Season Review 2012-13Tactical Overview

 As United fans we delighted to see the return of the Premier League trophy to Old Trafford. We would all consider the season a success, despite European elimination at the first knock-out stage, because most identified the Premiership as a priority at the outset. Last summer many did not consider this to be possible, but the signing of van Persie gave everybody a lift. Some believe that United’s capture of van Persie ahead of City was exactly the boost needed to secure the title, especially after missing out on the last day of last season. Certainly his addition to the squad has raised the team’s collective morale and this coupled with his on-pitch quality is, perhaps, the most significant factor in regaining the title.

This has not been a vintage Premier League season and this is not a great United side. It’s sad to say that Sir Alex’s final Champions are probably amongst his weakest. We should expect other teams to strengthen over the summer and David Moyes will have a significant challenge to retain the crown.

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In his last season as manager Sir Alex’s tactical approach remained a 4-4-1-1 shape, transforming into a 4-2-3-1 in attack. In truth there is minimal difference between these shapes; largely the position of the wide midfield players/wingers who push higher in the attacking phase. Many fans refer to United’s 4-4-2 strategy.  This is a misreading of Sir Alex’s approach. He  has stated many times that he doesn’t like 4-4-2, but rather favours a single striker with a withdrawn forward behind, a tactic he has favoured for many years and certainly since Red Star gave United a lesson in the 1991 Super Cup game at Old Trafford.  In that game Dejan Savicevic was majestic playing behind Pancev.  About a year later Sir Alex signed Cantona, who he regularly played in a similar role – as a deep forward – behind Hughes, in a shape that was effectively an early 4-2-3-1.

This shape has been Sir Alex’ tactical orthodoxy ever since, with a few occasional experiments and variations along the way. This year we saw a couple of experiments and a couple of one-off tactical strategies designed to counter specific opponents.

In a previous article we reviewed the strengths of the playing squad player by player. Here we review how well the team functioned in its tactical shape, picking out a number of key issues, including specific features of United’s game relating to areas of the team and aspects of the tactical shape.  We also look ahead to how Moyes may need to adapt tactically in order to ensure we challenge for honours again next year.

Defence

 Sir Alex’ best sides have all had a strong defence, usually with a solid established central defensive pair, at or near their prime, (Bruce/Pallister around 1993-95, Stam/Johnsen in 1999, Ferdinand and Vidic around 2007-09).  For some time now, United’s defence has not looked particularly strong.  Age and injuries are catching up with Ferdinand and Vidic to the extent that they rarely now play together as a pair.  Instead, United’s central defensive selection is rotated amongst five players. This lack of a stable solid choice at the heart of our defence is a problem and we hope that two of the three younger central defenders, Evans, Jones and Smalling, step up to form a settled pairing.  Alternatively Moyes may choose to purchase to strengthen this area. The problem has been exacerbated in recent years by the lack of ball-winning midfield players in front of the defence and, following the retirement of van der Sar, the lack of a commanding goalkeeper behind. De Gea is much improved, but he does not yet command his area and still elects to punch when one would rather he catch.

Traditionally in wide areas United’s full backs are expected to contribute to the attack. Rafael and Evra, the established fullbacks, play their part, but on occasions they are a bit too keen to join in and frequently get caught out of position. Their attacking enthusiasm hasn’t always helped generate solidity at the back.

This year United have often simply outscored the opposition which has served to paper over the defensive cracks, (think Southampton, Reading, Man City or Chelsea all away from home). Last year it did not (think City and Everton at home). This season United won the title whilst conceding nine more goals than City in second place. United won’t always get away with this approach.

The Double Pivot

The double pivot is a key part of a 4-2-3-1 shape. Carrick, playing as deep-lying creative midfield player, has had an excellent season. Sitting in front of the defence he looks to pick passes and direct the play to more mobile players ahead of him. When defending, he looks to control space, block angles and intercept rather than tackle. Currently he is the automatic first choice; the question is: who should partner him in this role?

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Most frequently his partner has been one of Giggs, Cleverley or Anderson.  What Carrick needs is a ‘shuttler,’ a player who will play higher and be more mobile, running at the opposition’s midfield centrally in support of the attacking players, so creating space for the other deep-lying pivot.  When defending, this player needs to be an effective tackler; a ball winner. Giggs has been tried in this role on many occasions but age is catching up with him and he can’t do this anymore.  Cleverley has the potential to fulfil this role but has not yet developed sufficiently to be truly effective, he is also more of a creative player lacking the defensive qualities. Anderson just hasn’t come on. None of these players is a natural ball winner and as a consequence United end up defending too deep, (think Liverpool at home this season in the last twenty minutes).

