Why Manchester United Must Now Revert Back To 4-2-3-1


Sir Alex: In two minds?

To paraphrase Sir Alex, 4-4-2 is the best formation in order to move the ball with speed from back to front but increasingly 4-2-3-1 has become the shape of the “noughties”, and for good reason. Jonathan Wilson in 2008, discusses with greater aplomb than I the rationale behind the collective shift here The Question: why has 4-4-2 been superseded by 4-2-3-1?, but the main premise is simple: playing with four forward players supported by a structured defensive shape is more conducive to sustained attacking play, and encourages greater cohesion in general. Ferguson, an underrated tactician and fully aware of the pitfalls of both systems, must be reflecting of late on the catastrophic defensive flaws which have been all too frequent on the domestic front – and thinking, justifiably, of a reversion to the 2008 ECL-winning formation – the formation he continues to use in the majority of European games and in the bigger domestic fixtures.

I will happily admit that I was in favour of the tactical change which sought to revert to the swashbuckling attacking dynamism which was the blueprint for success in the 1990’s (seemingly stemming from the purchase of Berbatov, the replacement for the less refined Tevez). The 4-4-2 on paper was in reality a 4-2-4 or at the very least a 4-4-1-1 in which Valencia was recruited as your typical wide right midfielder, able to hug the touchline and take up some very useful attacking and crossing positions; and with Giggs or Nani utilised on the opposite flank, memories of the Beckham Keane Scholes Giggs era came flooding back. But although Man United remain unbeaten (and joint top of EPL), the system (and the performance level) has raised more questions than it has given us answers. In short, United look devoid of fluidity, shape and direction and must alter their approach soon to stop this awfully abject season descending into an anti-climax.

The problem United have with 4-4-2

4-4-2 is a system in fairness that has served United well in the last 2 decades or so.  Actually Ferguson goes to great lengths in fact to stress that he has never actually played a strict 4-4-2 and with the deep lying striker a symbol of his success: Yorke, Berbatov, Hughes, McClair and of course Cantona are fine examples. As with all tactical discussions and coaching instruction, it is the player’s ability to interpret the message on the field as part of the collective assignment which is essential.

However, due to injury and largely inconsistent rotation by Ferguson, United have yet to look at their tantalizing best; This season has seen the team performing in a lackluster manner with collective lapses in concentration (starting at Fulham and continuing on the road) typifying our frustrations. United have often been forced to chase the game either looking for that winning goal or as versus Bolton, Stoke and Villa of late, searching for that vital equalizer. For me, United simply do not have the right midfield dynamic to apply the 4-4-2 with a parallel high pressing game; The net result being that United have been hugely vulnerable to the counter-attack when committing men forward (goals from Cahill, Petrov, Elmander, Tuncay, Ebanks-Blake spring to mind, as does the counter for the penalty for Liverpool and the Fletcher chance for Wolves to kill the game at 1-1 recently).

The problem is two-fold: Not only do the vast majority of top European clubs (including Chelsea, Arsenal, {City}) not utilise this system – meaning that Ferguson often adopts a 5-man midfield when against such teams – but that the destructor/creator model implicit in the 4-4-2 does not suit the abilities of the central midfielders available to Ferguson; Scholes can no longer consistently apply the creative finesse (and high up the pitch); Fletcher whilst having a fantastic engine and passing range is no Roy Keane or Bryan Robson just yet; and although Carrick is invaluable to United’s defensive shape and has a fantastic football brain Michael Carrick: Midfield Genius his abilities are more conducive to the first band of midfielders within the 4-band system.

Take Barcelona’s front six with Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro and Villa performing with such elegance (and dominance) in recent times; Mourinho’s Madrid, with Khedira and Alonso sitting in, Di Maria, Oezil and Ronaldo interchanging beautifully behind Higuain. The system is coached to perfection and there is no reason why Ferguson (with Phelan), cannot try to replicate this model once again (Ferguson had his very own unique brand of this formation when he and Queiroz conquered Europe with Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney leading the line).

Why 4-2-3-1?

One of Valery Lobanovskyi’s famous quotes is: “I don’t like players having positions. There is no such thing as a striker, a midfielder, a defender. There are only footballers and they should be able to do everything on the pitch.”

