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Tom Pattison from The Faithful joins us as a guest blogger this week to look at United’s current form both at home and in Europe, and asks a very pertinent question indeed; is Fergie’s persistent faith with the 4-4-2 system, despite it’s relative success in the Premier League, costing United on the European front?
So the Nineties are back. Undercut sporting teens roam the streets of Britain in high tops, Tory-boys populate Westminster pretending they know how it feels to be poor, and even Manchester’s own Indie royalty are preparing to soundtrack the summer. Not to be left out, English football has well and truly got in on the act; England’s finest teams trade goals by the half dozen at home whilst hopelessly coming unstuck when encountering foreign artisans who do not subscribe to the theory that defending is for cowards. This season has felt a lot like returning to the football of my own teen years and none more so than when receiving news of Alex’s latest line-up. Not so long ago the debate would centre on formation – nowadays it is purely personnel. To the delight of many the Four Four Two has reclaimed its precious position as United’s default (and only) setting. I’m not denying it hasn’t been fun, but is this retrograde step damaging our future? Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room. Namely, is it really a 4-4-2? Like all of Ferguson great strike pairings, one forward is withdrawn. In Wayne Rooney’s case often to the extent that in these tactical savvy time 4-4-1-1 seems a more accurate representation. This however is an irrelevant argument. The unquestionable truth is that our team is divided into three defined sectors, four players are tasked with defending, four line up in front in roughly parallel positions, and two forwards finish the shape.
As recently as last season, Michael Cox was lauding United’s ability to switch between midfield shapes depending on opponent, and Stretford End’s Nik Storey also pondered whether this was a sign of things to come. This season however, we have deployed 4-4-2 regardless of the importance of the fixture or the opposition. So why after all the success gained by the introduction of flexibility has the manager reverted to the default system? The 2008 European Champions were based on a fluid front 3. The star names lined up in the frontline but with the aim of one shining brighter than them all. The system was designed to maximise Ronaldo’s efficiency and relieve his of any duties which hampered his effectiveness. United were also fortunate in Scholes, Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson, and Hargreaves to boast five central midfield players who could happily comprise midfield trio. The latest squad does not possess anything comparable – at times filling two central midfield positions has been a challenge so logic was against increasing the required numbers in that area of the field.
The other motivator was similar to 2008 – namely to extract the best from the best. Ferguson views Rooney as most effective as a number ten. This presents both benefits and risks. Rooney’s energy, drive and creativity can have a devastating impact when he is afforded space and given his finishing ability it is to the team’s benefit that he is in an advanced position. The risk is the ensuing vulnerability on the midfield pair behind him. In the finest tradition of English talent, Rooney lacks positional discipline – the ease with which Sergio Busquets shrugged off his attentions to initiate attacks at Wembley is a prime example. Despite the celebrated lung busting charges back to make recovery tackles in the full back positions, Rooney’s inability to stymie the opponent’s transitional phase hurts us. Far too easily an unshackled opponent is able to launch attacks which bypass our midfield and put our defence under pressure. A further beneficiary of the reversion to a traditional system is Antonio Valencia. Arguably his acquisition and the manager’s warning that Ronaldo was irreplaceable signalled the intention to return to a more stoic formation. Valencia is a winger, pure and simple, who’s albeit limited repertoire has proved extremely effective since his return to form and fitness. A final factor which has been proposed as a reason for the change is the departure of Carlos Queiroz. The much maligned Mike Phelan is clearly a gifted coach yet very much a 4-4-2 man schooled in the approach of the 1990s. I would be willing to wager that were the Portuguese tactician still on staff he would be in Ferguson’s ear recommending a system more attuned to controlling the game. At its best this season it has provided the framework for some exhilarating football; runners from deep breaking through the lines to add weight to a potent attack.