A pattern has emerged.  In a number of games United have started well, counter attacking and forging an early lead, but once the opposition has got into a rhythm United have found themselves unable to respond. They have got away with this on several occasions, (at Chelsea and Man City and at home to Southampton), but in these games they have generally been unable to control possession or the centre of the pitch. To overcome this in a number of key games United have employed Jones in the centre of midfield either as a pivot or as an extra midfield player to supplement the other two players deployed there. Playing Jones as a pivot has only worked when another player is brought into the midfield to form a three. When he has been one of a pair it has been less successful because he himself is a sitting defensive player rather than the box-to-box midfield partner that Carrick needs. The consequence is that United drop deeper and deeper, surrendering space and control of the game.

We feel that the 4-4-2-diamond experiment, most frequently employed during the Champions League group phase, was as a direct consequence of this problem.  The current speculation regarding the strengthening of this area of the squad over the summer would indicate that it is still a big issue.

The No. 10

Kagawa or Rooney?

In his first season at the club Kagawa has made a promising if unspectacular start. He has been hampered by injuries and often faded in games, suggesting the need to adapt to the physical challenges of the Premier League. It is clear that he is an intelligent, skilful neat player, capable of operating between the lines, finding space and passing accurately (he has the second highest pass completion rate of all United players, behind the now retired Scholes). This year he has often been deployed wide on the left, which seems to waste his talents. His best position would appear to be centrally behind the striker. But where does this leave Wayne Rooney?

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Rooney hasn’t had a good season; he has at times looked uninterested, out of condition and in his positioning undisciplined.  He has put in a verbal if not a written transfer request and there has been much speculation of a move away from the club.  If he really doesn’t want to play for the club United should sell him but this would be a shame because when he is focused and on his game he is still a force to be reckoned with. Is the challenge of Kagawa one he doesn’t wish to accept? Over the years Rooney has been asked to fulfil a variety of roles in the team and perhaps he feels that he is at a point in his career where he should be deployed in a position which best suits his strengths, rather than in a position to accommodate others as he has done in the past.

If pushed, we would say that Kagawa exhibits the greater tactical awareness, but Rooney is a stronger presence. Kagawa needs to impose himself more and Rooney needs to deploy his talents with greater tactical astuteness. The irony of this question is that both players gave their best performance in recent months when deployed centrally together, late in the home game against Norwich after van Persie had been removed. This period of the game yielded three goals, two for Kagawa and one for Rooney. The two together seemed to exhibit an instinctive understanding. Maybe the answer isn’t Rooney or Kagawa but both, but then only if Wayne has an unlikely change of heart.

Over reliance on van Persie

 Which bring us to the subject of Robin van Persie. The question last summer was how would he fit into the team? This seems unimportant when he has scored as many goals as he has and there is no doubt that his performances this year have proved decisive.  The question, however, remains pertinent because United haven’t really integrated van Persie into the team, rather the team has adapted to suit his needs. This may be one of the reasons that Rooney seems unhappy and could also be a factor in Welbeck’s poor goals return. Hernandez, essentially a poacher, has fared better, producing a decent goals tally, in spite of restricted game time.

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But what happens if van Persie’s goals dry up or, as happened at Arsenal, he suffers a spate of injuries?  United certainly looked less convincing when van Persie had a dry spell from January to March and had to rely on the defence’s best spell of the season to see them through.  An over reliance on van Persie may be an issue in the future.

Wide players

This year the form of all United’s wide men has been poor. At times and when deployed there, the best wide player has been Giggs.  Nani continues to be frustratingly inconsistent.  Young has been a disappointment and after a great year last season, Valencia has been poor.  Giggs aside, none of these wide players would have played regularly in some of Sir Alex’ earlier United sides.  United moved to strengthen this area in January with the acquisition of Wilfred Zaha.  Now that his loan period to Crystal Palace has ended, he will join up with the side this summer.  We would not be surprised to see a further strengthening of this department. It is clear that for a 4-2-3-1 strategy to be truly effective, United need wide players who will consistently prove more of a handful for the opposition. This will relieve pressure on other areas of the team and allow full-backs to join in the attack more easily, being less likely to be caught out of position as a consequence of the opposition’s wide players needing to track back.

