As the transfer window heads towards its peak, so does the outcry for new recruits and the inevitable calls for a new midfield maestro.
The general consensus amongst United fans seems to be that the central pairing of Carrick and Scholes is too old, too slow and too feeble to overcome teams such as Manchester City and Chelsea. Therefore, it has surprised many that the mighty Scot, whose job it is to oversee how this operation works, does not share the fans’ viewpoint.
If we have ourselves a look at last year, many will remember the constant training videos from pre-season and the corresponding interviews with coaches who described it as their hardest pre season yet. The matches in the United States showed promise of a new style of attacking football at the club, moving towards free flowing movements up front, a one-touch passing game and overall a higher intensity to every aspect of the game. This was carried into the start of the season and United played some of their best football ever. The icing on the cake being the 8-2-demolishing of Arsenal at Old Trafford.
United’s style of play relied heavily on the front four of Nani, Rooney, Young and Welbeck who all seemed to click better than ever. Rooney moving in his deeper role also freed up space for players such as Tom Cleverley to move higher upfield in the early goings of the season. This also led to United constantly having a 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 when defending.
United also began doing something that has been missing for some time now; pressing high. Whenever the opponent won the ball, there was always a man to pick him up. There was simply no chance for the defender to move the ball around, much in the mould of what Barcelona have done to us on two occasions, humiliating a United side who never looked too inferior on paper. Bizarrely, it took a major whipping to shape United into a free-flowing dynamo who mauled over most sides in the domestic league but it also only took another major whipping to send United back to the same bland system that had won the league the year before.
When Manchester City overran and overpowered United at Old Trafford it was a clear sign that changes were imminent yet again. Many pointed to the lack of routine as a major factor, along with the stating the obvious about United’s lack of power in midfield, but the fact of the matter is that United weren’t any worse than Man City until Jonny Evans was ordered to take an early bath that afternoon.
Despite this, Fergie seemed to opt to move back to the bland 4-4-2/4-4-1-1-system where the criteria seemed to be “smash and grab”. And it worked! United didn’t win big, but they won game after game in the Premier League.
To the naked eye it doesn’t seem too often that managers experience epiphanies in the sense of their team being beat. Athletic Bilbao could very well have the exception to the rule in regards to Sir Alex Ferguson last season. There weren’t too many who talked about Marcelo Bielsa before the game, let alone know who he even was. It took a humiliation and a 3-2-victory at Old Trafford for Bielsa’s “blitz football” to get recognized even by the most ignorant football fan out there. “As long as we keep the ball on the opponent’s side of the pitch we’re doing something right” is a quote by the man himself that easily sums up the ethos that Bielsa carries into every game. Man-marking, high intensity, fast-paced passing, “take no prisoners”-attitude is what describes Bielsa’s teams.
It may seem that Sir Alex Ferguson understood that the way his side had played football in the early goings of the season was the correct way to go. By signing Shinji Kagawa to play in an advanced role behind the main striker also opens up for this. It may appear that Rooney will move back to playing the role as an out-and-out striker with Nani on the left and Valencia on the right. Having these four as frontrunners not only gives you a variety of attacking options, but it also serves the purpose of hard, “in your face”-pressing of the defender high up the field. If we look at the way both Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao defeated United, it was this that laid the foundation. Not giving your opponent an inch.
It is also the thing that Barcelona, who we must rate as “the standard” in all of this, fear the most. Being pressured off the pitch. Shinji Kagawa has also been part of a Dortmund-side who based their defending on this, meaning that his discipline and experience in this system makes him the perfect player for United’s “new” style of play. It also explains why United seem very eager to bring in another young, energetic offensive talent rather than a central midfielder. Names such as Eden Hazard, James Rodriguez and Lucas Moura have all been thrown out as possibilities. All young, all energetic, all able to play in an interchanging, hard-pressing, fast paced style of attacking and defending. Manchester United’s way of defending may in fact be the way they will attack.
Having a quick look at the Barcelona-side that defeated Man United in both ’09 and ’11 we find a pretty simple 4-3-3-line up. For both finals a midfield three consisting of Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Hardly any bruisers or tireless runners but players who understand their purpose on the pitch. To implement some sort of surprise element, Yaya Touré/Gerard Piqué was used as a form of libero who moved the ball up the pitch with Busquets dropping deep in order to keep shape. This also allowed Iniesta to move a bit higher with Messi coming in from his right hand side (’09) or dropping deeper from his striker’s position (’11) and thus stretching the United defence.
Renowned for their passing game, one might think that Pep Guardiola could have studied how basketball plays are set up. In basketball, coaches have set plays that they run and players are heavily drilled in them in order to make them second-nature. The way Barcelona attacks and defends seem like set plays where one move sets up the other, opens space and the final destination is to a man with a clear path to the basket/goal. Guardiola also seem to have exploited the idea of a set playmaker.
