Perhaps because this season has gone so badly, there has already been a lot of navel gazing amongst United fans and we have said a lot ourselves. For a detailed look at the season we direct you to our recent articles in the Tactical Thoughts area of the site: http://manutdtactics.com/?cat=13, where we dissect our tactical strategy and areas of concern. We don’t want to repeat ourselves unnecessarily so we have kept this Tactical Overview piece fairly short.
With half an eye to the future we will restrict ourselves to a few summary points. It appears to be the vogue amongst journalists and bloggers to identify five key lessons learnt from a game/season/situation (delete as appropriate). Why five? What if there are six lessons or only four? On this occasion and in the interests of self-discipline, we will stick to the trend and but restrict ourselves to four lessons.
Caution and negativity
Under Moyes, United were generally far too negative; overly cautious. Retaining defensive shape with midfield players sitting deep behind the ball simply surrendered the initiative to the opposition. This was a critical mistake: the wrong tactic at the wrong time. It was wrong for two reasons; first, because it does not sit well with United’s culture and traditions; second, because it changed the focus of matches to United’s most significant weaknesses. As identified in our Tactical Thoughts articles, those areas were the defence and midfield, (including the defensive midfield play). The tactic of caution put these areas of the side under scrutiny. Adopting a more attacking ethos may have put the emphasis in games on our attacking qualities and the opposition’s ability to resist them. United should always be attempting to set the agenda in matches; should always be about attack.
Who can win the ball?
United need a ball winner. To be fair to David Moyes, this is not a problem of his making, but it is one he failed to solve (and Fellaini is not the answer). It has been very noticeable for at least four years that United’s inability to win the ball has had a negative impact on our game. When we lose the ball, we sit deep and wait for the opposition to make a mistake. Even a modest Premier League side has the basic ability to retain possession; our inability to go and win the ball back quickly prevents United from developing a period of sustained pressure in games. A large proportion of chances in top level football result from quick transition moves when the team losing possession is momentarily out of a good defensive shape. It therefore follows that if United are not able to take possession, they cannot engineer this type of match-changing situation. We clearly need a midfield with the creative guile to break down an opponent after it has adopted its defensive formation. Currently we lack the necessary guile or tenacity to do this.
United’s lack of pace has, this season, become an acute problem. The team looks one-paced. Sitting deep in a defensive shape is necessary at times, and for many years under Sir Alex United were essentially a counter-attacking team. United would sit deep and then spring forward after a quick transition of possession and catch the opponent with a quick early forward thrust. This was not a recent phenomenon; a classic example of this was a Premier League game in our first Premiership winning season in 1993 against Norwich City at Carrow Road: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YtVhrrekYw, or more recently in the Champions League Semi-final first leg against Arsenal at the Emirates in 2009: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzqjdpQ3K_w. The defining characteristic in both matches was pace – pace of thought, pace over the ground and pace of deed. Where has it gone?
Our crossing ability is simply very poor. For as long as anyone can remember, United’s play depended heavily on the use of wingers. Currently our wing play is poor. We have few players capable of beating a player and still fewer prepared to try. The biggest concern, though, is our crossing ability. Little creativity from the centre combined with poor crosses means that United’s ability to create chances is greatly reduced. Most of our crosses have been either over-hit or directed towards a general area rather than a specific player. When United sit so deep it is hard for them to get bodies into the box, so there is a much reduced chance that this tactic can be successful.
So where do we go from here? We return to our first point, which is that United need to adopt a more positive approach as a first step forward. We will leave you with a quote from our new manager:
“We have to sell a product, and that product is attacking and attractive soccer.” van Gaal, The Coaching Philosophies of Louis van Gaal and the Ajax Coaches, 1997.