Now whilst this appears to be a sleight against tactics per se, upon reflection the implication seems clear: Players must proactively seek to improve the balance of the system and act with autonomy given any circumstance. Lobanovskyi actually talked about an “energy system” which can ebb and flow during a game, but which must be able to capitalise in a timely fashion. 4-2-3-1, applied in an astute manner is the most obvious formation which allows this energy to system to be most effective. Indeed it is no coincidence that the vast majority of the World Cup competitors utilised this system, with FIFA making this point in its technical report stating: “Of the four semi-finalists, only Uruguay played in a formation that resembled 4-4-2, although the position occupied by Diego Forlan merits further examination. In effect, Forlan had a free role and was always looking to keep play moving before driving forward.”

One benefit to United would be control of the ball and thus the systematic attacking “pressure” elicited which is defined by the formation; Another positive being that if the energy system dictates that the players adopt a 4-2-2-2 shape for example, Rafael and Evra would attack the space in front of them to provide the much needed width.  With Berbatov, Rooney, Hernandez, Nani, Valencia, Giggs, Macheda, Obertan and Park all able to adapt individual roles and function in a fluent attacking front four Ferguson could benefit in three key areas: 1. Improve overall motivation of squad by increasing the game-time of the forward players in question and 2. Improve the overall efficiency and attacking potency by encouraging the players to develop and hone their forward play. And 3. Release the attacking energy and enthusiasm of a certain Wayne Rooney (at least until the summer!), allowing him to play off the front man and interchange with the other members of the quartet.  Adopting this system would also give the elusive Anderson and youngsters such as the promising Cleverly a chance to shine, as well as allowing the vastly improved Nani the freedom to work across the line and maximise his creative output. It goes without saying that crucial to this system would be the positional maturity of Carrick and Fletcher, the former fantastic at intercepting the ball and the latter able to contribute both defensively and combatively in the middle third.

Which leads us to the role of the much unloved Dimitar Berbatov. For all his detractors he has still scored 6 goals in 14 games (so 1 in 2) and has been crucial to the side in recent performances, not least the Manchester derby. Whilst it is true he has not played particularly well since the Spurs game, it is pertinent to state that he is no more a “failure” for a few off games than Rooney is for not scoring from open play since March 2010. It is perhaps the right time however to experiment with the Bulgarian, and many are now asking the question as to whether he can build on his impressive false 9 role in behind Rooney, creating chances and maintaining vital possession, and then keeping that position (see Formation A below) which would take the onus off him in terms of “hitting the box”. See here for Berbatov-Rooney starting starting positions/movement:

Berbatov v Rooney Passing Comparison

Guardian Chalkboard

It is certainly unlikely, but given his creative abilities it is one that Ferguson can not fail to have thought about. (Here, we can see the forward’s influence on United’s overall performance, the team winning far more games when he is a starter than when a substitute: Berba’s century.

The options:

Formation A

—————— Carrick——————-Fletcher————-

Nani————————- Berbatov—————————-Giggs

——————————- Rooney———————————-

Formation B

—————— Carrick——————-Fletcher————-

Rooney———————— Scholes—————————-Nani

——————————- Berbatov———————————-

In Summary

There are benefits of both the 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 systems, with the former allowing Ferguson two decades of success, especially on the domestic front. What is clear is that despite the differing descriptions of tactical application, United have to improve their defensive shape, meaning that 2 of 6 forward players must keep their positional discipline and provide much needed defensive solidity and cover for the back four. With International teams also prospering with the system (at England’s expense!), and many successful teams now engineering it’s next phase of development, now is a very opportune time for United to revert back to it.

Perhaps it is due to the youthful nature (though ferociously talented) of United’s squad that Ferguson has delayed in imposing a system which requires concentration and intelligence; Or simply that the 4-4-2 is more suited to the spontaneity, freedom and attacking verve on which Manchester United has based its footballing principles. Either way, United have the players to adopt an attacking 4-2-3-1 and the system should now be adopted as United seek to stay at the forefront of dynamic and entertaining football as we edge ever closer to that elusive 19th League title.

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  1. A 4-2-3-1 formation worked when we had Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney all mobile players drfiting all over the place and causing problems. Berbatov would stink in such a formation, he wouldn’t work as the lone-striker and wouldn’t score enough behind a Rooney.

