In American football, the “offense” and the “defense” form a line of scrimmage. The offensive line protects the passer, usually the quarterback, and clears the way for runners. Runners, usually receivers positioned wide, carry the ball forward. Despite the prevalent perception, Sir Alex Ferguson is quite a tactician. He has – perhaps anticipating upcoming European games – revamped the 4-5-1 that Manchester United has used in tough games. Indeed, Ferguson’s 4-5-1 is very reminiscent of Gridiron.
In Ferguson’s system two central midfielders, usually Anderson and Darren Fletcher, charge forward and engage opposition midfielders. Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick plays the deep-lying playmaking role – aided by the extra space afforded by the two midfield runners. The ‘quarterback’ often passes to one of the wingers. Wingers carry the biggest creative load in the system – they have to either make the defense splitting balls to the lone forward, usually Wayne Rooney, or run with the ball and score.
However, wingers are aptly aided by Rooney, with the former Evertonian playing the ‘false nine’ role. A false nine is a striker who drops deep from the nominal number nine position. Such movements can be very deadly as an opposition centre-back or two can be dragged out of position. Should a centre-back follow Rooney deep, United’s wingers then have room for maneuver. Even if opposition centre-backs are disciplined in their positioning, Rooney then links with the Reds’ midfielders and helps maintain possession – allowing United’s defence to creep up and help out.
This variant on Ferguson’s 4-5-1 has worked well in home games against Arsenal and Manchester City this season and is likely to be used in a tough away game against Olympique de Marseille in the coming week.
It’s not the first time Ferguson has experimented this season – a prototype to the new system was also used in away games against Birmingham City and Blackpool, although the attempt failed miserably, despite a win and a draw. The two failed attempts can perhaps be written off as an unfortunate, but natural, consequence of any experiment.
The new system does have few glaring weaknesses though. One obvious fault is predictability. The plan: Fletcher and Anderson make forward runs and keep opposition midfielders occupied; Scholes or Carrick pass to Nani, Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park or AntonioValencia; Rooney drops deep to create space; the winger tries to score. However, unless Rooney comes into the goal-scoring form of last season, the new 4-5-1 will remain far too predictable. The opposition can simply sit deep and deny space.
Another weakness is the burden placed on the deep-lying playmaker. With Carrick in poor form and Scholes no longer able to cope with a fast-pressing game, the ‘quarterback’ in the new tactic can easily be nipped in the bud. In the recent Manchester derby, Sir Alex protected Scholes by playing John O’Shea instead of Rafael. Indeed, the formation stifles United’s full-backs.
With Fletcher and Anderson making frequent forward runs, Evra and Rafael must help protect the Reds’ deep-lying playmaker. In addition to the defensive role, they also have to motor forward and provide auxiliary width as wingers cut inside.
Theoretically, two full-backs can help out the quarterback and then motor forward as the quarterback drops deep to form a temporary back three as necessary. It remains to be seen whether the abstract thinking can work on the pitch of course. United’s full-backs will be more conservative away from home but this instruction ensures an already predictable system is even more readable.
Moreover, Sir Alex appears very concerned with his new 4-5-1. For example, in the recent FA Cup tie against Crawley Town he deployed the new system – probably to fine tune the formation. Events changed the match though – the 69-year-old Scot introduced Rooney and played 4-2-3-1 in the second half. But Gabriel Obertan and Bébé’s poor form, in addition to the Da Silva twins’ injuries, rendered United narrow and allowed Crawley to take the initiative.
Disastrous, and frankly painful to watch as the match might have been, the interesting thing was the Scot changing United’s formation during the interval. In using 4-2-3-1, Ferguson added another midfielder alongside the quarterback, providing extra protection and allowing the full-backs to bomb forward more easily.
It is quite clear that Sir Alex counts his full-backs as a major source of creativity. It is also palpable that the United manager is still unconvinced by the new 4-5-1.