Tactically speaking; previewing the 2010/11 season

Sir Alex Ferguson

We’ve done the squad introspective; we’ve done the group prediction; one of us had to put our particulars on the line and really risk their reputation. It’ll be no surprise for regular readers to know it’s Yolkie analysing the tactical expectations and predictions for the 2010/11 season. There’s no Eric Cantona style heralding of a new formation I’ve created, but expect to find plenty of things to disagree with..

A tactical analysis for a full season turned out to be a far more complicated task to structure than I first imagined as I wanted to cover all bases. If you’re here for a light read I advise you look away now; if you’re wanting to have a meaty discussion to whet your appetite ahead of the season then fill your boots.


For next season, at least, we’re well stocked in this department. Yes, Edwin’s on his last legs, but he is Mr Dependable – he lacks the eccentricity that Schmeichel had for sure and that was in the Danes’ favour in terms of the amazing saves he used to make but game for game Edwin is less error prone than our greatest ever keeper was. His last major “blunder” was in the mix up with Rio Ferdinand over 3 years ago at Fratton Park – a couple of missed crosses in that time are nothing in the greater scheme of things. I would fully expect him to have a comfortable, steady season. In terms of his rest, in Tomasz Kuszczak we have a more than able deputy. The jury is out on his long term ability as a replacement for Edwin but his performances in covering for our number 1 last winter were nothing short of brilliant – in particular, a couple of saves at Fratton Park. Tomasz has proved his worth as a number 2 and we have no concern on that. Ben Amos, by default, will be our number 3 keeper and will probably spend some bench time this coming season. Amos has looked composed in pre-season and no blame could be attached to him to the goals he conceded (or goals he didn’t concede, as the case was). All in all, compared to other sides – particularly around us – we are pretty blessed in this department with two stoppers confident in their own ability as our first choice.


Injuries are a constant concern – but fitness permitting, most United supporters first choice would be Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra. Evra’s place in the team is assured, while Vidic’s impending paper to pen moment will provoke a sigh of relief all around the red side of Manchester. Ferdinand’s return is not expected until after the September international break while at right back we are nicely placed – after our young Brazilian talent (who just won his first national call up) we have club captain Gary Neville, Champions League winning right back Wes Brown and our 2009 first choice John O’Shea. In that case it’s reasonable to presume that the three senior players to Rafael will still see plenty of game time – as well they should, having only respectively been removed from the side chronologically due to injuries. Health has been kind to Evra but odds are he will get a knock this season; next in line would probably be O’Shea but Fabio is also in the reckoning – at centre half, the new signing of Smalling raised eyebrows with the fee but it will probably be Jonny Evans at centre half alongside Nemanja starting the season. That’s no big blow; as talented as Ferdinand is, Evans proved himself more than a capable deputy in 2008/9 – setting records, no less – and aside from a few dodgy days at the back end of last winter came on leaps and bounds against last season. His commanding display at the Emirates in January was the highlight of his career so far and I was of the belief that even in the chance Vidic would leave, I would prefer Evans as first choice rather than a new signing. That the feeling was shared among many United fans says much about the progress of our youngster over the last 2 years.

It would be painfully naïve of me to scribe as if everything is rosy – Rafael’s youthful exuberance and over confidence sometimes means he is absent minded and that inexperience catches him out – as it did against Bayern Munich despite his impressing handling of Ribery. Ferdinand’s fitness concerns are very real and his once lightning quick pace was brutally exposed by Craig Bellamy at Old Trafford last year. He may never regain that yard of pace which set him apart and that means he will have to be at highest concentration at all times. Fabio has little to no experience (no fault of his own) while Smalling will have to overcome what looks like initial nerves. Evans, meanwhile, will have to focus on his game and his teammates and not pay any attention to the media focus that will inevitably try and highlight every misplaced pass as a sign he is useless in early season. It’s a bigger ask than you would imagine.

The slow pace of our central midfield puts huge impetus on Evra and the chosen right back to get forward. This is a tradition for United anyway, but one would have concerns in the early weeks of the season as neither Evans or Vidic is especially quick and “protected” by said midfield, we could have a few problems.


