in Anderson and Cleverley at the start of last season allowed a 4-2-3-1 shape to flourish which led to our most enjoyable football of recent years. However our ability to carry out this style effectively was reduced by the injury to Cleverley and performances post-Arsenal led to Ferguson doubting the ability of the personnel to execute the defensive element of the formation. The manager is an advocate of possession being key to controlling the game – to the extent that he has countered calls for a rugged, destroyer in midfield by arguing that passers are required to dominate that area.
I personally believe that the hype surrounding the impact of Cleverley last August was less a reflection of the ability of the player as the transformational effect of boasting a mobile, assertive passer in that zone of the field.So it must surely be infuriating for him to be reduced to unsatisfactory measures like dragging Rooney away from areas he can cause damage, or even worse deploying Giggs as a central midfielder despite his achilles heel being retaining possession. The answer that Ferguson would never volunteer is a lack of funds; yet repeated assertions that money is available makes it all the more baffling that our rumoured or completed transfer moves this summer have, with the exception of Kagawa, been for players in areas we are already well stocked (Hazard, Lucas Moura). Unless we add depth and quality in central midfield the status quo will be maintained and we’ll continue to fall behind our European rivals.
We might start the season with a second dawn of flexible, fluid, assertive football but I fear that the merest sprinkling of injuries will herald a return to the same old system before the leaves have fallen from the trees.
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Tom is a southern dwelling Kendalian who is one of our editors and a weekly guest on the podcast. He has an unhealthy obsession with Jaap Stam and despite 20 years of success never expects United to win.