Wayne Rooney’s recent declaration that he is happy at Manchester United now that he is playing as a striker under David Moyes has been interpreted in a number of ways. But setting aside the claim and its message for a moment it is good to remember that Rooney had his best season in 2009/10 during which the Scouser played primarily as a traditional number nine. Given that Rooney lacks the typical qualities of a real number 10, or a winger for that matter, Moyes can be excused for using the Englishman as a striker given the player’s history.
But Moyes system has provoke a number of tactical question, some of which might be alleviated by using Dutchman Robin van Persie in a new role.
Moyes’ system, in which full backs are encouraged to aggressively provide width, means that Old Trafford’s two central midfielders – Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini as the first choice pair – cannot push forward without risk. Meanwhile, United’s wingers have been encouraged to cut inside with Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra pushing high up the pitch.
Yet, in the system there is also a clear need for someone to occupy the space between the main striker – Javier Hernandez or van Persie – and central midfield. It was a role Sir Alex Ferguson asked Rooney to fulfill in the Scot’s last Premier League winning side, leaving the Reds with a variety of channels in which to attack.
Typically Moyes deploys a forward in the hole, but this nominal number 10 has looked to attack the box late more than providing an additional passing option in the attacking third.
Theoretically United’s wide man are required to link midfield with attack, while the full-backs crosses from wide areas – turning Moyes’ formation from a 4-4-1-1 into a 4-2-2-2 in the attacking phase. However, there are weaknesses in United’s team that inhibit the Scot’s plan. The lack of a spare man in defense and Evra’s poor positional awareness has limited United’s opportunities in the final third, for example.
Additionally in recent matches against Southampton and Liverpool the opposition pressed United’s midfield duo heavily, forcing the Reds to attack almost exclusively down the flanks. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were shown the byline at Anfield, while Adnan Januzaj and Nani were fouled into submission at Old Trafford. In each United’s attack was predictable and blunted.
Moyes attempted to introduce a holding midfielder in European competition, but the United squad is loaded with forwards, and deploying a number 10 that links midfield and attack is surely more of a priority. Without this additional passing option in the middle United is forced to into wide areas, as has been the case in recent games.
With Rooney seemingly preferring a more direct role, Shinji Kagawa is the one man in the United squad capable of providing the missing link. Yet, dropping van Persie for Kagawa is unthinkable, leaving the Japanese out of favour and questioning his future at the club.
Moyes has always been keen on keen on having a player arrive late into the opposition box, which offers two separate targets to aim at with balls from wide areas. At Everton Tim Cahill and latterly Fellaini fulfilled the role, while at Old Trafford Rooney’s aerial presence might be weighing heavily in the former Everton manager’s mind.
Meanwhile, van Persie appears to be increasingly isolated in a United shirt, with United’s system not bringing the best out of the record Netherlands’ goalscorer.
These challenges bring to mind the once radical concept of false nine – a forward who drops deep – which is now mainstream tactical thinking. It is a role that might suit United’s Dutchman – in fact van Persie often played the role for Arsenal to great effect, with the former Arsenal player and Cesc Fabregas often devastating as a pair.
In Catalonia Lionel Messi is Barcelona’s false nine and his heroics outshine the fact that Barça’s wingers benefit from the space created by the Argentinean. At Old Trafford, allowing van Persie to drop deep might force opposition defenders to choose between letting the Dutchman crowd midfield or following him and leaving a gap in the defensive line.
Rooney and United’s wingers might even benefit from the additional movement in forward areas. The fact that Rooney, Januzaj and van Persie can all play as false nine suggests that the seemingly easy tactical switch of encouraging a forward to drop deep could inject the flair that United is desperate for.
In the plan van Persie will benefit from more touches of the ball, while United’s possession game – with just 76 per cent of passes completed against Southampton – will improve. The Dutchman’s presence in the hole would also allow midfielders to attack and Fellaini to offer his physical presence in the attacking third.
Retaining the ball for longer is advantageous in most situations, but it is particularly useful for United since Evra is better in the attacking than the defensive third.
Moyes is well known for his conservatism, but the concept of false nine is well documented and field tested. Spain won Euro 2012 with Cesc Fabregas dropping off opposition defenders, and Sir Alex is one of the pioneers of false nine, having used both Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney in the role.
It is a bold step, but using van Persie in a new role could both solve many of United’s attacking problems and negate the need to bring in new attacking players, of whom Moyes may have little trust in any case.