Centre Stage and Ferguson’s final evolution

Sir Alex with the 11th Premier League trophy

AUTHOR: – Nik (Guest Blogger)

How the manager’s selection policy in midfield is instigating tactical change

Manchester United seem to be gaining that vital momentum and consistency in the league as we enter the final few weeks of yet another captivating season. Crucial to United’s success this term has been the selection policy in central midfield, and seemingly a move towards a slight change in team shape.

In the modern era, Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach to the central midfield area is dictated by makeup of the opposition team; moreover, he has only ever had one mantra when it comes to team selection: to question whether the player is good enough (mentally as well as in terms of technique) to contribute to a winning team (i.e. is he in the right form at the right moment?). It is for these reasons that Fergie is not only held up as a motivator of men, but as an astute tactician, able to re-invent his team and club time and again.

From ‘double pivot’ to ‘triumvirate’

Lobanovsky famously remarked to the effect that there are no positions on the football field, merely ‘football players’. And to a point this is fundamentally true; it is the application of a system and not the system itself that wins football matches. However, there is a clear distinction between playing two centre midfielders and three. The ‘creator/destroyer’ battles of the pre-noughties era are largely a thing of the past. Many of us will remember fondly the enthralling encounters between the likes of Keane and Scholes and Petit and Viera; however, today’s application in central midfield has taken on new significance as not only are three players required in the big games (which meant that Berbatov for example suffered as a result last season), but even when two players are selected, they tend to take on very different roles given that defensive shape – and enhanced defensive roles for narrow wingers – takes on greater importance (see the evolution of Scholes’ role in the team as an example).

The move towards a three-man central trio is partly down to the evolution of tactics (and the need for ‘controlling’ midfield possession) in the last decade, and partly due to the liberalisation of the offside law – meaning that a less direct style of play across only three bands is becoming less desirable at the highest level.

A 4-2-3-1 shape has thus become a coach’s preferential system, and with possession of the football comes better ‘passing triangles’ with the proverbial ‘W’ shape across the middle offering different angles of attack. It’s not to say that Fergie has completely left the 4-4-2 system behind, indeed it’s dynamism is used to great effect on the domestic front. However, its application against the stronger clubs would rely heavily on a high intensity pressing game, which we simply do not have at present. It is perhaps for this reason alone that we have failed to find a consistency this season, especially away from home, as we have leaked goals that would have been unimaginable for a United side in recent years.

A tried and tested formula

In the double-winning year of 2008, Ferguson had success with three from the rotated quintet of Scholes, Fletcher, Anderson, Hargreaves and Carrick (with Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney ahead). Essential to this system was the fluid interchanging of the selected trio and the ability of each to read the pattern of the game; when to ensure two players are holding, when to join the attack and so on. Each member was given a defined role – Carrick and Scholes to orchestrate from the centre and intercept the opposition attacks; Hargreaves and Fletcher to harry and harass across the park; and Anderson, having struggled for consistency early on in his preferred attacking midfielder role was asked by Ferguson (and Quieroz) to perform a more defensive specialism – leading to performances such as those he gave at Anfield and the Emirates where he used his dynamism and vibrancy to great effect, shackling messrs Fabregas and Gerrard respectively. A personal view is that he should now revert to this position given his strength and ability to run from deep – and also the apparent lack of finesse in his game further ahead on the field.

There is of course the logical argument that we should be seeking to enhance this area of the team, with Cleverley and Gibson not able to step up to the mark as yet; Scholes and Hargreaves arguably seeing out the latter months of their United careers, and non-specialists such as Park, Giggs and even O’Shea at times, unable to offer the sustained quality as we move forward. However there is still the core trio from 2008 available in Carrick, Fletcher and Anderson, who at ages 29, 27, and 23 years respectively are arguably operating at a more refined level – Carrick and Fletcher in particular potentially hitting ‘peak’ years. The duo have been pivotal to the success at the club in the last four years which has seen us win three back to back titles and reach consecutive Champions League Finals, amongst other successes.

Anderson is yet to find the consistency expected of him (not helped by the switching of midfield roles and a glut of injuries which have hampered promising progress) and thus Fergie has rotated well in this area of the field; Park has performed admirably in the advanced central midfielder role in games such as the AC Milan tie of 2008 and Arsenal of 2009; Giggs has recently excelled against Chelsea in the Champions League quarter final, and who is playing with such intelligence and panache. Essentially, when everyone is fit there is still a balance and harmony to the midfield that is the envy of many. Which leaves us with Wayne Rooney and the tactical conundrum Fergie faces from here-on-in.

