Shinji Kagawa and Euro 2012 hint at the death of 4-4-2 for United

Author: Doron

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Oddly enough, watching Euro 2012 has provided a stark lesson for United and Alex Ferguson in how the team should be playing. It’s also emphasised that there’s been a huge change in style of central midfielders over the last 10 years, with sides focussing their football on a different part of the pitch. Should the Kagawa transfer go through successfully (work permit/medical), it’ll be the first real sign that United too, are to change the way they play.

Under Ferguson, United’ system has hardly changed – four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers – has been the preferred choice. (Although, other formations have been trialled in various competitions, and, quite often, his four midfielders may well include either a defender or a striker!). United have had plenty of success playing this way and it’s suited the majority of the players the club has had.

If you go back to the late 90s, the 4-4-2 system was the preferred choice of many of the Premier League teams. Central midfielders were robust and all-rounded, rarely specialising in just one or two areas. Wingers were direct but liked to hug the touchline and get crosses in. Most teams had striker partnerships: Yorke-Cole; Fowler-Owen; Bergkamp-Henry; Zola-Flo. The players suited the system and rarely did sides find the need to play anything else.

Since then, a few things have happened: central midfielders have ‘specialised’; technical (and non-technical) players who play in unconventional positions have become more prominent; formations and systems have changed as a result – many sides now line up with four defenders, 5 midfielders and one striker. Never has this been more evident than at Euro 2012.

There are exceptions of course; Spain started without a striker and Italy employed a system with wingbacks and a sweeper to counteract Spain. On the whole though, most teams have gone with a 4-2-3-1 system. The dilemma this gives is that it’s hard not to counteract that formation with anything other than the same one. As Ireland discovered, playing a 4-4-2 (particularly with inferior players), just sees the midfield overrun and opposition players find that they have a generous amount of space ‘between the lines’. Even England, with decent quality midfielders, were outplayed by the French; another case of 4-4-2 vs. 4-2-3-1.

United’s position is somewhat struck in time. Whilst the game has moved on, United haven’t really changed. On one hand, you can’t argue with Fergie, the club have continued to be successful and Ferguson’s had solid, if unspectacular midfield options that have been able to compete at a very high level. On the other hand, United have now started to struggle to play against the top teams who can exploit that United just aren’t comfortable playing systems that involve three in the middle – United just don’t have the personnel to pull it off. That struggle isn’t just limited to the top domestic sides, in Europe United have been ‘found out’ too.

The problem seems obvious. Three men in the middle should always have the better of two men. In order to have success with a two man central midfield, you need at least one all-rounded, quality, box-to-box player – someone who can tackle, and pass, and shoot – the full package. As noted though, this is the age of specialisation and technical ability. The influx of skilled foreign players coupled with a desire to copy teams from abroad, has lead to players being encouraged to focus on specific areas of their game (very evident at U19 level) and the death of the all-rounder.

Yaya Toure and Bastian Schweinsteiger represent that dying breed. The lack of complete midfielders goes hand-in-hand with the necessity to move away from 4-4-2. With more and more ‘passers’ and ‘creatives’ teams have moved towards possession football with some deep central midfielders and an increasing use of a ‘number 10’. The impact of this kind of football executed against a 4-4-2 can be seen in England vs. France – not one England player completed over 50 passes but seven French players did. Passing stats are somewhat meaningless but the more possession you have, the more likely you are to score – or the less likely the opposition are to score.

England were of course unfortunate that players who could have made a telling difference were either injured or left at home but even with the team that started, Hodgson could have gone for a 4-3-3 and matched the French rather than forcing his side to play very deep with two close banks of four. To quote a non-footballing watching colleague of mine: “England just aren’t very fast – the French were moving it about much quicker than us” – her observation is spot on; she witnessed England chasing play rather than making it.