Undoubtedly the area of our team that sparks most debate among supporters. Antonio Valencia and Nani will start the season as first choice wingers but even that has not been enough to stop some fans demanding unrealistic signings of unproven players to replace them. I even read one account demanding 20 assists from Nani next season – twenty! Frank Lampard’s 14 last season was the most in the league last year. The fact is that we have two of the best wingers in the league who create shedloads of chances. My own plea is simply “more of the same” please. Perhaps a little more greed or self confidence from Valencia. And maybe a smile.

Michael Carrick’s future was under question when Sunderland were rumoured to put in an £8m bid recently but his stock actually rose after the World Cup where he wasn’t used. The excellent Zonal Marking website made clear their own case for his inclusion in the tournament and it is easy to forget that among his dramatic loss of confidence in the late part of last season, his performance at Arsenal was probably his best since he rattled those two screamers in nearly 3 years previous against Roma. It was probably the paltry sums on offer for him that will almost certainly give him a second chance this season – his precarious standing in the squad at the end of the last season saw Darron Gibson being selected in front of him. Gibson, by default, finds himself in the running. With injury and poor form removing competition he enjoyed some games in the first team at the back end of the season – Fergie’s faith in him is easy to see but if the newspaper reviews are to be believed, he would be the 4th and final midfielder in our 25 registered Premier League players. By my estimations we could still include Anderson and still have a space.

Anderson’s injury has been debated on this site as has our constantly re-stated faith in him, so I need not go through all that again. Just to say that my thoughts that he wouldn’t make the squad have been countered by my above rationale. The biggest thing will be a) whether he gets the games and b) if he gets them in a settled, defined position. That responsibility is as much on him to make one his own as it is Fergusons. With Scholes; the player himself acknowledges he won’t play every week, putting so much pressure on the likes of Carrick to be an imposing creative influence. Scholes himself, at times, last season struggled. That is to be expected because we can’t demand the same constant brilliance we have been accustomed to but he’s also too long in the tooth to be re-defined for a long term shift such as the one at the Emirates which really helped us swing the game. It may well be an effective short term measure to play Scholes deeper in some games but it won’t last over the course of a season.

Darren Fletcher will be – in Anderson’s absence – our main energetic source but I did concur to some level with an observation made by Football365.com last season, that Fletcher’s levels were drained so much that he was unable to really perform to that standard week in, week out in big games. With no arrivals likely – the flat out denial from club officials that we are interested in Sneijder (one top name) or Ozil (at £10m, value in the market) suggests Fergie is happy with what he has or simply can’t buy – a huge burden expectancy is on both Carrick and Gibson to perform early season.

Hargreaves and Anderson are two players whose very presence in the 25 man squad was under discussion by Ferguson himself; if you discount Giggs in a midfield three purely because he would be a last resort because he’s not “natural” that becomes 4 players competing for 2 places and three of those players play at two paces – pedestrian and simply “no”, and the one with energy, Fletcher, is hardly the quickest. It could be argued 8 or 9 games before the turn of the year will see us go with 4-3-3 – that choice of 4 includes Gibson. Even his biggest fan would acknowledge he does not yet seem mature enough in his game to be playing that number of big games (despite his cracking goal against Bayern), so the three almost picks itself, and instantly becomes far easier to predict against. The beauty of the large numbers last season was that our 3 could be any from 5 or 6 and as such gave us a little unpredictability. The good thing is when thinking of the squad limits that they don’t effect players 21 or under at the end of the registration deadline in August. That means that the two most likely – or, to be pedantic, seem most ready – to step up from lower levels internally would be Rodrigo Possebon and Magnus Eikrem. Possebon is a name you will know; he had his leg snapped in half by Pogatetz of Middlesbrough in 2008 and has shown remarkable progress to return to the level he was at – technically comfortable on the ball, he could well be a surprise name in squads early on in the campaign. Eikrem is less likely given he has had no involvement with the first team but if an injury were to strike someone then he will come into reckoning.. it’s not ideal, but we would probably be more likely to see O’Shea or Fabio used in midfield before it got to that stage.