Rooney as a ‘10’ or an ‘8’?

Ferguson should be given great credit for turning Rooney’s season around with a slight tactical maneuvering; Rooney has dropped very deep at times this season and yet is still adopting playmaking duties in attacking situations and combining with high wide men who like to come into central positions – Valencia, Giggs and particularly Nani have all had great joy varying their wing-play approach in recent months, seeking to link with the attacking personnel more towards the centre. This is essentially allowing United to play what is quickly becoming a 4-2-1-3 at times, rather than a typical 4-2-3-1.

Rooney’s ultimately surprising role then versus Crawley and then Arsenal in the F.A. Cup seemed to rekindle the fire in the player, and as we enter the last furlong of the season it is this role more than any that could define the season. Playing in the ‘number 10’ role is nothing new to Rooney, having frequently dropped deep to collect the ball and link the attack since his early days at Everton. What has altered is the instruction from the manager in terms of positional discipline; more than a deep forward player, Rooney has been asked to stifle opposition attacks from deep meaning that he has often played alongside the two deepest central midfield players, so a position which isn’t quite ‘10’ and isn’t quite ‘8’.

Frequently versus Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League for example, he was continually pressing the space in and around the deepest midfielder, Essien. In tandem with Giggs and Carrick, they sought to halt any midfield momentum in the Chelsea midfield, learning from the league encounter from the previous month when Rooney played a more orthodox striking role. It has been his energy and ability to get on the ball in the right areas of the field that has allowed others to maneuver accordingly to improve the angle of approach. In fact, Rooney’s passing game seems to have improved as a result, and the frequent ‘Hollywood ball’ attempts now seem a thing of the past. He seems to be thriving with the freedom, able to pull out wide and link with the likes of Evra and Nani to the left, and O’Shea and Valencia to the right. Incidetnally, this is why Hernandez’s movement has been so fantastic, occupying the centre half pairing, the young Mexican seems so adept at exploiting the space between the out of position fullback (who tracks Rooney’s movement) and the centre half.

Jonathan Wilson:

‘By definition, by being only a short pass away from the creator, the two midfield holders are more involved in the attacking aspect and at least one of them can be encouraged to press forwards at times, as Xabi Alonso did for Spain, and as Seydou Keita does for Barcelona. So immediately the range of attacking options is increased.’

The system, used at its best, means that the playmaker is harder shield against, and essentially means that the team is playing with up to four playmakers, each interchanging in a dynamic system going forward. Fletcher or Anderson can be the Keita in the above snippet, and their drive and penetration on the counter attack is pivotal to this way of playing.

Yet there still seems to be nagging reservations about the sustainability of this approach in the long term, which has led to many to question whether there is a need to invest in a ‘trequartista’ type player. A personal view again is that this would be sensible given that Rooney’s finesse in this role is mostly sporadic; to get the best out of the young Englishman then would be to relieve him of classic centre midfield defensive duties, allowing him to alternate between the striker role and ‘creator’ (interchanging with the front four so well as he did v Blackburn and Liverpool for example). This would allow for a more specialist recruit to ply his trade in such an important position, and would ultimately be the safer bet for the team’s efficiency on the whole. Players such as Modric, Sneijder, Sanchez and Pastore have all been mooted and would all be technically more accomplished in the playmaking role; if Ferguson is looking at Rooney as the long-term solution here however, a Rodwell or a Henderson type player may be recruited to challenge our deeper lying central midfielders.

Football Fans Know Better

‘The evolution to 4-2-1-3?’


It is imperative that central midfield continues to be an area which is rotated with studious attention to detail. Sir Alex has become a master of squad rotation in recent years where to challenge in each competition, optimum player fitness and mental preparation has become essential. Moreover, the tactical acumen required to send out a team that has the right blend of energy enthusiasm and experience in the position, which is arguably the most important in terms of shaping the outcome of a game, is untold.

When we look at the array of talent available in the senior squad and assess the fantastic progression this team has made since the departure of Ronaldo it is no wonder that Fergie saw ‘no value’ in the market. Aside from the acquisition of Valencia, his policy has very much been to invest time and effort on the training ground with the tremendous wealth of potential we have across the midfield. This strategy has seen Fletcher and Nani in particular come of age when the common consensus amongst fans and media were that they were not ‘United material’. Wilson was very astute when he commented on the value of building from within:

‘[it offers] an almost organic understanding of where they should move and where their team-mates are moving, and, in a world of billionaire owners looking for shop-bought success, that is a consoling thought.’

