The versatile Manchester United : Tactical insight on the formations used this season

Manchester United has had a roller-coaster of a season. They started the season brightly with pundits purring over their brand of attacking football, and then injuries and loss of form resulted in them having a blip that resulted in a barren spell in front of goal. The thrashing given to them at the hands of their noisy neighbors Manchester City really seemed to take the stuffing out of them, as they changed their game play completely – score one and defend by placing your body on the line became their new strategy. In the eyes of the pundits and ex-players the Champions League exit had summed up Fergie’s misgivings as they criticized his squad and a lack of a top class midfielder in their ranks, but a reshuffle in tactics had seen United wipe away City’s 5 point lead by taking an 8 point lead at one stage only to let City back into the title race after enduring a horrible spell in April

Sir Alex has once again proved why he is the best and has made sure that people write off his side at their own peril. Checking out the various modes in which United have operated this season it is safe to say that we can sum up United’s season so far into these sagas –

4-2-3-1 with a high line of defense, pressing from the top and quick one touch passing – the swashbuckling United

 Manchester United was trailing Manchester City 2-0 in the Community Shield and Fergie introduced Cleverley, Evans and Jones for Carrick, Ferdinand and Vidic; the rest as they say is history. United overran City in the second half and won the game 3-2. With injuries to Rio, Vidic and Rafael, SAF persisted with this line up/formation for the start of the season as United blitzkrieg their opponents into submission with their swashbuckling style of football.

As we can see, the front six are positioned quite close to each other. This enables United to press the opponents in packs once they lose the ball (a style similar to that of Barcelona). Welbeck is preferred to Hernandez and Berbatov because he has the speed of the Mexican and the link up play of the Bulgarian. Rooney operates just off Welbeck with Young and Nani either side of him. The versatility of the front four means they can interchange at will which prevents the opposition defenders from marking them and their “off the ball” movement too offers a great outlet for the midfielders (Nani’s goal in the Community Shield).

United rookie Tom Cleverley is at the heart of everything good about this formation. His quick one touch passing and his pass and move mantra seems to have brought the best out of Anderson too. With Cleverley always offering himself to play a one two with, the Brazilian seemed to have found his long lost dynamism.

With the front six remaining narrow the fullbacks are given the freedom to bombard forward (Smalling was playing as a right winger for most of the second half against Tottenham). Neither Cleverley nor Anderson are orthodox defensive midfielders therefore Jones steps up and adds an extra man into midfield that leaves Jonny Evans playing the role of the sweeper as the last man.

Manchester United played a fairly high line of defense while they used this formation and with no midfield destroyer in their ranks they were susceptible on the counter attack once their attack broke down in the opposition half and the opponents managed to beat their pressing game. The opponents also used the third man run to great effect as the United midfielders failed to pick up runners into the box.

Although highly entertaining this formation lacked the defensive solidity and ensured that the opponents had a staggering 91 shots on goal in those 5 games.

4-5-1 with the defense sitting deep and the midfield 5 protecting them by stifling out the opposition – the resolute United

 Manchester United won the league last season purely on their home record by gathering 55 out of the 57 available points, so it came as a shock to everyone when Manchester City obliterated them at Old Trafford by six goals to one. While some had predicted United to go on a downward spiral, others said that the result was no surprise and with United conceding so many shots on goal it was an accident waiting to happen. But Ferguson had other ideas –

Following the game against Manchester City, United managed to amass 13 points from their next 5 games. They scored 5 and conceded just 1 goal (The dubious penalty awarded to Newcastle at Old Trafford).

Injuries to Cleverley, Anderson and Young meant that United had lost their ability to play a slick passing game. With Rooney entering one of his barren spells in front of goal and the wind knocked out of their sails following the 6-1 drubbing, Sir Alex turned to United’s Mr. Dependable, their Captain Marvel Nemanja Vidic.

United played a 4-5-1 with a flat back four of Evra, Jones, Vidic and one of Evans and Ferdinand. The likes of Welbeck, Nani, Park, Fletcher, Giggs, Carrick and Valencia made up the numbers in midfield depending on which four of them were fit. Wayne Rooney too dropped into midfield which left Hernandez as the lone front man to engage the opposition center halves.

Manchester United were lack-luster in the games following the derby day disaster- their attack looked blunt and their midfield lacked creativity but it was the poaching abilities of Hernandez and the man mountain nature of Vidic that enable United to gather up the 1-0 wins, the kind of wins Sir Alex suggests are necessary to win you Championships.

Hernandez was on target against Everton early in the first half after which United retreated back into their own half and were content on protecting their lead. Every throw in, corner, free kick and cross put into the box was met by the head of Nemanja Vidic. Everton were not allowed to get in behind United’s defence and in front of the back four one could see the likes of Rooney and Fletcher closing down spaces quickly. The closest Everton came to scoring a goal was a Baines freekick that hit the crossbar, and United got back to winning ways.

It was the same cliché each week on MOTD – “they are winning without playing particularly well” as United gathered up hard fought 1-0 victories against Sunderland, Swansea and Aston Villa.

