– and why we have too few wingers –
There is a myth amongst Manchester United fans, that’s the myth that Sir Alex Ferguson is only comfortable with a 4-4-2 set up. The myth is widely spread, even to such extent that when we have played a different set up credit for it has gone to others. At times he has been painted as a tactical dinosaur, but he has been trying to move away from the 4-4-2 since the middle of last decade and has played it out of necessity.
Credit for our free flowing 4-2-3-1 system has largely gone to Carlos Queiroz and he may very well have a major influence over that switch but It’d be naive to suggest that Sir Alex is inept in a system he has utilized for more than two seasons. So why did we move away from that system when Queiroz left? If you look at the players who came in and the ones who left the shift makes a lot of sense.
Dimitar Berbatov was meant to be the spearhead “1”, the key to unlock tight defences. Instead his lack of mobility proved to unsettle the entire system. Just like Van Nistelrooy’s unwillingness/inability to make the opening runs which led to him being ousted as our no.1 choice by Louis Saha when we moved towards the 4-2-3-1 in the first place, Berbatov proved just as unsuited to the system. Couple that with Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez leaving and the dynamics have changed radically.
Man United reverted back to the 4-4-2 and it gave us one league title and two very close second places. That suggests that given we did the most from the squad we had. The drop off in quality when you lose two players like Ronaldo and Tevez, the drop in results was marginal. Granted an important margin, the difference between winning and losing can be slim, yet it is everything in sports. Our points total last season was more than we had in 8 of our title winning seasons.
Still after being showed up by Barcelona in the 2011 CL-final, Sir Alex decided that a change was needed if we were to reach the absolute top. The change to a more free flowing system looked so very promising at the start of the 11/12 season; a winger in the Ronaldo mould of cutting in from the right was brought in Ashley Young and a more mobile and physical centre forward (á la Saha) in Danny Welbeck.
Sat on the sidelines were key players from last season like Michael Carrick, Javier Hernandez, Berbatov and Antonio Valencia to name a few. The intent was clear speed and mobility and unpredictability was the key. But it all fell apart because of injuries. We reverted to a trusted 4-4-2 but the intent was clear, Sir Alex knew it was only a stop gap solution.
Fast forward to 2012 and our only major signing to this date is a player very unsuited to a 4-4-2, Shinji Kagawa, he is however very suited to play the link between midfield and striker in a 4-2-3-1, I can’t believe that this is a coincidence. Last season the only set up that was really suited for the system we started the season with was Young, Rooney, Nani behind Welbeck.
Any rotation of that line up would necessitate the inclusion of either a very conventional and touchline-hugging Valencia or a Giggs who has always been more of a high risk/high reward kind of player, he’ll always be prone to losing possession.
The introduction of a player who can both go wide left and behind the striker means that our preferred line up could be Young-Kagawa-Nani behind Rooney. Although Valencia is less suited to this system than the others I’m convinced that he could do the job. It in turn means that you can rest any two of our first choices and still keep our shape. That’s essential. You need to be able to rotate the squad over a season and you don’t want to be forced to alter your preferred style of play because of it.
We have a number of players who don’t fit this system primarily like Hernandez, Berbatov and Giggs to name a few but that’s not a problem, you always need options to change things around at times, just as long as you are not forced to do them when you don’t.
Our midfield has received the brunt of the criticism for our “poor” 2011/12 and partly that is as it should be. But another problem for me has been Wayne Rooney at the no.10 role. He can play that role, he can play almost any role as he has shown over the years. He is at his best as a striker with the license to roam, this has often led to him being given a withdrawn role but he is no no.10 in my eyes. His first instinct is almost always to look for a goal scoring opportunity and given the shot he has on him, if the space is there it’s a good option. But it slows down our attacks since passing the ball will always be the second option.
This is why I believe Shinji Kagawa to be an important piece of the jigsaw and not just an afterthought or a “Park replacement”. But as I said, last season it fell apart, primarily because of injuries to the “2” both Tom Cleverley and Anderson went down for big parts of the season and it looked like the forward runs from midfield was integral to Sir Alex vision.
That Cleverley and Anderson were the preferred choices suggests that the qualities Sir Alex were looking for in his midfield were quick passing interchanges and pressing. Again, none of the alternatives in the squad could play this kind of game. Carrick prefers a longer passing game and likes to sit back, as do Scholes (when he returned). At the time Jones was a bit of a blank page and was used more as a defender and Fletcher was never himself. Giggs is an option, but only if used sparingly and as stated previously he is prone to losing possession.
This hasn’t changed much, Anderson and Cleverley are pretty much where they were last season, Fletcher is still out and Carrick is no more likely to bomb forward. I might be alone in this but I don’t see midfield as a pressing problem if we make the switch to a 4-2-3-1. We have a lot of options, many of them unproven, but that’s how everyone starts out.
In a 4-4-2 our midfield sat deep and recycled possession, that left a big void for Rooney to try and fill. If we switch system that would include a much more aggressive pressing game as well. This results in more longer balls from defence and Carrick is one of the best in the came to cut off passing routes. Coupled with a high energy player like Cleverley or Jones we could win back possession a lot faster. I know many people have given up on Phil Jones in midfield because of his suspect positional sense. A lot of these people think Hargreaves could have been the answer to our midfield in the past, just goes to show. Jones will only get better, as will Cleverley. I haven’t mentioned Scholes, because he is Scholes, we all know what he does. All in all, we have a lot of options in midfield. If we are looking to keep possession we can set up that way, if we want to threaten with runs from deep we have that option as well as players who can harass the opposition. We are flexible and have a lot of bodies in midfield but the major thing is that their job will be made easier by a higher pressing attacking line.
It all comes down to if you believe that Cleverley/Anderson/Jones have what it takes to take the next step. There are also prospects like Ryan Tunnicliffe, Davide Petrucci, Nick Powell and Larnell Cole waiting in the wings. Signing a starting central midfielder would block the path for all of these players effectively and that has never been how we operate.
No the areas to strengthen for me is left back, Evra needs support/cover and on the wings. The wings you say? But we only sign wingers. This is another myth I don’t understand. If you look at the squad you’ll see that we have Young, Valencia and Nani as our only wingers if you don’t count Kagawa as one (which I don’t). He like, Rooney, Welbeck and to a certain extent Giggs can do a job there but they are no wingers. So our apparent moves for a winger makes perfect sense to me.
So to conclude this, Sir Alex prefers a 4-2-3-1, we are stocked in central midfield and we have too few wingers. Who would have guessed?
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