    If we do play such a formation, i think it should be:

    —————— Scholes——————-Fletcher————-

    Obertan———————— Rooney—————————-Nani

    ——————————- Hernandez———————————-

    Hernandez offers a lot of pace and movement which is necessary for the formation to work, whilst the 3 behind him can drift around and cause problems. But we will NOT play such a formation as we prefer 4-3-3 these days.

    4-2-3-1 is one of my favorite formations as it works well by having 6 ‘defenders’ absorbing pressure and the remaining 4 ‘attackers’ lauching counter-attacks at will. See how Madrid are playing this season and you’ll understand what I mean.

  2. Hi Anon123, I agree that Berbatov would be a risk of sorts, but his creative potential should not be overlooked. That said, I’d be more than happy to go with your suggestion, as long as Rooney does not drop too deep as he is prone to relieve us of possession when adopting a midfield position.

    The article could have discussed many adaptations of the formation but this wasn’t my intention as there are so many options available to Ferguson using this system. Fergie is fully aware of the benefits of the system and actually played it yesterday funnily enough; I suppose my main consideration is that we should really be thinking about experimenting more with it and applying the finesse in the “lesser” games in order that we are fully equipped with the challenge of the inevitable Barca’s and Real’s of this world in the coming months.

  3. I did prefer 4-1-2-3 (or more likely 4-1-4-1) based upon Carrick DM playmaker role – which of course able to interchange with Paul Scholes. Less pressure thus more time with possession arguably brings the best out of Carrick (& Scholes) to spray passes across the flanks or the link-up fellow. However, are Man.Utd good enough to be based upon a deep-playmaker at the moment? W/ Valencia and Nani on flanks yes, with current selection possibly with Rooney and Nani wide-forwards & Berbatov line-up fellow/false 9. However, Carlos Queiroz was big part of strikerless/4-2-3-1 at mufc?

    As much as I love Berbatov ability, for me rather creator over goal-scorer in a striker position is not working for MUFC. Berbatov is only suited to a 4-4-2 formation being able to drop-deep and create w/ ball. Like the idea to implement strikeless formation (unlikely w/out CQ) for example Berba to be lone drop deep w/ Rooney & Nani wide-forwards. Defenders would find this difficult to mark.

    ———————- Carrick—————————-
    ——— Scholes —————-Fletcher ————–
    Nani —————————————Rooney——


    ———————— Carrick————————–
    ————Scholes ————– Fletcher ————-
    Valencia ————————————-Nani ——

  4. well you can see in the next few weaks starting wednesday nite we will play 4-5-1 formation for get does fromation doesnt work anymore sence tevez left and ronaldo left. renmber the arseanl ganme last year we played like this van der sar
    rafeal vidc rio evra
    nani flecther carrick scholes par
    and we won 3-1 sanme kind of fromation in the san srio in milan and we one 3-2 and if you aslo renmber the muinch ganme we played sanme fromation and we were doing well up until they scored then berbatov canme on and played 4-4-2 and everything went from good to worse if fergoe had left alone we would canme away with 1-1 draw and probaly gone one to win the chanmpions league fact. you look at season fergie does not now his right fromation with our rooney we played every narrow yesterday our wide men did we should stay out wide all the time. best fromation is 4 -5-1 3 in the middel and one up front in rooney like city game that was fromation allwe needed and out and out goal score which now in rooney for excample rangers wed nite you will have
    van der sar
    rafeal vidc rio evra
    nani flecther carrick scholes park

  5. Yes Brian I fully support what you are saying – Im just arguing that a finesse is added to what is a very functional and useful 4-5-1 system when used by Fergie. Scholes won’t always be here and he has sat deep in recent times, so I have asked whether Berbatov – or indeed an Anderson or a Cleverly can step up to the plate.

    Valencia’s return and Javier’s frightening progression could well improve the fluidity of the interchangeable system as we approach next season. The future is not as dull as many would have us believe and that is another aim of the article.

