Manchester United’s season so far – In depth formation analysis: Part II

by Sam Peoples

By @Manutdtactics

Having looked at a few general points in our previous article, this time we aim to look at the formations most commonly used by Manchester United. One strategy predominates, but Sir Alex loves flexibility and as such he has used a number of other formations and tactical approaches. As ever he will adapt from game to game, often in response to what the opposition are doing and the game situation. To do this he needs a strong flexible squad and United certainly have that currently. We start with the most commonly used team shape.

4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1

The formation this year has most commonly alternated between a 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1, although other formations have been used. Both shapes are often used together in the same game – the only adjustment being the position of the two wide attacking midfield players and the mobility of the deep central attacking player. Sir Alex is renowned for changing the shape of his team two or three times in a game and the 4-4-1-1 can be used in the defensive phase, but can quickly transform to a 4-2-3-1 in the attacking phase.

The problem though has been wing play. As touched upon previously, United’s more regular wide players Valencia, Nani and Young have all been in poor form. Aggressive, mobile and fluid wide players are critical to the success of the 4-2-3-1. To solve this problem United have turned to a range of players: Rooney, Kagawa, Giggs and Welbeck have all played wide with varying degrees of success. Sir Alex has already moved to address this issue for next season by signing Wilfred Zaha.

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Giggs has played quite well in the wide left position on a number of occasions recently and Welbeck is always a handful. Kagawa and Rooney have interchanged between a central withdrawn role and a wide left role (Rooney also played wide right at Madrid) but playing these players in a wide position wastes their ability to cause problems when they operate between the lines. Although United have played well enough so far to be successful this season, our wide play must improve to progress to the next level.

Kagawa is an interesting player. He started the season well but his contribution has been restricted by injury and as the season has worn on, it has become clear that he is a player who lacks defensive nous. Whilst playing for Dortmund, he was often accused of going missing in big matches. He has been withdrawn on a number of occasions playing centrally in a 4-2-3-1 because his defensive inability has led to United’s shape becoming stretched and spaces appearing behind him. This happened recently in Madrid, when Sir Alex moved to address this in the second half by repositioning Welbeck centrally.

The continuing lack of a ball-winning central midfield screen remains a problem and to a degree, compromises United’s use of the 4-2-3-1. The consequence is that when the opposition gets the ball, United are slow to win it back. If United are on top in a game then this isn’t so much of a problem but if the opposition are in the ascendency, then it is difficult to resist that pressure and turn things around.

There have been two examples of this so far this season. On both occasions United, on the front foot, roared into a good lead early in the game but could not resist the opposition once they took the upper hand. This happened at Chelsea and Manchester City but in both matches it led to nothing for the opposition for different reasons. The circumstances (two red cards and a combination of Nasri’s shoulder and Van Persie’s excellence) had nothing to do with tactics. It is likely that this problem has resulted in United’s adoption of the second formation we consider here.

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4-4-2 and the ‘Midfield Diamond’

There has been plenty of talk about this formation, so we will be brief. It isn’t a new but rather an occasional strategy. Its strength is that it allows United to keep the ball, so limiting the number of occasions when we need to win it back. Its weakness is that it is a narrow shape, reliant on full-backs getting forward to provide width.

United have not mastered this formation yet but they used it well enough in three of six Champions’ League Group matches to qualify comfortably in first place in the group.

Sir Alex has used a core group of midfield players to form the diamond, most notably Fletcher as a defensive midfield player with Cleverley and Anderson as inside midfield players, leaving Rooney or Kagawa as the attacking midfield players. All these players seem to have the qualities needed to fulfill their roles in this shape but its use has been compromised by Fletcher’s illness. United have used this formation only once since that re-occurrence (West Ham away in the FA Cup). In all games, when the midfield diamond has been used, United have had plenty of possession but generally not scored many goals even though they have won on the majority of occasions.

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A Lob-sided 4-3-3

Last year saw the use of 4-5-1 in a number of away games where Sir Alex’s mindset seemed significantly more defensive. Generally this wasn’t successful, with United suffering defeats at Liverpool in the FA Cup and in the return derby late in the season when the approach was widely criticised by fans for its lack of attacking ambition. In both these games, the main problem was that the sole forward became isolated from the rest of the team. United had no effective out-ball and carried little menace. This allowed the opposition to push on with no real concern about a significant assault on their goal. United’s famed counter-attack was missing. United had to find a way of resisting the opposition whilst retaining some attacking ambition.

This year Sir Alex has instead turned to a lob-sided 4-3-3 in two games when he has gone on the defensive, but only then when he is concerned about a specific danger.

The first time we saw this was at Tottenham where the lob-sided 4-3-3 was adopted to block Bale. As it transpired, Lennon presented a much more dangerous threat than Bale because he was supported by Walker as an attacking full-back. Bale was assisted by a far less adventurous full-back in Naughton.

When it was clear that the danger was coming from the other side, Sir Alex switched Welbeck and Cleverley. This allowed Welbeck to occupy Walker and keep him back, solving the problem. Only later in the game, when Ekotto replaced Naughton, did Bale’s threat become more significant and was part of the reason why Tottenham were able to equalise – United could not deal with a danger from both sides.

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In this game, United were essentially taking a decision to close down an area where the opposition were strong but in doing so conceding space in one area for space in another. Tottenham solved the problem with a twin threat on both flanks and lateral movement, overloading the central area in front of Jones and Carrick.

United used this strategy again at Real Madrid. Early in the game, United filled space on the left around Ronaldo which left room on the right for Di Maria. Di Maria had a good game and was able to find plenty of space to operate but when Ronaldo saw the openings on Real Madrid’s right, he switched to the right. As a very mobile player, Ronaldo would probably have swapped at some point anyway but it was noticeable as the first half wore on that the majority of Madrid’s attacks seemed to be coming from the spaces on the right hand side.

The big difference in this game was that United did not allow themselves to be overloaded in central areas. After the half time break, Welbeck was moved to a more central position and it was clear that the main aim was to defend the space in central areas outside the penalty area. Welbeck, Carrick and Jones all patrolled this area and in the second half they failed to play their way through, resorting to speculative long shots. With De Gea, Jones and Ferdinand on fire, Madrid ran out of ideas.

Conclusion

Recently, Sir Alex commented that this squad is stronger than the one he had in 1998/99. Commentators have pointed out that the first eleven is not as strong as in that year. Both views are probably correct. The team in 1999 played a 4-4-1-1 shape consistently. The difference now is that this squad of players is greater in depth, flexible enough to play a number of different systems, and win. In view of this we are optimistic about our chances this season and remain fascinated to see how things develop tactically in the months ahead.

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