Where United differ from England, is that they can go out and buy players to change the system. Shinji Kagawa hopefully represents exactly that – a player most comfortable in an traditionally unorthodox position behind a striker where he has license to roam in something of a free role. United have tried to play with someone there before (Rooney) but he’s not a natural in that position. Kagawa hopefully will move the focal point away from Carrick/Scholes and higher up the pitch, providing a natural link between midfield and attack.

The questions that the Kagawa deal now pose for United are:

1. What does it mean for Rooney/Welbeck/Hernandez?

(Expect Rooney to be the first choice striker with Welbeck often used wide with license to come inside as part of the interchangeable, fluid, front four. However, expect United to still play 4-4-2 in some games.)

2. Will Kagawa even play as a ‘number 10’?

(Hopefully, but Park and Anderson prove that being signed having played in one position, doesn’t guarantee that Fergie won’t tinker with players.)

3. Is there a need to play both Carrick and Scholes now?

(Probably not, one of the big dilemmas is that when the focal point of the team shifts forward, the necessity for deep midfielders becomes questionable – they can often just become passengers. Carrick of course is capable of playing higher but whether Scholes can play at the pace that playing higher up requires, remains to be seen. Actually, a fit Anderson or Fletcher would be ideal in this system alongside one of Carrick or Scholes.)

The move away from 4-4-2 is a victory for specialisation and tactical nuance. One only needs to watch teams at Euro 2012 to see that the only way to successfully combat (presuming you want to win rather than contain) three central midfielders is to match it.

United have almost always sought creativity from out wide and will continue to do so but Kagawa provides a new edge at a time when United have to change their system. The club have gone as far as they can in a 4-4-2 but without one of the few top quality all-rounded central midfielders in the world in their team, it’s probably not the way forward when it comes to competing at the very top. The lessons of last season have forced Fergie’s hand, it’s time for change.

Further reading on 4-4-2 from Jonathan Wilson:

The Question: What next for 4-4-2? – (I suspect that two years on, the last chunk may be quite different now – although 4-4-2 is likely to remain the first choice formation for teams below the top tier)

The Question: Does 4-4-2 work for England?

NB: United found that a 4-2-3-1 in the Ronaldo era was the best way to accommodate him. The result was often spectacular.

28 Comments on Shinji Kagawa and Euro 2012 hint at the death of 4-4-2 for United

  1.  fink man utd shud  4 a 4-3-3 formation .rafael, ferdinand ,vidic, evra , carrick, scholes ,modric, kagawa, rooney, valencia .sub evans,smallIng,jones,young,nani,giggs,welbeck,hernandez. So wen its half tym den we can nw switch 2 our normal 4-4-2 formation.rafael ferdinand vidic (carrick modric kagawa valencia rooney hernandez. Also ‎​​ prefer jordi alba 2 baines cos baines ‘ll nt b happy 2 sit ​ bench @ dat age. To Anderson,nani,park, sell dem all

  2. Good article. The modern 4-4-2 conundrum is something that we almost solved this year. When we started the season with cleverley and ando owning the central positions while nani, roo, welbeck and young ran riot upfront ( note we hadn’t even unleashed Valencia then), somehow we were using the 4-4-2 in a way that felt like the 2 in the middle provided enough bodies when we didn’t have the ball in our own half, yet freed that fourth man for counter attacks making us basically attack as a 4-2-4 or even a devastating 4-1-5 with 5 attacking players sitting high up and playing short one-twos and scoring almost at will. When Kevin Davies callously lunged in to cleverley that fateful day, in one fell swoop he ended our experiment with that approach to the 4-4-2 and in that moment also won the title for city.