Maybe it’s bias to the player but I would still use Giggs in a three; that would largely depend on having the energy of both Anderson and Fletcher in the same set up as that is the trio that would most complement each other. In a possession game against Arsenal or Chelsea, Scholes comes in for Giggs.


United have been linked with the likes of Karim Benzema & Luis Fabiano among others but after the signing of Hernandez late last season and no-one willing to stump up a fee to take Dimitar Berbatov off our hands it was always going to be unlikely that we could justify a big name signing in this department. Rooney will be first choice and Berbatov backing up – after that, the numbers are plenty even if the order of preference will be unclear in the early months.

Scoring a last minute winner against Manchester City in front of the Stretford End, a Champions League hat-trick and then scoring in a Cup Final may not have completely won over every Red for Michael Owen after he picked up an injury but it did prove his undoubted finishing ability when fit and will at least have earned him a second chance from the supporters.

Hernandez is an unknown quantity but looks like he has a true goalscorers instinct; while Danny Welbeck – a player who I would love to see get game time – is being pushed for a loan time to get exactly that elsewhere. Sir Alex had previously championed the lanky Longsight born forward for the 2010 World Cup Squad and while a mixture of injury and lack of opportunity at United curtailed that he remains technically streets ahead of most of his peers. His finishing for goals scored in the 2009/10 season was impressive; his impudent chip for Preston on loan last season had, dare I say it, echoes of a certain Mr Cantona. Obviously not at that level yet but certainly ready for the first team on a rotational basis – no homegrown striker can say they have broke through under Sir Alex and Welbeck is the player who has the biggest chance of all (long term) in my eyes.

Kiko Macheda was, according to his agent, told he would not be sold this summer. His is a name not often seen linked to a loan switch so you would come to the conclusion that he will be in the squad – he has proven his goalscoring instinct so now is probably, like Hernandez, waiting impatiently for the season to begin to show what he can do. Like Welbeck, we at Stretford-End.com have huge faith in Macheda and with the English forward ready for a short term departure, Kiko has a real shot to make an impact in the early months of 2010/11.

All things considered I would plump with momentum and try Hernandez up front with Rooney in the early games. Ferguson has talked him up – as well he would, with no-one else likely to come up and illuminate supporters imaginations – and although it is generally considered he would be brought in gradually I would go with the momentum and fresh element that the Mexican will bring to the side. It would send a message to Berbatov that he has to fight just to be considered and it might be a good result all around.


This is where we really get to the juicy topic. 4-4-2 or 4-3-3? I outlined in the opening paragraph that I will barely surprise some people but had we run this blog 12 months ago, even 24 months ago, as a prediction I’m sure we would have caused mass disagreement. I appreciate that 4-3-3 is not a traditional “United” system in historical terms and I also concur to a certain extent that if you have good enough players, they dictate the system rather than the other way around.

However, this is a lazy copout for those on the “Ferguson is a tactical dinosaur” bandwagon, who try and insist that he had the system forced upon him by the departure of Ronaldo and Tevez and his subsequent refusal/inability to spend. Most already know that the Champions League was won adopting this formation and was heralded and criticised in equal parts for our shut out of Barcelona in the semi-finals. The inability of Ferguson to do that the following season in the final in Rome was not a failing on his part but more the absence of Hargreaves, the enforced absence of Fletcher and the unfair burden of responsibility on Anderson in a midfield lacking in natural energy.

The 4-3-3 system was originally viewed as a negative approach with focus on negating the strength of the opposition rather than focus on our own. It was an accusation with a good logic behind it but with natural progression the team has evolved to play sensational football within that formation. The first and most obvious example is our semi final second leg win at the Emirates in 2009 with Fletcher and Anderson in tandem and dominant. When Ferguson lined up 4-4-2 against a dreadfully out of form Liverpool side we foresaw that they would flood the midfield and hoped we would do the same in the knowledge we had too much quality. We didn’t, and lost. Following this we campaigned for the same system to be employed against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – we lost this time but were widely acknowledged to be the better team and more than that had some brilliant individual performances.