4-2-2-2 with Carrick marshalling the defence and Rooney, Nani and Valencia terrorizing defences – The efficient United

Having scored only 10 goals in the past 9 league games and crashing out of the Champions League in the group stage and losing their captain for the rest of the season, troubled times laid ahead for United (well at least according to the pundits).

But with Carrick (the man in form) and Jones (United’s signing of the season upto that point) in the middle of the park, United seemed to have the perfect combination of steel and guile. Rooney and Nani getting back into form were also like added bonuses as they went on to score 16 goals in the next 4 games to continue United’s title charge.

The back four of Evra, Ferdinand, Evans and Smalling looked solid especially with Michael Carrick sitting in front of them. With the loss of Vidic United couldn’t pull of the tactic of defending their one goal lead, therefore they pushed their defence line further up the field.

In the 4 games that followed the defeat at Basel, United came off the block flying and opened the scoring on the 17th, 1st, 5th and 8th min in those games. That helped ease the pressure a bit. With the injury to Hernandez, Danny Welbeck was partnered upfront with Wayne Rooney.

Sir Alex took the blame for Rooney’s barren spell by stating that his decision to play him in midfield turned out to be a double edged sword. Therefore Rooney was unleashed from his defensive shakles and pushed much further up the pitch alongside Welbeck, something that proved to be a master stroke.

Nani was given a free role like the one Ronaldo performed during his later years at United, or like the one Silva is performing at City where he starts out on the left and drifts infield into space between the midfield and attack to join Rooney and Welbeck.

Valencia hugs the touchline on the right hand side and offers the width and pace to stretch defences. His 6 assists and 1 goal in these four games have shown that he has shrugged of his early season injury concerns and is back to his best.

Carrick operated as a regista, receiving passes from the center backs and setting up attacks from his quarter back position. Jones on the other hand offered the legs and covered most of the ground as an old fashioned box to box midfielder (since Jones injury Giggs has replaced him in center midfield).

In the 8 games Carrick had played for more than an hour this season (at that point), United had conceded only 2 goals and one of them was from the penalty spot. Therefore it was safe to say that even though the less adventurous Carrick was not a fan favorite he did his job to perfection and hence was a main stay in the United side.

The only concern for fans would have been the fact that this was the same team/formation that United had played against Barcelona in the Champions League final and were played off the park that day, so progress didn’t seem to have been made.

4-4-1-1 with the return of Paul Scholes and wing-play at its best – “United, The winning machine”

Manchester United, as expected bolstered their midfield in the January transfer window with the signing of Paul Scholes. Yes, this was the same Scholes who had retired 6 months back after stating that he didn’t have what it takes to play week in week out at the highest level. But what followed was a surprise to all.

Scholes proved his critics wrong and was United’s player of the season from January onwards. He scored 4 goals from center midfield and brought a calmness to the United side that had lost 2 games on the trot.

Manchester United now reverted to their 4-4-1-1 formation with Rooney dropping off the main striker. Valencia and Young hugged the touchline to provide the width and Scholes and Carrick were the passers in midfield. The back four had a familiar look to it for the rest of the season with Rio and Evans at the heart of it and De Gea pulling off some stunning saves.

With 2 passers in the middle of the park United found it easy to dominate possession, spread the ball and use the full width of the pitch. Valencia continued his good form on the right wing and formed a great partnership with Rafael. Rooney was on a purple patch and had a ratio of a goal every game.

United dropped only 2 points in the next 12 games (their 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge) and took an 8 point lead at the top of the table. But the problem came on a Wednesday night at Wigan, when Ferguson rested Scholes by stating that the veteran couldn’t play 3 games in 7 days. Scholes was replaced by Giggs and United were pressed into submission by Wigan. Without the maestro United couldn’t keep hold of the ball and distribute play and lost the game 1-0.

United then conceded 2 late goals against Everton where the physical and aerial prowess of Fellaini and Jelavic proved too much for the United defence.

By the end of the season other teams had found out the weakness in United’s passer-passer combo in midfield. When pressed hard the midfield duo could easily be outrun and outnumbered. To avoid that from happening Ferguson dropped a striker and played Park to provide extra legs in midfield for the Manchester Derby, but like every other game this season Park was out of his depth when deployed as a CM and City won the match comfortably.

Transfer Targets: Requirements for next season

With Cleverley, Anderson having injury problems, Fletcher facing a battle to save his career due to his bowel disorder, Pogba joining Juventus, Scholes and Giggs old enough to be some of the player’s parents; United are in a desperate need of a couple of midfielders to ease the burden on Carrick.

With Fabio going out on loan and Evra having a poor couple of seasons United need a new left-back to sort out their defense.

Ferguson insisted on adding pace to his attack therefore it is safe to assume that Berbatov and Owen are no longer in his plans, therefore a striker is needed to complete Ferguson’s quartet up-front.

Therefore with the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal doing business early the United fans would hope that they too get to see some new faces graze the Old Trafford turf next season.

– by Rohit Shankarmani

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