Despite his crossing ability, Gary Neville has been more a full-back who can attack than a proper attacking player in the mould of Cafu. Yet, Rafael da Silva’s emergence this season has allowed Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps for the first time in his Manchester United career, to depend on his right full-back to provide genuine creativity.
And while it is plain, even to the most casual of fans, that United lacks a creative central player, Ferguson clearly recognises the issue. United’s tactical focus this season has been to flood the attacking central midfield area with numbers – a ‘quantity over quality’ approach.
United’s base system of 4-4-2 cum 4-2-2-2 cum 4-2-4-0 has born some fruit in the home games against Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Birmingham City. An argument can be made though that United’s new 4-4-2 is as much about providing a platform to best utilise the Brazilian full-back as it is about masking the lack of a playmaker.
Rafael has noticeably matured this season even if he remains hot-headed for a defender. United’s system plays to his strengths – by playing a nominal 4-4-2 Rafael has a wide man ahead who provides cover. And because the right winger, usually Nani, is encouraged to cut in, Rafael also has space when in possession.
The twenty-year-old is a genuine attacking threat. Rafael’s blistering pace is buttressed by excellent close control and dribbling. The Brazilian’s passing and crossing are technically proficient even if his decision-making lets him down. Age and experience should improve the timing and reading of the game.
On paper, Rafael’s progress is exciting. Surely, one more avenue of attack will make United even more exciting. However, one must not forget that Patrice Evra is also very attacking.
Take infantry as an analogy – organised by ‘fireteams,’ the idea is to have one soldier charge and gain ground while his or her partner covers the runner. Defence in football operates on the same idea. One-to-one battles are not desirable – once a defender is beaten, the attacker has a free shot at goal.
Football managers have thus always sought a spare man at the back to provide additional cover. For example, one can play three centre-backs to counter two strikers. Or in four-man defensive systems, managers often have a full-back or a midfielder stay behind and form a defensive unit with the centre-backs.
With Rafael and Evra both charging ahead, United faces an undesirable two versus two at the back, especially against teams playing 4-4-2. Even against systems that nominally feature only one striker, such as 4-2-3-1, leaving two men back is risky because of the opposition player ‘in the hole.’
Compensation comes at a cost – a central midfield player can drop deep and provide cover, but the team then gets outmanned in the middle.
United’s response has been interesting. Wayne Rooney has been playing very deep of late and that has ensured United does not get overrun in central midfield. But in the recent away game at White Hart Lane, United suffered simply because Rooney had a bad day.
Indeed, therein lies the problem. United’s new 4-4-2 is a great idea but it can only be a temporary fix. Ferguson’s system asks the midfielders, and one of the strikers, to essentially play two roles. It is arguable that Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are playing badly this season simply because they are being asked to do too much.
The system works fine when United can hold the ball and play a high line. Yet, in less fluid games the team gets stretched and players find themselves covering a too much ground and running themselves into submission.
With a marquee signing looking increasingly unlikely United will have to make do with existing players. If the answer doesn’t come in the market perhaps one solution to this dilemma is tactical, by deploying a 4-2-3-1, with Rooney as a central attacking midfielder rather than striker. While Rooney has never been – and never will be – a proper playmaker beggars cannot be choosers.
Another, more familiar, option is to play Rooney as lone striker in a variant of 4-5-1. This less fluid system allows players to domore specialised – hence easier – roles. With central midfielders in their proper place the Reds will hold onto the ball more easily, which of course relieves pressure and further reduces the chance of anyone being caught out of position.
United’s 4-4-2 is an exciting, fluid system. It has the potential to do some real damage as Blackburn found out the hard way. But one cannot persist with a system that puts intolerable pressure on central midfield for the possibility of great football.
We must keep in mind the dictum that sound defence wins championships.