In basketball you have the point guard whose purpose is to orchestrate that these plays are set up and decides how they should be runned. Nicknamed “the floor generals”, the best players need just one quick glance of the floor to know exactly where everyone is and what play will work. In footballing terms there’s no other player more perfect for this description than Xavi. To sum it up easily, Barcelona’s game is based upon opposite movements. “You move here, opening a space here, meaning that I run there, receive the ball here, pass it off there, he’ll be open there and we get an easy basket”. United are trying to implement a style that needs players who can play in several positions and that needs extremely high intensity.
As aforementioned, even Barcelona’s style of defending draws parallels to basketball. You could obviously point out Victor Maslov and Valery Lobanovsky as pioneers and inspiration for the traditional pressing game, but having watched basketball and football for as long as I can remember, Barcelona are the first team I’ve ever seen play with a typical “full court press” or “trap defence”.
Forcing their opponents out on the wings by crowding the middle, they quickly move in to trap the man on the ball by having a player storm him, another one helping right alongside and then placing a few players in and around the opponents “passing lanes”. By doing so, they force their opponent to relinquish possession, often very high upfield. This does two very important things for them. The obvious being that it wins them the ball, the second beng that they win the ball so high up the pitch that they can muster out an attack earlier than their opponents can manage to defend. Easy baskets, remember? This is how Manchester United could make it work with their 4-2-3-1-formation:
Imagine that the opponent’s (blue team) right back has the ball. United’s offensive midfielder leads on by bursting at him, follow by the left winger. The striker moves within the area where the central defenders will move and follows him around. United’s left back moves higher to close down the right winger, right central midfielder moves higher and United’s right winger also moves more infield.
The opponent’s right back now has to choose to belt the ball long, play a tough pass to one of his team mates or start all over again by handing it off to the goalkeeper. This style of defending needs plenty of energy and tactical awareness and it also allows to conceal the fact that neither Scholes, Carrick or Cleverley are excellent defenders. The necessity for another central midfielder will therefore be less apparent than some make it out to be and explains the reason why United are linked with extremely talented offensive midfielders. Tactical background and awareness from Barcelona, pure intensity and energy from Bilbao.
In terms of attacking display, Shinji Kagawa holds the key. Despite being an offensive midfielder the Japanese enjoys to start attacks from deep within the pitch and to stay involved throughout. This means pushing Wayne Rooney up as a striker, and involve the wingers more as attackers than traditional wingers. A move that surely will be welcomed by the likes Nani. Another indication that another offensive midfielder/attacker may very well be on his way to Old Trafford in the transfer window.
With the flexibility United’s front four provides, it can be just as common to see Rooney start attacks with Kagawa moving left, Nani in centre with Valencia staying as a winger to keep shape and add another dimension to the way United wish to attack. With Ashley Young on the right, however, United can create a free-flowing four man group that will keep defenders guessing throughout the game. Again, an element used by Barcelona who enjoy having Iniesta or Messi move deep and start attacks with the other players moving in a set pattern to confuse opponents.
To keep true to my earlier statement about Shinji Kagawa’s arrival, I’d like to present another style of attack which may be more Brazilian than anything. The offensive surges of Patrice Evra have often been key to United’s attacking. However, the team has been forced to sit back with one full back if the other one goes too high. Now, with Kagawa, you could see them both go forward at the same time. This meaning that Kagawa moves deeper and slots in next to Carrick and Cleverley (Scholes would probably struggle in this system).
If United were to be hit on the counter, Kagawa would move on the left, Cleverley out on the right and you would effectively be able to stop counter attacks from happening through the wings. If they stay tight with Carrick, you stop attacks from happening through the middle. However, you would probably need two disciplined wingers (Valencia and Young) to get this system to work. It means constant overlapping on the wings and getting the ball in to the lone striker (Rooney, Welbeck). Here’s a look at how it would function from an offensive and defensive standpoint;
The only way United would really need a new central midfielder is if this style of attacking and defending becomes a regularity. Basically because you would need an engine or someone positionally strong enough to understand that they need to cover for the players moving ahead or place themselves deeper when the team goes ahead on attacks.
The only thing that is for certain about the style of play chosen by United is that it offers more unpredictability than United fans have witnessed the last few season. Dreamy thoughts and fond memories go back to the sometimes majestic performances of “the Ronaldo era” that truly saw itself hit its peak in the years between 2006 and 2009.
An attacking style that had every team in the world trembling at its gaze, a defence that constantly was on lockdown, goal threats from every angle, ruthlessness, passion, energetic performances, belief. Now more than ever, United fans look forward to the start of the new season. Not because of the hunger to regain domestic power or inflict revenge on our European competitors but because every season brings with it a new beginning.
New chances to create more pages in the illustrious history book that is Manchester United. Renowned for an “never say die” attitude, a new style of play, new faces but implemented with the legendary relentlessness and striving to achieve glory and dominance. It’s not about repainting the city Red, it’s about showing why we are Manchester United.
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