When you have an unbalanced squad, what do you do? Buy another option where you already have them? The result is that United currently have a surfeit of Number 10s.
As outlined in our last Tactical Thoughts piece, David Moyes’ tactical approach is only different from Sir Alex in the detail. In his time at the club, aided and abetted by a series of accomplished coaches, Sir Alex went on a tactical journey from a standard 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 (with a number of diversions along the way). By the end of his period at the club Sir Alex’s sides generally played a 4-2-3-1 in attack which morphed into a 4-4-1-1 in defence. In both these formations the number 10 role is key.
4-2-3-1 has been the vogue for some time now and Sir Alex’s move to this in the Carlos Quieroz era was undoubtedly a response both to the loss of Roy Keane and the club’s inability to find adequate box-to-box midfield replacements, together with the club’s inability to go on and win another Champions League after 1999. The formation gave United a solid base, at the same time allowing United to retain their traditional width and providing a platform for Ronaldo to have a free reign further forward. The 4-2-3-1 allows this, but more usually it relies on a number 10 as a creative fulcrum to the attacking play.
Some see the 4-2-3-1 as a development from a 4-3-3 with the two attacking wide players dropping back behind a lone forward each alongside the No 10. Others see the formation as a development of the 4-4-2 via a 4-4-1-1 and that is of course the journey United have been on. The difference is that your view will determine the nature of the number 10 you select. If you are coming from a 4-3-3 then the number 10 is seen as an advanced creative midfield player. If you are coming from a 4-4-2 then he is a deep creative forward. United currently have three players vying for this role, which makes it a critical issue.
How did we ever beat this lot? Savicevic – second left front row.
For Sir Alex the number 10 was a deep lying second striker. He first reverted to this after the purchase of Eric Cantona in late 1992. The purchase came within a year of a performance at Old Trafford by Dejan Savicevic in the European Super Cup which was a master class in the role. How United won that night was and remains a mystery. Savicevic was simply superb. The signing of Eric transformed the club and led ultimately to twenty years of success; was it a response to lessons learnt that night? Eric was of course a very gifted player, but it was his movement, dropping deep “between the lines” which made the difference. English sides didn’t know how to deal with him and with Mark Hughes sitting high as a static link occupying central defenders, Eric was gifted every opportunity to drop deep or pop up wherever the space presented itself. He was a true fulcrum of the attack.
(We have been looking for a way of getting a photo of Eric on the site for 2 years! Boom!)
But enough of history; how does David Moyes see the No 10 role? It is harder to say. At Everton Moyes played Fellaini as a support attacker behind a forward, but he is not a player in the classic number 10 mould. However he was moved to that position as a midfield player and his use in a deeper position at United suggests that Moyes still considers him to be one. He is having his fair share of problems so far at United but Moyes has usually played him as a deeper less advanced midfield player at United. At Everton he was used as the fulcrum of the attack, but more as an awkward target towards whom early long passes were directed. He aimed to bring other players arriving around him into the game. Fellaini hasn’t been used in that way at United.
With the purchase of Juan Mata in the January transfer window, United have three principle options available for this position. They have another young player in Januzaj who may play there in the future, and just occasionally they have used Welbeck in this area. The three principle candidates, however, are Rooney and Kagawa along with the new man.
Wayne Rooney has had a very interesting 12 months. Last summer it seemed that his days at the club were numbered as his discontent at being asked to play in a deep midfield role boiled over. Under Moyes he has been re-habilitated and whilst he will never again be a favourite for many fans he has consistently been one of our better performers in this difficult season. Early on he tended to play higher, quite close to van Persie. This stretched United’s shape and left a gap between the front players and the two deeper central midfield players. Whilst this hasn’t happened as often recently, it illustrates Rooney’s weakness as a number 10. The problem is that he is naturally a forward whose first instinct is to get into the box and score goals. (Since van Persie’s recent injury he has scored four goals in four games whilst playing as the main striker). This tendency, allied to a lack of tactical discipline at times, is an issue. His lack of tactical discipline has been noted by many observers over the years and has been evident particularly in big games for both United and England.
That said, when he is focused, Rooney is suited to the number 10 role as it is envisaged at United. He appears to be Moyes’ current first choice for this role. He has good close control and so can play between the lines. He is mobile, passes well and links well with those behind him. His weakness is that he is not the most creative player, tending to push the ball into wide areas where there is naturally more space rather than through the middle of opponents. The consequence of this is that the Rooney to van Persie passing option is often one of the least frequent combinations in the United side; he doesn’t always link well with players ahead of him when he has dropped deep.
