Danny Higginbotham is a familiar face to United Fans. As a former youth player he made 7 first team appearances between 1997 and 2000 as a full back. To enjoy more first team football Danny moved on to Derby County and then onto other clubs the majority of whom play in red and white stripes; Southampton, Stoke City, Sunderland and Sheffield United before finishing his career at Altrincham, his home town club and another who wear that type of kit.
As a player he was best known for his two spells at Stoke City, the first involving a period as club captain and where he established himself as an accomplished centre back in Tony Pullis’ side. Danny holds the distinction of playing a key role in helping two different clubs to reach an FA Cup Final but then missing out on the action on the big day. At Southampton in 2003 he was an unused substitute, and at Stoke City in 2011 a cruciate ligament injury denied him a place in the final.
Since retiring as a footballer Danny is successfully developing a media career as a co-commentator and football analyst. It is on MUTV’s “Big Match De-brief” show where his insightful dissection of United’s tactics has really caught our eye. His knack of explaining issues clearly and simply, avoiding over complication gets straight to the heart of the matter making him stand out as the channel’s best analyst. In addition, Danny also writes a regular and fascinating tactics column for “The Independent” newspaper.
We were delighted when he agreed to answer a few questions for www.manutdtactics.com
Thanks for agreeing to answer a few Questions Danny. So new manager, lots of players moved on, a few new players and new tactical approaches. After years of subtle changes under Sir Alex and some cautious tinkering under David Moyes it feels like a revolution. We love it as it gives us lot to get our teeth into but what have you made of it all this season so far?
DH: In terms of position I think it’s important that they finish in the top four. It’s going to be very interesting to see how it unfolds. 3rd and 4th will be between United, Liverpool and Arsenal.
Tactically I feel the biggest problem for United is that their key players are not being afforded enough time on the ball, because when United have the ball I don’t think they are making the pitch as big as possible width wise or length wise; no one is really stretching the game. More often than not players are coming short for the ball and it’s easier for the opposition to close down the space. For instance, I would have Di Maria on the left, Young on the right, Rooney up top with either Wilson or Fellaini. That will stretch the game and make the pitch bigger in different ways to create time and space for midfield ball players behind the front two.
One of the big issues that all United fans have an opinion on is the 3 at the back strategy. Drawing on your experience as a PL defender, both as a centre back and a fullback, what is your view of it as a system. What do you see as the key issues in making it work and your thoughts on United’s use of this approach so far?
DH: It’s important when you choose to play 3 at the back that it doesn’t end up 5 at the back as then you will never be able to break quickly. The problem with United earlier on in the season playing with a 3 is that they didn’t have enough pace to counter quickly like say Liverpool are now doing with a 3 at the back.
At the start of the season Van Gaal talked about an unbalanced squad, (we would add uneven in terms of ability also). There have been a few changes since then but is it still unbalanced? To what extent do you think this issue is influencing his tactics at the moment? If you do still believe it to be unbalanced what do you think is the priority to re-balance the squad?
DH: I think it’s a fantastic squad but a lot of players are similar as in terms of wanting to come short for the ball instead of looking to get in behind opposition into space. No doubting the quality of the squad but there’s a lot of like for like players.
How do you solve a problem like di Maria? A nice problem; great player, he gives our team much needed pace and asks big questions of the opposition but Van Gaal has played him in several positions. Do you think he has decided yet how best to use him? How do you think he may best be used?
DH: I feel that to get the best out of Di Maria you have to play him in his best position which I feel is either left of a midfield 3 or as a left winger in a 4. The problem he has when playing on the right is that his first touch is always inside and we know from all systems that are played now that midfields are always congested so he will run into bodies and when that happens it doesn’t matter how quick you are. If he plays on the left invariably his first touch will be with his left foot taking him into wider areas and more often than not isolating the opposition full back.
Again from your experience as a PL player to what extent is tactical strategy influenced by a need to counter the opposition? David Moyes had a reputation at Everton for being a manager who adjusted significantly to counter the opposition; Louis van Gaal has his opposition scout and has made great play about how Giggs briefs the side about the opposition. We didn’t hear a lot about this under Sir Alex but it is obviously factor, (he often went 4-3-3 for example when he went to the Emirates). Because we didn’t hear about it many United fans seem to think we shouldn’t bother about the opposition should impose our game and be positive. Is this realistic?
DH: It’s important of course that you look at the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses and this is something that in my opinion Mourinho is the best at. So many times over the years he has looked at opposition’s danger men and turned them into their weakness. A prime example last season was against Manchester City when Silva was pulling the strings. What did Mourinho do? He made sure that every goal kick, every attack went down Manchester City’s left because he knew Silva wouldn’t be there as he likes to cut inside and dictate play. It was no surprise that Ivanovic who at right back that day for Chelsea, was one of the stand-out players. He also scored because Mourinho knew that no matter how dangerous Silva was going forward he would leave space behind for Ivanovic to run into. By doing that Mourinho was making their danger man, Silva, a weakness when City had to defend.
Louis van Gaal talks a lot about his “philosophy” which we take to mean his football principles rather than a specific tactical approach. What do you think the key features of his philosophy are?
DH: Van Gaal seems to be a manager that gives his players a set philosophy and is also very mindful of each player’s shape and discipline within the team. He seems to play compact and then look to break but also to make sure that his teams have players behind the ball in case they are countered upon.
Finally you are now forging a new career in broadcast and print media as a considered analyst; how is that going and what plans do you have going forward?
DH: I’m really enjoying my media career so far. I consider it as being like going back to being an apprentice and learning from people far more experienced than me. This isn’t a hobby for me it’s something that I want to try and become the best at. I will always be as honest as possible and won’t say anything just to cause a stir. I think it’s important that if you are ever critical it has to be constructive criticism which I believe is fine. I don’t and never have liked when someone has a go at a player but then doesn’t give an explanation as to why; that’s why it has to be constructive. Why is a player not playing well? Why has he missed that? I was always told with co-commentators that the commentator says what’s happened and it is my job to say why. I will always try and tell the listeners or viewers something that they don’t already know if possible.
Thanks again for finding the time to talk to us.