  6. Hi Nik, great article. Let me start off by saying that I largely agree with the ‘Formation A’ that you recommended. I’ve always thought that Berbatov is at his best when he is the fulcrum of the team and I think dropping him further back would allow him to do this. He could use his ability in flicks, through passes and holding up the ball (for a time) to open up the defence for the other three attacking players.
    Granted he is not the swiftest, and I can see Anon123’s point and concern that he would slow down our play, but I think if he was employed effectively this wouldn’t be an issue. If he were left pressed up the field when we are on the defensive, the other three attackers could play one-twos with him as use him as the playmaker/fulcrum as they explode up the pitch on the counter attack.
    He would give the Carrick-Fletcher midfield combination more options to pass to and help us dominate the midfield, giving the full backs a chance to press forward and opening up yet more options.
    My only concerns stem not from validity of the tactics potentially employed but from the personnel we have.
    1) Giggs is our only natural left sided player and I feel lacks the raw pace of years gone by needed to operate a 4-2-3-1 at it’s optimum. Look at Di Maria and Ronaldo on the flanks at Madrid. Time will tell if Obertan is able to operate there effectively. A player in the Bale mould would be the supreme choice
    2) Carrick, despite a recent slight pick up in form, is still in my eyes below the level of quality we need to dominate the midfield. Again, I apologise for lusting after top end players, but someone like Schweinsteiger, who plays a similar role but simply does it better, would really be needed to make this formation perfect

    In short, the Formation A you presented in my eyes represents where a sound tactical option for Manchester United but I retain concerns that some of our players are not quite up to the level needed to operate it at it’s devastating best (c.f. Real Madrid)

  7. Great read mate.

    I’ve been harping on about this issue for ages and I think I have several reasons why we can’t do it with the players we have.

    1. Scholes is not a CAM any more, his passing is best used from deeper which creates a problem in that he’s not defensive enough to play deeper and not mobile enough to play higher so he’s perfect in a 442.

    2. With Hargreaves out we’ve not got 2 strong ball winning DM’s. We need someone else who’s going to be focussed on killing oppositions attacks. Fletcher can do it but he needs a tougher partner. Carrick has regressed to that role recently but he’s too slow and not mobile enough.

    3. Anderson would be perfect as a CAM but his development has stalled. Imagine a top 4 of Berba op top with Rooney, Anderson and Nani rotating freely behind him. Ever since Anderson joined us he’s been forced to be accountable to fit in with our side (it started with Scholes being out in 08). If he was given a completely free reign behind the striker I think he’d be devastating. That’s assuming he cares enough to try.

    4. Injuries. Over the last year we’ve had so many versatile player injured. Giggs and Scholes have been in and out, Anderson and Hargreaves missing HUGE amounts of time and now Valencia and Rooney. When was the last time the manager had a selection problem in the middle of the park?

    I personally think the only solution is to buy 2 players this summer (or even in Jan). A creative attacking midfielder (think Ozil or Sneijder) and a typical defensive midfielder (think Macherano or Essien)…………All the great teams have both and it can be argued we have neither.

  8. Hello Nik,
    A very important article: if United would like to maintain any chance of winning a trophy this season, to look for a solution to the persistent midfield problem is the key.
    In my view it is only against City that our midfield has functioned this season, producing real rhythm in our play. Carrick obviously feels so much more at home when he is joined by another defensive midfielder (Scholes or Fletcher). Against City he suddenly resembled the player he was in his two first seasons, but against Villa he was clearly very uncomfortable as part of a two-man midfield. To play 4-4-2 today places almost superhuman demands on the two central midfielders. If United opt for 4-2-3-1, one of the 3 attacking players should also be a central midfield player with attacking abilities. I keep my fingers crossed that Anderson can rediscover his great potential in this role.
    In my opinion United still need two first-class new midfield players to be able to challenge for the major trophies. The good news is that Fergie can concentrate on the midfield-problem + a new goalkeeper. Rafael improves all the time and will eventually turn into a great right back. When the midfield operates as it should, our attacking players will flourish. All the signs indicate that Chicharito will become a great player. Our counter-attacking abilities is also second to none: Chicharito, Rooney, Nani, Valencia and Welbeck (when he returns).
    My 2-3-1 dream team for next season:
    Schweinsteiger – Fletcher
    Valencia – Sneijder – Rooney
    Subs: Carrick, Anderson, Nani, Welbeck, Berbatov

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