  3. Hi writer,

    Why do you have to make things too complicated? As Ferguson has always said, he will be signing only complete midfielders or attacking midfielders. So, it is very clear that United will not revert to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Like Arsene Wenger has said, “Defense wins titles and attack wins fans”, most of the teams are aiming only for titles. So, they put in two defensive midfielders into the “2” of the above formation. It is something like an extra protection. United, under Ferguson have effectively and efficiently challenged and won trophies with this sort of combination. Understand that United have a few ageing midfielders and a few attacking midfielders only. Addition of a young and in form “midfielder” is more than enough to improve the situation. You also seem to forget that nowadays, the wing based attack is a responsibility of wing-backs. United have top quality wingers today and always United have utilized the width of the pitch using the wingers and we will not revert from the 4-4-2 formation.

    The way I have put this may seem to be losing continuation in between, but this is ther best I can do.

    And believe me.. United will always use 4-4-2 under Ferguson!!!

  4. Well I really want to see the boys lined up in 4-1-4-1 formation with Fletcher/Carrick or even Jones in front of the back four, Kagawa and Rooney as the playmakers ( We all know about their creating ability ) and Welbeck/Chicharito as the lone striker. It may look a little too aggressive but don’t forget we will have Vidic this season.De Gea, Rafael, Evans & Smalling will keep improving and Rio still is a “TRUSTY”. So there would be lesser troubles than the last year in our defense and we can go forward with more confidence just as we did in the early parts of the campaign.

    I think that will work for us…

  5. United played 4-3-3 whilst Ronaldo was at the club and when we won the european cup. Fletcher was having to play a midfield role slighty on the right to cover for ronaldos lack of tracking back especially in europe.

  6. @Charlton – thanks. The problem with our 4-4-2 at the start of the season is that we were probably a bit too gung-ho! We allowed opposition teams to have way too many shots and in general gave them too much space. That said, it was incredibly entertaining and the ‘we’ll score one more than you’ attitude is always fun!

  7. @Mehdi – that’s possible. Not sure Hernandez really has the qualities to be a lone striker though, and Rooney’s really not a midfielder. Quite possible though

  8. When Fergie eventually retires, don’t forget to put in your application for the job @nameonthetrophy.

  9. Brilliant website! Very much enjoy reading your articles! Couple of questions on how you see the future make up of the midfield…. Assuming Cleverley manages to stay injury free next season where do you see him fitting in? A midfield trio of Carrick and Cleverley with Kagawa just ahead could be quite exciting to watch. If that where the case do you think there would still be a necessity to buy another midfielder (eg: box to box type) to play alongside Carrick? Or alternatively if a box to box type player where bought, where do you think this would leave Cleverley in the team? (If at all?)

  10. @cddr – thanks for the kind words.

    Good question – I think Cleverley can certainly challenge for a place next to Carrick and we may even see him slightly further forward, maybe in Kagawa’s position if he gets rotated out the team.

    I’d still buy an all-rounded box-to-box player… I’m not sure who – that’s the conundrum. There aren’t many of them about. A few Italian watching football fans have suggested that Kwadwo Asamoah at Udinese could certainly do a job at United. As for Cleverley… Fletcher’s return is by no means guaranteed and Anderson’s ability to stay injury free is questionable so there’s certainly a place for Tom.

  11. I appreciate your analysis,but i feel if our wingers stop going too wide they can help with the MF.nani can effectively play 10 but never seen sir. trying it,young can also do it,but again the boss only wants rooney and welbeck,for some reasons our lineups have not been from “footballing reasons”

  12. I think your article raises a number of interesting points. You may well be right about the way Sir Alex will use Kagawa, although I personally haven’t seen enough of him to definitively make that call.

    I can’t agree however with your position that 4-4-2 has been the preferred formation for United, either recently or throughout Sir Alex’s time at the club.

    About ten years ago I was lucky enough to attend a fans group meeting with Sir Alex. It took the form of a brief speech, (on how the season was going so far), and a question and answer session thereafter. I don’t think it was the intention that the evening would become a tactical debate, but that was what transpired. At that time Sir Alex was playing Van Nistelrooy up front on his own and a number of fans questioned the wisdom of this and asked him why he didn’t go back to, or seem to favour a 4-4-2. The questioning was quite persistent and at one point it appeared that Sir Alex was about to loose his patience, but to his credit he kept his cool and what transpired was a very frank discourse on his tactical thinking and preferences.