Experiments and alternative strategies

The most talked about tactical experiment this year was the 4-4-2-midfield diamond. We have previously written extensively about this so won’t go into detail again.  On reflection we feel that this experiment was as a consequence of two factors. The first was the general poor form of our wide players; the second was as a consequence of our inability to compete in central areas against good passing teams without a properly functioning double pivot. We also feel that this tactic was developed to get United through the group stages of the Champions League, something we had failed to do in 2011-12 season. The extra personnel in midfield saw United keep the ball in a way they had often failed to do in the previous European campaigns, but it did not yield goals. United had plenty of possession when they played the diamond, but with a narrow shape they did not create many clear-cut chances. Perhaps if this were a regular tactic this problem would be overcome over time, but after qualification for the group stages of the Champions league this shape was only seen on one further occasion.

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The 4-4-2-midifield diamond was not the only experiment this season. In a few games, United trialled a lop-sided 4-3-3.  4-3-3 is a formation Sir Alex has sometimes used against good passing teams, most noticeably with great success against Arsenal.  The lop-sided version of this tactic appears to have been devised to cope in a situation where the opposition has a ‘stand out’ star player who poses a specific threat. We first saw the tactic at White Hart Lane when it was deployed to restrict Gareth Bale.  It was then used twice against Real Madrid and Ronaldo. In all these games it was only a partial success. United won none of them, but this was always because of some other factor. In all three games the tactic was used to restrict the space available to the opposition’s star player.

Against Spurs, Jones was placed in a narrow midfield position on the right, close enough to the other midfield players to stay in touch with them and close enough to Rafael to support him if Spurs doubled up on this side.  United earned a draw with Spurs, scoring a late equaliser from a move from United’s left rather than the right hand side.  For long periods Bale was relatively ineffective.

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In the first Madrid game Jones was similarly deployed. Ronaldo scored the Madrid equaliser, but only after he had switched sides to overcome the lop-sided block.  In the return fixture Jones was ill with shingles and United deployed Giggs in his place.  He arguably performed this role even better than Jones as his pace and occasional attacking intent prevented Madrid from supporting Ronaldo by pushing the full back on. This game altered after Nani was sent off. United changed shape and surrendered the initiative.  Up until that point, however, the lop-sided 4-3-3 worked reasonably well.

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Movement and fluidity  

 Ever since Ronaldo left in 2009, United have tended to be more rigid in shape with far less fluidity than we saw between 2007 and 2009.  Early in season 2011-12 there was more fluidity with Sir Alex partnering Cleverley and Anderson in central midfield.  This experiment did not survive an injury to Cleverley, but then the manager tried another way to improve fluidity of the attack, in the very first game of the season at Everton when he fielded a team in a 4-2-1-3 shape.  One could speculate that this was an early season attempt to find the best shape to utilise new players, but curiously it was not repeated until the last home game of the season when it was briefly used towards the end of the first half when Carrick played in the number 10 role.

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At Everton Carrick was deployed as a makeshift central defender.  This isn’t significant as it was a direct response to an injury crisis.  In central midfield Scholes partnered Cleverley and Kagawa played in the no. 10 position behind a fairly fluid Welbeck, Rooney and Nani.  The experiment was not a great success for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the central midfield was not physical or combative enough; Carrick’s defensive astuteness in that area might have helped but again the ball-winning, box to box player would still be missing.  Secondly, Rooney had a poor game. He looked unfit and did not seem to be on the same wavelength as those around him.  The potential of this formation was clear, though.  Kagawa stayed between the lines centrally and had an excellent game with the three ahead of him now free to interchange and move wherever they could have maximum impact.  Why, then, was the experiment not repeated? We will never know.

The cohesiveness of the whole

Having highlighted all these issues one is tempted to wonder how we actually won the league! A big part of the success was inevitably down to Sir Alex’ drive and competitive spirit; it has always been thus over the last 27 years.  So David Moyes’s greatest challenge appears to be how to make up any deficit in this area.

One way he could do so is by strengthening the cohesiveness of the whole.  Currently the team is a collection of parts which lacks cohesion.  A settled central defensive partnership and a settled and complementary central midfield pair would both help. The no. 10 role is key, linking midfield to the wide players and the striker; in an effective 4-2-3-1 this player should be the fulcrum of the attack. That, of course, is assuming that Moyes chooses to play in a similar pattern to Sir Alex.

This summer is a leap into the unknown.  Whilst we do not see this as a great United side, it is undoubtedly a good squad, with a core group of promising young players. If managed well and reinforced intelligently, these youngsters should develop into an improving side in the years ahead.