David Moyes has made a good start to his Manchester United career as the Reds solidly beat Swansea City on Saturday. The new United manager is notoriously reactive and one cannot assume that the Scot will continue with the tactics used in Wales, but important details as to how Moyes will utilize the squad he inherited from Sir Alex Ferguson can be gleamed from the Premier League opener.
As expected, United came into the game with a very specific plan. There were some mistakes to be ironed out on the training ground, but the fact that the players stuck to Moyes’ ideas is a very good sign – some managers with clearly defined tactical ideal, such as Andre Villas-Boas, sometimes fail to control the playing staff and struggle to implement a strategy. It is a pitfall that the former Everton manager has clearly dodged.
Manchester United lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation as expected. When defending, two banks of four were quickly formed and Robin Van Persie stayed up top while Danny Welbeck or Ryan Giggs, who took turns playing in the hole, helped out as needed. Van Persie and Welbeck or Giggs pressed aggressively high up the pitch to allow United’s midfielders and defenders fall back into line.
Meanwhile, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand defended deep and the midfield bank of four refrained from pressing their Swansea counterparts lest the home side exploit the space between United’s defence and midfield.
Interestingly though the Red full-backs tucked inside quickly and allowed Swansea’s wingers to put in crosses. Swansea failed to capitalize on United’s deep-lying defence, but it remains to be seen whether Moyes will allow an opposition with a proper target man to utilize the aerial route.
United’s offensive approach was much more interesting. As Moyes had done at Everton, the Glaswegian had the Reds draw Swansea in before launching long balls forward. David de Gea directed his goal kicks long – often aimed at Welbeck’s head – and United attacked only when forward players had some room ahead of them and numerical advantage over Swansea’s defence.
Attacks were direct and purposeful – the Reds rarely bothered with patiently prodding around the Swansea defence and midfield. Instead, United tried to create situations where forwards could hold up the ball upfield then turn or make quick passes to United players running from midfield.
United’s forwards repeatedly attempted to establish a numerical superiority either by running directly at the Swansea defence on the counter or by drawing Welsh defenders out then exploiting the gap left behind. van Persie’s first goal epitomizes this approach.
Surprisingly, United produced very few crosses. Phil Jones and Patrice Evra consistently motored forward while the Reds’ wingers cut inside quickly, but generally attacks took a more central route than down the flanks.
Still, pushing full-backs into advanced positions is advantageous since it forces the opposition to trade off the risk of a United break through the middle by committing men to mark wide areas. And since attacks are sporadic United full-backs should be able to handle the physical aspect of the task.
When attacking the front four often switched positions to create space. Decent runs were made, but the frequency with which United forwards got caught offside was alarming. The timing of runs will become sharper as the season goes on, but it is troubling that there were very few incisive through balls.
With attacks bypassing central midfield entirely, Michael Carrick was reduced to mostly screening the defence. With Tom Cleverley never a particularly creative player it is clear why Moyes has chased Cesc Fabregas this summer. With someone of the Spanish’s inventiveness partnering Carrick, United attacks will become more varied and, therefore, harder to defend.
But if United is going to be functional in midfield then spark must come from the front four. Van Persie can fill in the ‘number 10′ role if needed, but without the Dutcman up front the Reds might want for a good finisher. Ryan Giggs lacks the explosiveness needed in this plan, although he did provide moments of genius against Swansea that Welbeck and Antonio Valencia cannot reliably offer.
Meanwhile, Shinji Kagawa is tailor made for this approach and it remains a mystery as to why the Japanese didn’t even get on as a substitute. Kagawa saw little game time in pre-season either and it is very possible that the former Dortmund player is simply unfit.
Moreover, the Japanese has never played as a winger with an onus on defending in two banks of four; as things stand, Kagawa can only be deployed in the hole. And with no central midfielder bursting forward to offer creative support relying on the Kagawa at number 10 would likely render United predictable.
There is also a rationale in playing Giggs, who understands Moyes’ defensive system, and can also swap places with Welbeck. To fit Kagawa into the United side Moyes has to buy a midfielder who can share the creative burden.
There are implications for United’s wingers in Moyes set up too – they will be asked to cut inside rather than attack the byline. Moyes’ wide-men will also have to quickly retreat to form the first line of defence when Untied loses possession, and burst forward when the Reds attack. Pace will be in the front of Moyes’ mind when he selects his wide players.
Given the role, finishing and movement must also be considered, meaning that barring new additions, Ashley Young and Luis Nani will have a role in Moyes’ system – possibly ahead of Antonio Valencia.
Young is a limited player, but he has played at 10 and his ability to feature across attacking midfield may come in very handy. Despite his notoriously poor decision-making Nani remains the only Premier League tested player in the squad who can beat a man; the Portuguese’s productivity will tempt the United manager to pick him instead of the Ecuadorian.
Indeed, Valencia’s place is under threat from multiple angles, while the one player who can perhaps make the winger worth deploying – Danny Welbeck – might just end up taking the former Wigan Athletic player’s place.
Welbeck has always been physically impressive and diligent – and it comes as no surprise that Moyes has put the youngster in the first 11 ahead of more illustrious players on the bench. The English striker has a fine tactical brain and maintains possession well even though he lacks incision.
Despite the rather meager goalscoring return in 2012/13 Welbeck has all the tools to consistently score. Crucially, he can compete in the air and will provide a very good target for de Gea’s long clearances if that is a key part of the plan.
Moyes used a well defined system with little variation at Everton. The Scot now has a variety of players at his disposal meaning there is no guarantee that the tactics deployed against Swansea will become the template.
That said Moyes’ has a tactical history – and the embarrassing chase for two Barcelona midfielders suggests that a facsimile of the Swansea plan will feature prominently this season.
The half-hearted bid for Marouane Fellaini is another sign that Moyes will go down this route as there is little need to compete physically in central midfield under the system deployed last weekend. And with United’s defence rather immobile, a pressing game is very dangerous; Moyes seems at least smart enough to react to his own team’s weaknesses.