Sir Alex Ferguson has done it again; the 69-year-old Manchester United manager has created a new tactical template, with players to go with it. United’s formation this season might nominally be a traditional 4-4-2, yet the deployment is anything but ordinary. Two, not one, strikers drop deep as wingers push forward. With no dedicated holding player, both central midfielders – Anderson and Tom Cleverley – maraud into the attacking midfield positions. Ferguson’s attacking six players converge in the same area and have created some beautiful football – as the recent 8-2 victory over Arsenal suggests.
And it is the young players that are key to making the system work, in particular Danny Welbeck. Tall and strong, the 20-year-old can play the traditional target man with whom United can relieve opposition pressure. The English striker also operates as a traditional number nine that diligently works the channels. He can also beat a man using pace and skills – something that Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández cannot offer on consistent basis. Crucially, Welbeck is comfortable operating a little deeper (see figure 1, below), often occupying the same spaces at ‘deep-lying’ Wayne Rooney.
It is, perhaps, a touch too early to call Welbeck a complete striker but he is more complete than both Berbatov and Hernández. It is this well-roundedness that has seen Welbeck preferred over his more established colleagues in the current, fluid system.
Guardian writer Sid Lowe suggests that tiki-taka style of football deployed by Barcelona is as defensive as it is aesthetically pleasing. After all, the opposition can’t score if they don’t have the ball. Ferguson’s deployment last season of two ball-playing midfielders, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, in a 4-4-1-1 was forced by necessity. Darren Fletcher, a more destructive player, would surely have been preferred had he been fit during the closing weeks of the season.
Still, the system worked a treat for Ferguson and United. Carrick and Giggs, along with Rooney, maintained the ball so well that it was not necessary to deploy a holding player to disrupt the opposition play. At least until United met Barça in the Champions League final, with the Catalans playing tiki-taka better than anyone else.
This season, Ferguson has upped the ante. Central midfielders, wingers and strikers congregate in the same area (see Figure 2, below) to form, effectively, a 4-2-4-0 or a 4-6-0 system. With so many players in close proximity any given player has multiple teammates to pass to. United has maintained possession well, including 60 per cent of the ball enjoyed in the 3-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur recently at Old Trafford. With central midfielders requiring dynamism in the new system, Carrick and Giggs have been discarded in favor of Cleverley and Anderson.
However, with no holding midfielder screening play and the attacking six pressing like there’s no tomorrow the United defence faces two very tough choices: risk a high defensive line or; play deeper and isolate the attacking six. The first option would not have been possible with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. The older duo is slower than Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, leaving United vulnerable to pace and the ball over-the-top. Even when Jones and Evans have been pushed deeper the presence of David de Gea – an excellent distributor – allows the ball to move forward.
That isn’t to say that the older players will forever play second-fiddle this season. The downside of fluid systems is that they tend to fail spectacularly. Recall Roma’s 7-1 defeat at United’s hand in 2006/07. Sir Alex will likely go for more rigid formations in Europe to combat the defensive frailties inherent in the a system that features no holding midfielders. Even should the Scot persist with the current formation, players will be rotated for the system places great physical demands on players. The workrate put in by Ashley Young and Nani, who regularly cover for the defensive, is an example. Yet, the way Ferguson’s youngsters are playing, the old guard will have to work hard to play. After all, Ferguson, the notorious tinkerer, would never have selected the same line-up twice in a row had he not been impressed.
20 thoughts on “Why Fergie may persist with youth”
This is the exact same system we played late last season, except Nani on the right tends to come inside more than Valencia, and Young has taken Nani’s place on the left.
Works great against some sides, but like last season is likely to problematic against sides with 3 or 4 quality central midfield players (City, Barca, Real, Chelsea if they get some players in). I don’t like the fact that we’re left desperately hoping for Fletcher to return in top form for us to have a Plan B.
Gutted for young Welbz on the injury. I predict Hernandez will go on a scoring run now and he’ll struggle to get back into the starting 11. Not a bad choice to have to make though – but I’d pick a fully firing Hernandez over Welbeck any day of the week
Where do you get these ridiculous theories from?… it’s just football, not fuckin chess… not with Ferguson anyway.
I think the truth is somewhere in between. A lot of this tactical stuff is just wankery, but I think Ferguson gives things a bit more thought than you’re giving him credit for. When it comes down to it though, I think he puts his faith in players more than systems.
Did anyone else catch Sir Alex’s comments after United beat Spurs? I’m pretty sure that he mentioned making an adjustment in his half time preparations by advising Welbeck that he didn’t need two strikers in midfield; he needed one to stay up top and provide a target.