Who next for United then in this position? Cleverley is progressing very well at Wigan, and there are high hopes for Morrison, Pogba and Tunnicliffe from the youth team. In the immediate future however, Fergie will have little option but to look at investment to fill the void left by the ageing Scholes and Giggs in midfield – and his ultimate dilemma is who to trust with the attacking fulcrum of the side? It is finding the perfect balance in this central area alone which could instigate a change in approach as the manager seeks to create one final ‘magical team’ before his inevitable retirement. But of course the system is only as good as it’s players and application – and with the great man at the helm for some time to come, as United fans, we should have no worries at all on this front.

AUTHOR: Guest Blogger – Nik

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9 Comments on Centre Stage and Ferguson’s final evolution

  1. Great post!
    You touched on one of the most important questions for the near future of United: Should Ferguson buy a top level number 10? I’ve changed my mind on this issue countless times.

    Pros of signing a top level trequartista (Pastore or Sneijder)
    1) They offer a more potent option in unlocking a parked bus, and a dribbling threat in the middle of the pitch that we lack.
    2) We rely less on the volatile Rooney for linkup.
    3) Some of the creative burden is shifted off of the right wing (we struggle against top left backs because so much of our game is based on right wing crosses)
    4) A true number 10 might allow us to play a more dominating possession style, and lead to more success in Europe (not that we’re struggling now)

    Cons of signing a number 10
    1) Van Nistelrooy syndrome- A team relies too much on a specialist player that does their job exceedingly well. When that one player is out of form or not in the side, we struggle.
    2) A truly great number 10 will command a starting place at all times, possibly reducing tactical variation. For example, it would force us to play a more designated holder, and prevent us from going 4-4-2 against weaker sides.
    3) Alex Ferguson has never used a genuine number 10 (Scholes is more of a box to box player, Anderson has shifted deeper, Cantona was more of a support striker, a 9 and a half).
    4) A number 10 might struggle to adapt to the fast paced style of the English game. Pastore and Sneijder are used to the slower pace of the Italian league
    5) the funds required to buy a big name number 10 might prevent us from strengthening the deeper midfield area or the goalkeeper position.

  2. Great article! And I must agree, there has been a slight formation change with United over the past 10 years that have seen us become much more comfortable with the ball and retaining possesion.

    A question for you all, what’s the difference between Rooney’s current role, as a Second Striker/Advanced Midfielder/free role and a Trequartista? Defensive responsibility?

    Also, how would Rooney’s role be affected if we were to buy a Sneijder type player (which, much like matt’s post, I have some reservations about). I see Ferguson grooming Rooney to become Scholes’ long term replacement, however that will take a few years, and a midfield three of Fletcher/Anderson, Rooney, Sneijder sounds very weak defensively.

    Apologies for the length & barrage of questions.

  3. Still have my doubts on Anderson – his progression, like Gibson, has slowed and so, yes, (some) investment is required. That is not to say we should sell either. Our youth products bring promise – but Sir Alex knows to well that you can never rush youth.

    I’m not sure we should look for a new number 10 – I quite like Wayne Rooney in his trequartista role and has complimented Berbatov and Hernandez well (something like three times as many assists this season, too); as well as the wingers – [although] which a signing like Pastore/Wesley Sneidjer would perhaps do too. Also, the signing of a trequartista might only play against Rooney – I think this is the best he’s ever looked in a United shirt (even better than his 34 goal season).

    That’s me sitting on the fence 😉 A highly enjoyable read, incisive and insightful, too.


    bob said:

    “a midfield three of Fletcher/Anderson, Rooney, Sneijder sounds very weak defensively.”

    It does sound weak – think Carrick is now first choice simply because of his defensive qualities and I can’t see Rooney and Sneidjer (if we were to sign him or any player that boasts similarities) playing together on the pitch at the same time – United will have little balance and may suffer as a result.

  4. We have been linked with Ashley Young, who IMO could play in the ‘Nani’ and ‘Rooney’ role in the tactical set-up shown above. He could very well be a cheaper alternative to the likes of a Sanchez or Pastore, offer us the flexibility to interchange our positions for a fluid and dynamic attack, plus give the Morrisons and van Velzens a couple of season to develop in reserve football and get ready for first team football. I rate Young (determined, technical, adapted to English football, flexible

    With Rodwell, De Rossi, and Henderson also being scouted this season, we may sign one or two central mids and eliminate the ‘sanchez/young’ option and just keep Rooney where he is, or push him into a wider role and have De Rossi/Rodwell/Henderson to push the teams incumbents( Carrick/Fletcher/Gibson/Scholes/Anderson-who could be pushed forward into his preferred role.)