The system then easily picked off Arsenal at the Emirates again and Ferguson slightly adapted it in the San Siro, switching Fletcher left and Park more central to cope with the more naturally talented Pirlo. The football displayed in the games in London and Milan should have been more than enough proof that the 433 not only allows our players to express themselves, but that in the modern game, it’s a vital quality to have.

It’ll be no surprise after all this talk that I advocate the 4-3-3 system for the major games this season both home and away; United tried 4-4-2 at home initially in the bigger games but found any visitors uncompromising in their belief that a point would always be a good result. In the knowledge that this would ruffle no feathers I thought I would go a step further and try and indicate a preference for personnel. The goalkeeper and defence pick themselves when fit (having already explained my choice for a more experienced and more natural defender than Rafael depending on the situation) but it is in that midfield 3 that we have to make a decisive choice. It depends on the opposition. Against Arsenal or Liverpool, I’d be confident home and away that Fletcher, Scholes and Anderson would be more than enough. I’d also be okay with Giggs over Scholes in such a line-up given that Nani and Valencia should be flanking Rooney. Against a team with a more physically capable midfield I would choose Carrick over Giggs or Scholes and slightly withdraw Anderson so that Carrick would have time to pick a pass.

The front three in that formation picks itself; though having Giggs or Park (or Fletcher, even, if we’re tinkering) on one of the flanks would not be such a huge setback. All of these players know their role and responsibility and not only do they not shirk it; they understand it and play for the badge. Such determination has been just as responsible for our success in recent years as the goals scored single-handedly by a Rooney or Ronaldo and is arguably far more important to the overall attitude of the team. The system also affords the likes of Giggs and Scholes a little extra space from time to time and is probably helping to prolong their careers at the highest level. It could equally be convincingly argued that it is their inherent ability to play football that is doing that and that they deserve as much credit for “evolving” as Fergie does.

The 4-3-3 may have a blueprint to write itself but the more traditional 4-4-2 doesn’t. If we go on conventional logic that Valencia and Nani will be wingers then that’s Scholes, Giggs, Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson, Gibson and Hargreaves (when fit) for two spaces on a senior level. There’s squad rotation and alternating but you would always envisage two as first choice; Carrick and Fletcher may get the nod but I would not be totally convinced by their invention. All it takes is the decision of Fergie to play 4-4-2 and that first choice with Gibson on the bench and you’re set for a long 90 minutes of little through the middle, without wanting to be unkind. This is the year for 2 players to identify themselves as United’s future in our traditional set-up; doing so will secure their squad status in the long term.

Up top of a 4-4-2 the inclination would be to pair Rooney with Berbatov. Over two years, it’s barely worked. Rooney has drifted back to his pre-secondary school ways to be a player to plunder goals on a huge scale – unlike some other fans, I don’t doubt his creative ability, but he has re-discovered a golden touch in front of goal so Fergie should at least persist with that. Berbatov has shown little sign of improving in pre-season when you look at his attitude but the season is there for him to win fans over; of the other contenders, Kiko is raw and is a poacher in the role that Rooney is currently occupying.

In either formation the weakness in numbers in midfield puts huge pressure on other areas of the team. The full backs become even more integral to creation, more responsibility is placed in the magic boots of Ryan Giggs and it will mean no respite for Valencia or Nani.

Away from the analysis of the systems is the aesthetic importance but one that needs far less debate. 4-4-2 is considered the typical United formation. Two flying wingers, a strong forward and a flair player. A ball playing defender alongside an uncompromising one. But Sir Matt Busby’s United did not play 4-4-2 by any stretch of the imagination; and far from being unattractive, when we have played 4-3-3 in the last 18 months we have by and large played our best football, and, importantly, found a formation that suits our players and negates the opposition too.