Yep you’re right he did.
width, pace on the wings and upfront, two mids going box to box and one rooney
No… I think I give him plenty of credit… Ferguson is old school… he does have his tactical approach… but compared to the new breed of manager, like Guardiola and Mourinho, he’s a caveman… but that’s ok, because Ferguson tends to prefer the old school type of player anyway, like Rooney.
But this article is just a load of arm chair manager nonsense.
And a defensive unit that can stop Panzers in their tracks.
That’s our Fergie.
Oh, and by the way… the real reason Ferguson is, “presisting with youth”, has fuck all to do with any tactical plan… it’s because it’s a fuck of a lot cheaper than buying Sniejder.
I dunno, I think Mourinho is more of a caveman than Fergie with his “best parked bus money can buy” approach to football. Fergie doesn’t just hump the ball up to a big bollocks striker, he does put together real ball players and good movement. But it’s true that you never see him vary from 4 at the back and dynamic wing play, and what he does in between is just about getting the most from whatever players he’s got available.
This is a fantastic article. I noted during the Community Shield match that we seemed to be back to playing a 4-6-0 but what is even more interesting is that the extra tactical and physical training in the run up to the Champions League final (ie. extremely high pressure and defensive positioning when we lose the ball) has been adopted as a permanent aspect of our game. What sets this 4-6-0 apart from our previous foray into a strikerless formation is the fact that it is an actual interchangeable front four with attacking central midfielder who can intelligently screen the defence when we lose the ball instead of an interchangeable front 3 of Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez with a holding, passing and box-to-box midfielder behind them.
This makes for a much more exciting and high-intensity style of play than we have ever had. If you see how close-knit some of the passing exchanges between Cleverley, Young, Rooney, Nani and Anderson have been, it is clear that we are a lot better at keeping the ball in attack and many people have likened our recent play to being a bit copy-cat Barca. This is not the case when you see how long Barca keep the ball before executing an attacking move. We keep the ball only until it reaches the attacking third and then try to string together a series of passes that will get one attacker into a perfect position. (See Nani’s first goal against City or Nani’s goal against Arsenal). Tom Cleverley’s instinctive more is a one touch pass to a striker or winger with the aim of receiving straight after. (See Cleverley’s shot against Arsenal after a one-two with Hernandez).
The players have recently talked about how they are playing with a lot more “high pressure” and “high intensity” and it seems to be the focus of their training recently along with passing drills that Barcelona are famous for concentrating almost entirely on.
For this, I point the finger at one man – Rene Meulensteen. The Manchester United first team coach who assumes most of the non physical conditioning coaching. His personal philosophy is that the team with the most technically gifted players or the team with the most flair will ultimately win and this is shown in his former role as “technical skills development coach”. Has anybody else noticed how many more one-two’s and backheel’s we are executing? It seems like every successful attack has been started by a backheel and this accumulated into me nudging my friend during the Arsenal game and telling him that a goal would came as a result of our attack because of a backheel – and it did. Ashley Young’s first goal. This new focus on allowing the players to express themselves but also maintain the high-octane nature of our attack and style of play has so far proven to be extremely successful.
One can’t help but wonder whether Ferguson and his elite coaching staff are putting in all of this work now so that it is our new playing philosophy for when we play the best teams in the world and ultimately, Barcelona.
Why did that become an article?
I really need to get my coaching badges!
“He (Welbeck) can also beat a man using pace and skills – something that Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández cannot offer on consistent basis”.
Seriously? Hernandez cant offer pace? No, he is just probably the fastest footballer in the world.. And when it comes to skills, he is very skillful obviously, however his style of play has him not needing to use dribbling or technique as much, since he uses his superior movement instead. I love Welbeck and think he is a great alternative up front, but a fit Hernandez is obviously the starting forward in front of Rooney..
Welbeck is technically superior to Hernadez, Hernadez tends to play on the shoulder of the last defender. The positive is he can create more space but he is offside too many times for my liking. But even Welbeck could do this if he wanted. Hernadez is a better finisher but Welbeck is a better allround player, He will make Utds approach play better and improve the team. He will miss more opportunities but will we create more with him in the team. Watch Hernadez play he has zero ability to dribble past a player.
Well the nice thing is that both Welbeck and Hernandez should improve a lot still. It does seem that Welbeck has greater potential overall, and he and Rooney look an ideal partnership for the English team too, with Carroll offering something different from the bench. My worry about Welbeck is that he looks the type to have trouble with his legs, which might drag him down the way it happened with Saha and Torres.
I still don’t think Welbeck is good enough to make it as a top striker. A couple of good games changes nothing.
I just don’t understand how people can possibly put a negative light on Hernandez. One of the fastest players EVER, amazing finisher, works hard for the team, and proven back home and at international level. Oh I know, let’s play Wellbeck ‘cos it seems he can dribble better.
Wat about Petrucci? Is he any good?