    Our squad depth is very strong (I haven’t mentioned the likes of Giggs, Valencia, Owen, Park, Obertan, Berbatov, Petrucci (both 10/trequartista types), the U18 midfield trio of of Pogba, Tunnicliffe, Morrison: regista, box-to-box, attacking midfielder perspectively), plus the likes of Welbeck, Cleverly, and Macheda coming back into the fold this autumn. So… maybe we shouldn’t get our ‘Transfer Muppets’ out just yet and trust in the promote from within mantra.

    My gut tells me Fergie will trim the fat and introduce new blood to fuel this new “Evolution”.

    Sorry for my bad English.

  5. Thank you for kind words an feedback guys, hoping to get some debate going on this; interestingly Jonathan Wilson has just wrote this, very similar article: http://t.co/Vw8cxoA here is my reply to him, which touches on some of the themes commenters have made here….

    1. Is this role sustainable for Wayne Rooney, as it is something of a combination between a ’10’ and an ‘8’ – a false 10 if you like? 🙂

    2. If he does stay in this role for the foreseeable, are we seeing a gradual evolution from 4-4-2 towards a 4-2-1-3 system with Rooney not as deep as to play the Scholes role and not as far forward as to play striker?

    With Nani consistently coming inside more latterly to link with the forwards and moving across the final third it seems the system is more fluid than just a 4-4-1-1; and it is noticeable that when he plays left, Valencia too is coming into central positions allowing either the fullback or Rooney to exploit that space out wide.

    3. Is Rooney too lax in possession to play the playmaker role in the long-term?

    Though you rightly point to his fantastic involvement since the Crawley game where he was given a midfield role for the first time in his career, there are games in which his school-boy like understanding of the role casts doubt on his ability to fulfil this duty in the long term. If we take the difference in performance say between Blackburn in the league/Chelsea in the ECL and compare that to Everton or Newcastle in the league, there are glaring differences between the finesse he displays in the role. I suppose what the twinkle toe lovers (United fans) are asking is the following:

    4. Would the procurement of a specialised attacking CM (who can work defensively) be more suited to sustained success at United?

    With a Modric or a Pastore type player, Rooney would be able to play in a front 3 (or just behind in a 4-2-3-1) which would reduce the onus on his defensive duties and allow him to move more horizontally across the final third rather than back to front, arguably making him more effective and making him less likely to play the ‘hollywood ball’.

    My feeling is that SAF will invest this summer, and that due to the inconsistency of Anderson and the ageing legs of Scholes and Giggs, an attacking midfielder will be high on the list. A Modric type player would allow the movement towards a 4-2-1-3, a Sanchez type player would allow the move towards 4-2-3-1. Rodwell or Henderson would also mean the latter, and would mean Fletcher and Carrick would be rotated.

  6. Hi Thijs

    Yes I noticed we have been linked with Young recently but I dont know whether there is any substance to it if Im honest; not a massive fan, though not to say I dont see great potential in the kid – and who better to unlock that than Fergie, but just feel we’d be investing in a talent we already largely have in the present squad – for example, his new ‘central winger’ role has left me far from inspired, and Rooney is doing a much better job in a similar role.

    My hope then is for that creative ‘8’ signing MATT, which addresses some of the concerns you raise about a specialist ’10’ recruit. 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-1-3 are broadly similar anyway and essentially just means that the onus is placed more on the fluid interchange between the ‘front four’ with varying angles of attack and overlapping fullbacks – rather than the more monotone and direct application of 4-4-2 and its reliance on staying wide and putting crosses into the box.

  7. I agree with Nik about Rooney’s horizontal movement. I really noticed that against Chelsea in the Champions League, Rooney kept causing havoc by drifting to the right wing and overwhelming Cole. Remember that he played that beautiful cross to Hernandez that was disallowed.
    The more I think about it, the more i see that a central number 10 will harm versatility and curtail Rooney in his new role (the Jonathan Wilson article is great reading).
    My compromise would be a playmaker who starts on the left and cuts inside (replacing Giggs). That way, we accommodate Rooney’s movement, offer a different approach compared to the pacy winger on the right, and add some new creativity. Although this forces us to rotate Nani and Valencia, it might be worth it. My ideal signing in that case would be Marko Marin (replaced Ozil at Werder Bremen), because he is younger, cheaper, less egotistical, and more versatile than Sneijder.

  8. well wr10 is a weapon when wielded by SAF. He will change the role of rooney according to the situation…ffs rooney can play DM thats how versatile he is. Just my opinion

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