The “forgotten” formation is the 4-2-3-1 that was used to batter Roma and may have a place with the personnel in this squad – though it would probably mean using Giggs wide left and Nani in a floating role behind Rooney. Not that it’s a terrible third choice formation, though. The fact that Ferguson tinkered with the personnel in the 4-3-3 rather than line up 4-2-3-1 at the back end of last season, however, would push someone to think that’s what he would go with again. To be fair, it worked, by and large. It also raises the question about how much formations matter; or whether the clarity of each players individual role on the pitch is more far more important than the area of grass he is expected to cover.

Football evolves and Ferguson deserves credit for not only moving with the times but doing so successfully; managing to do so and keeping the team in net profit last season was a greater achievement than he is given credit for. After all of the debate; if he manages to take United to a historic 19th title next season it will be a sensational achievement. However, beyond any system, the responsibility ultimately lies with the players and the effort they put in.

A little more Rooney; a little less Berbatov is an admittedly lazy but nonetheless worthwhile analogy. With the pressure on a number of players and the Bulgarian at the top of that list, it’s upto them to make sure the analogy will be redundant by May.

Here are my two first choices of line up next season (assuming all but Hargreaves will be fit and available) – it is the first time in my life (well, writing and consciously thinking about football in terms of analysis) that I envisage two different XI’s and Ryan Giggs only just squeaks into one (on a technicality – it was a flip choice between Scholes and him in the 4-3-3 and I couldn’t bring myself to exclude him). This is the player who created as many chances for his teammates as any other player in the Premier League per minute on the pitch last season.

Yolkie’s Manchester United in 4-4-2

Yolkie’s Manchester United in 4-3-3

Not the easiest selection nor the most controversial; what would yours be?

5 Comments on Tactically speaking; previewing the 2010/11 season

  1. That was fantastic Yolkie. Your writing never ceases to amaze me. I agree with pretty much everything you said, and am glad to see Chicharito partners Rooney in your 4-4-2. I was saying early on Twitter that I think he has the ability to displace Berbatov and Owen.

    I’m a huge supporter of Gibson (which I know makes me somewhat of a minority), but he does need to add another aspect to his game. He has a fantastic long shot, but he needs to develop his passing or runs so he isn’t so one dimensional. Otherwise I think he can be a fantastic player. And I think Cleverly will prove to be even more promising.

  2. where is J.Park?? He is one of the players, who could provide the much needed energy in the mid-field. . . his performances in the WC cannot be ignored.

  3. Yeah, apologies for not really elaborating on Park. He had a good WC and definitely has a role to play in either nullifying attacking fullbacks or deep lying creative players (ie the Pirlo job he did). He certainly has a big role this season and I shouldn’t have been so casual about him in this piece.

    Another point was highlighted to me; we barely play the same team consecutively. That’s in mind; though this was a preferred choice rather than what I think will start!

  4. enjoyed reading this piece a lot, as i consider tactics and formations to be my specialist subject.
    the fact that we rarely play the same team consecutively is frustrating at times but also essential to exploit or nullify opponents strengths and weaknesses and keep the players fresh.
    for me the ‘forgotten!?’ formation is the way forward. maybe the fact that is is forgotten shows why i am in the saf tactical dinosaur camp, sorry.
    the players have to be able to adapt on the pitch and i fully agree that ‘beyond any system, the responsibility ultimately lies with the players and the effort they put in”

    this is one reason why i would never pick nani in my XI. i know most fans love two flying wingers (i do too) but in most ‘big’ games i would choose jsp over nani.

    vds – raf,rio,vida,evra – fletch,anderson – valencia,rooney,park – hernandez 🙂

    this keeps rooney involved as he will drop in anyway, and hernandez is an outlet with soo much pace. park works hard all game and can cover the forward runs from anderson or fletch. valencia defends well too, and this formation gives raf and evra free space ahead to attack and cover is always there.
    i have left out giggsy and scholes on purpose although i know they will probably feature in the top matches, lets try to look to the future.

  5. Cheers ian, nice that some people managed to read the entire thing haha!!

    I didn’t analyse the 4-2-3-1 as I thought it would be spending too much time (having spent enough already) on a formation we’d be hardly likely to use.

    I’d like to see us adopt that at home against some of the “lesser lights” to try it out. The personnel you chose there is pretty spot on too.

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