Rooney is really a forward who is playing out of position for the overall good of the team. He does so to accommodate van Persie, who has had a difficult time this year with injuries and speculation regarding his dissatisfaction with the new management regime. That is of course just speculation, but one is left thinking that the signing of van Persie seems less like a long term strategic signing and more like a short term fix, given the effect it has had on players around him.
Another player who seems to have been affected by changes made to accommodate van Persie is Shinji Kagawa. He joined the club at about the same time as van Persie. Last year the excellence of van Persie and his priceless goals restricted the player’s match time. Why hasn’t he been played more this year? It would appear that Moyes just doesn’t fancy him as a player but Kagawa is a classic number 10. Like Rooney, he has good close control and can operate in that congested area behind the forward. He is mobile (whenever he is played wide he comes narrow and has a tendency to pop up wherever the space is). Critically, he is creative. Kagawa is a player with natural vision, able to pick out colleagues both behind and ahead of his own position. When played as a number 10, United have looked far more potent going forward. There are two good examples of this, one from last season and one from this season. Last year he played most of the home match against Norwich out on the left but with United chasing a win from 1-1, Sir Alex shuffled his pack for the last fifteen minutes, pushing Kagawa behind Rooney. United scored three goals in fifteen minutes to win 4-1 with Kagawa sealing a hat-trick. This year, Kagawa played behind Rooney in a Champions League game against a Bayer Leverkusen side then flying high in the German league. Result: 5-0.
Kagawa does have weaknesses, though. He is diminutive and can be knocked off his game and he doesn’t have good defensive instincts. He has been tried as part of a midfield two in emergencies and he just can’t do it in this position. But a number 10 is supposed to be the team’s creative fulcrum rather than a player relied upon to help out in defence. Of course, problems in other areas of the team currently mean that even the number 10 needs to help out more than perhaps they would normally and Moyes does have a reputation as a manager who places significant emphasis on team shape and everyone knowing their defensive responsibilities.
This brings us to another player whose talents seem suited to this role: Juan Mata. Jose Mourinho, we are told, was not keen on Mata because he doesn’t work hard enough defensively for the team. Mata was Chelsea’s player of the year for two years running and whilst United are well stocked in this area, and his signing does seem to further unbalance the squad, if great players become available you should sign them. Mata is a great player.
A classic number 10 he is an example of that modern football phenomenon; a diminutive Spanish lad, always comfortable in possession, always ready to receive a pass even in the tightest areas. He is mobile with good vision and an excellent range of passing, short and long. He is very creative and since his signing, even when operating in a wider right side position, he has already looked like the side’s main creative spark. He is wasted in wide areas and United must surely look to get him into that central area where he can do more damage. Mourinho is right that his weakness is his defensive work (the first goal at home to Fulham came about as a consequence of him losing the ball and not tracking the forward’s run thereafter) but United need to find a way of putting him in areas of the pitch where he can hurt the opposition to maximum effect.
Despite Moyes’ seeming preference for Rooney as the number 10, Mata seems the better long term bet for the position. The manager’s reliance on Rooney as number 10 suggests Moyes has a preference for a deep lying forward (the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 tradition) rather than an advanced midfield player (the 4-3-3 tradition). That sits well with United’s traditional preference for wing play, but does it bode well in view of the strengths and weaknesses of the players currently at the club? Moyes has flirted with a 4-3-3 since van Persie’s injury however, so who knows? And where would this leave van Persie, Welbeck, Hernandez et al? Moyes has to find a way of getting his best players on the pitch at the same time and preferably in positions that exploit their strengths. Does this require a change of tactics as well as the anticipated reshuffle of personnel this summer?
This article has looked at areas where the team are strong. Resolving issues in areas of weakness are the key to moving forward to a more successful future. Perhaps when those other areas are strengthened, questions about the number 10 role will be answered. A potential resolution, particularly in view of van Persie’s current injury woes, would be for United to try Rooney as a single striker with Kagawa and Mata as a pair behind him. But for this to work, United would need to rely on a strong ball-winning player as a holding midfielder behind them. Neither Kagawa nor Mata has strong defensive instincts and United do not currently have such a holding midfield player (Carrick is more of a screening player than a ball-winner).
This leads us to a discussion regarding the central midfield, which will form the focus of our next Tactical Thoughts article.