The late summer demolition of Arsenal was a perfect example of this system working to perfection. It was like a shot of adrenalin to see United playing with a renewed energy as youthful swagger swept aside all challengers. All seemed well – and then we had the neighbours over. New Labour had been brutally exposed and the age of austerity was here. A series of painful games ensued as a shape so rigid that Roy Hodgson could’ve been in charge. So Scrooge-like was our approach that it was common for the second forward to supplement the midfield – whether drifting wide or central. However it would be wrong to view this as a significant change of shape – the strategy may have been miserly but it was still ostensibly 4-4-2. Ferguson was determined to stick to his 90s revival – to the extent that when available personnel seemed to demand a change in approach, Alex persevered – with humiliating consequences in consecutive Christmas fixtures. The defeat in Newcastle in particular was an unambiguous demonstration of the inadequacies of the system; it looked like the retro experiment would be over but little were we to know it was just beginning; not content with reinstating a system from the previous decade the manager went a step further and restored a player from that era. The new addition was not the perennially deep lying Scholes we had seen retire but something closer to the progressive late 90s version albeit with an engine boasting considerably less horse power. The results have been remarkable; crucial goals that we thought were a distant memory coupled with the technical ability to dictate play alongside his one time apprentice. The partnership was majestic against Chelsea and Liverpool who despite boasting greater numbers obligingly provided time and space to dictate the play. Two passers; working in tandem at the heart of a four man midfield. It shouldn’t work but it has, with a caveat. Carrick and Scholes are remarkably intelligent footballers whose spatial awareness is far superior to many they face or play alongside. Their exhibition of cunning when recycling possession through sharp interpassing is a joy to watch. Yet when pressed by an energetic midfield that outnumbers them the engine starts to splutter.
When Paul Lambert adjusted his side to suffocate the duo the Champions suddenly looked a starkly ordinary outfit. A tucked in Modric allowed Tottenham to do the same. Both matches had triumphant outcomes and can be rewritten as triumphs of character but the ease with which control of possession was taken away from us will be a lesson not lost on any of the teams we face over the remainder of the campaign. At Carrow Road and White Hart Lane a collection of decisive moments in attack coupled with quality defending secured six points but in both instances the midfield was worryingly toothless. Better teams and higher stakes await and it can be guaranteed that our opponents at Eastlands will boast three, international class midfielders in the central area.
So how do we respond?
One option has already been auditioned. In both the Tottenham and Athletic games the manager withdrew Rooney from his favoured number ten role to become an additional central midfielder. In theory this solves the problem; our biggest threat remains on the field whilst we can still compete in the numbers game in midfield. The question remains though, in light of inconsistent performances in the role, whether this is an effective use of our talisman. A further option is a switch to 4-3-3/4-5-1 system that characterised our greatest team of recent times. The additional midfielder – either the industrious Jones or returning Cleverley – would increase our chances of controlling the middle third of the field, yet this would require a shuffling of our forward line. Rooney as spearhead flanked by Young and Nani on paper would seem the best fit yet this is to withdraw our most potent assist provider Valencia and breakthrough forward in Welbeck. To retain either would mean deploying them in unfamiliar roles that neither seem equipped for. The third option is to operate a 4-2-3-1 shape (or 4-2-1-3); it would present a more familiar role for Valencia and allow Rooney to operate in his more favoured position.
However the doubts raised earlier about his effectiveness in a midfield role are similarly prescient when assessing his suitability as both a central creator and shield for the Scholes-Carrick pivot. The most likely approach of course will be to keep things retro. We might well see Valencia in full Kanchelskis mode tearing Clichy/Kolarov apart whilst Carrick and Scholes keep the neighbours at bay. Maybe Nani will hit a timely hot streak of form and deliver the performances in the run-in that have marked him out as the league’s most potent provider. That said; I worry that we have become overly predictable and reliant on moments of individual brilliance rather than a flexible strategic approach to unlock opponents. In an ideal world we’d be able to unleash Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney and take all before us but those PIK loans don’t pay off themselves. In theory the games pre-Eastlands should present a succession of winnable games but football doesn’t work like that and they’ll be some twists and turns to come. I would though like to see us try out some alternative shapes; even if only once 4-4-2 has made the game safe. The ability to change our shape come the end of April might just be the key to keeping the neighbours quiet for another season. This though is to look only at the short term; if we are to recover our position as a force in Europe we need to reanalyse how we became such a force over the last four years. The hard truth is; it wasn’t through 4-4-2.
I do not believe we can afford for our next generation of talent to be schooled in a single system. It might suit in the short term but if Welbeck, Cleverley and Jones are to fulfil their potential then it is essential they become familiar with diverse tactical approaches. Positional musical chairs has been a theme of this season – Jones in particular has been O’Shea-esque in his nominated duties – yet these changes have been almost exclusively within a 4-4-2 system. The Norwich game in particular was an opportunity missed; in Rooney’s absence it seemed logical to supplement the central midfield and nullify the likely Lambert tactic of outnumbering the duo of passers yet instead we persisted with 4-4-2 and were nearly caught out. If we cannot maintain control of a game against an impressive, but with all due respect, inferior Norwich side then what hope have we against the better sides at home and abroad? It might not be a popular view, but unless we embrace alternative approaches, loyalty to our beloved 4-4-2 might just cost us the title.