Manchester United v Blackburn Rovers – A Tale of Two Formations

by Sam Peoples

SAF's X-ray specs. Photo: Clive Brunskill (Getty Images)

By Elijah Sofoluke

4-3-3 – Patience is a virtue

The first half began with a confident start from Manchester United. During the early stages of the match, the wings proved the most lucrative areas for United and lofted balls out wide saw Manchester United regularly make marauding runs into the box.

The right side of the defence and the midfielders regularly played balls over the top and it looked a good avenue as Hernandez was making good runs, shown with his early chance where he skewed it past the post. However, Blackburn caught on and began to sit deeper, stopping the Mexican from having an influence on the game.

In an attempt to switch up the style, Rooney drifted more centrally which made the middle very congested. It meant that Rooney’s first half performance was confined to short passes or spreading the ball to Valencia out on the wings, rather than being on the end of an attack. In the first half alone, Valencia put in 15 crosses, one of which almost gave Manchester United the lead after Hernandez spanked the post.

Carrick and Scholes controlled the midfield but did not impose themselves as far up the pitch as they would have liked and Jones struggled to get a foothold in the game and our midfield three were unable to provide the attacking spark we needed. As the first half wore on and Blackburn grew into the game and our defensive positioning was caught out when called upon.

Hoilett’s shot that De Gea spectacularly saved was just one example of this. Blackburn’s service to Yakubu finally stuck and he laid it off to Hoilett. Manchester United were stretched through the middle and Hoilett was allowed to run at the heart of the defence. It showed how little we play the formation. All it took was a mistimed tackle from Carrick that opened up the space for Hoilett to expose. If Blackburn had strung together more passing moves, they may well have done it much more in the first half.

Second Half Beginnings

The second half began with more Manchester United dominance and they began to take more shots from outside the box, like Rooney’s effort past the post and Rafael’s powerful attempt that had to be kept out by Robinson.

The pattern in the first half quickly became realised in the second. Manchester United passed the ball in front of Blackburn’s banks of four and when the middle became too congested, the right side was quickly used as a way of getting to the goal.

Nevertheless, it all became too predictable for United and Blackburn were able to clock on to what was going to happen and at what time, except for a few occasions such as when Rooney drilled in a low cross from the left that needed Robinson’s stopping. It didn’t look like United were going to make a breakthrough and changes needed to happen. In personnel, in formation and in philosophy.

4-4-2 – Traditional United at their best

Welbeck came on for Hernandez, who never got back into the game since his early flurry of chances. Giggs came on for Jones, whose performances at his old club left a lot to be desired. Scholes came off for Young late on as he offered more pace on the wing and could be effective as the Blackburn legs tired.

Manchester United changed to their normal 4-4-2 with the personnel that could cause some damage. The philosophy of moving the ball quicker around was seen with a neat interchange near the 18 yard box with Welbeck, Giggs and Rooney, where they nearly unlocked the Blackburn defence with quick, intricate passing.

However, it took our most dangerous route to get the first goal. The play in the middle of the field wasn’t unlocking the defence but when Martin Olsson came in to help in the middle, he left too much space for Valencia and the ball was whipped out wide, leaving Marcus Olsson in a one-on-one with Tony, a nightmare if you are a defender.

He ran at him and the twin backed off and backed off. Valencia struck with the outside of his foot and it nestled in the bottom corner of the goal. The breakthrough came from the 4-4-2 stretching the Blackburn banks of four. Blackburn weren’t able to cope with the change of formation and it tactically put them at wits end.

United looked quicker in their transitions since the change of formation and the second goal showed it. The midfield was holding possession and stretching the defence, allowing space as Valencia raced through the wing and passed the ball to Young who finished off with aplomb.


In this game, it showed Manchester United when to use which formation. Against teams such as Swansea and Barcelona, playing the 4-3-3 wouldn’t be such a bad idea. In the 2009 final of the Champions League, we had the most possession against Barcelona under Guardiola (45%).

We are inclined to keep the ball whenever we play this formation and with Carrick and Scholes in the middle we can match most teams with possession. However, our attacking prowess greatly suffers whenever we play the formation. The first 60 minutes against Blackburn and Liverpool in FA Cup shows how much it hinders us.

The 4-4-2 helps our attacking prowess but leaves us very open in midfield. Our Monday night game against Fulham helps highlight the problems as Dempsey and Dembele were allowed to run freely at our defence. However, until the day when we can combine the best of both worlds of the formations, I’ll be happy with taking three points from a team fighting relegation with the 4-4-2.

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