    Sir Alex ran through what he saw as the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of tactical formations. On 4-4-2 specifically he said that he did not like this formation, had never liked it and rarely used it, and that he was unlikely to use it in the future. Remember that this was ten years ago. The points he made were very similar to some of the points you make in your article, particularly the points about specialists in midfield and getting out numbered in the central areas. His view was that at the top level it’s difficult to win with 4-4-2 and that this was shown up regularly in European competition. He said that you could win with the right players in England using that system, but you can’t control enough of the game against better sides who outnumber you with a formation with three central players.

    It was pointed out to him that in 1999 we had used 4-4-2 and won in Europe. Sir Alex laughed at this and said that we had won in-spite of this formation because of a number of factors. Namely the excellence of Cole and Yorke as a partnership that season, the brilliance of Beckham’s service and crucially Roy Keane, who Sir Alex described as like two men in midfield. He also made the point that we had failed to repeat that success and and in that season we had been overrun in periods by Inter at San Siro in the quarters, by Juventus at OT and had struggled against Bayern, in his view because without Keane in the Final our midfield could not compete.

    He went on to talk about 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 and the interchangeability of these two formations and their superiority in counteracting teams who play 4-4-2.

    I always think its interesting when people talk about United being behind the pace in technical developments. Sir Alex made the point that night that United circa 1993 and 1994 were playing a form of 4-2-3-1, and he has certainly played a system similarly to this for the last ten years on and off.

    I think you are right that we don’t currently have the right players to exploit 4-2-3-1 fully and United did use this well to get the most out of Ronaldo circa 2008, but we also used this sysem when Veron was at the club. Kagawa may be a piece in the jigsaw that enables United to exploit that formation, but we need some other pieces as well if we are going to get the most out of it.

    Some other thoughts:

    Sir Alex craves flexibility and likes a squad that can be deployed in a variety of ways. He will probably use Kagawa and other in several different ways next season.

    Sir Alex tends to change the teams shape about three or four times in each game, often playing a formation for only twenty minutes or so. He played with three at the back about four times last season each time for about fifteen/twenty minutes.

    Fletcher’s return would be a bonus, but I don’t think you can use Anderson as a half-back in 4-2-3-1 as he doesn’t seem to have the positional discipline required.

    Ferguson tried Cleverley in a 4-3-1-2 formation on a couple of occasions last season so we may see more of that next year, or he could use a 4-2-1-3, which would accommodate Cleverley centrally and Kagawa in a wider position.

  13. great article Doron. you really covered all the major bases. I did notice something which consistently bugged me in a few games last season (everton in particular). the way United players are positioned when defending in their own half seems alarmingly bad. Even with a switch from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1, I feel something needs to be done about the way players are organized behind the ball. In some games (esp in Europe) it almost seemed as though we were defending with 8 men.

    Although Roy’s England offered nothing going forward yesterday, for the most part the 2 banks of 4 behind the ball were organized and frustrated the opposition. Any thoughts?

  14. Kagawa Songs
    To the tune of Catch A Falling Star

    Shinji Kagawa, United’s pocket rocket is gonna blow you all away!
    Shinji Kagawa, United’s pocket rocket,is gonna blow you all away!
    Now he will come and tap you on the ankles, some starless night
    Signed him cos Ginger Ninja was getting older….
    He’ll win a bucket load of trophies…bucket load of trophies

    What do you think?

  15. Excellent article Doz, a great read. I think we will see United being a lot more flexible next season with the additions made thus far. We didn’t the personnel to pull if off at City away for example last season in a formation other than 4-4-2. I think we may see some clue as to the way we may play during the summer tour. Keep up the good work.

  16. I’d like to see us play a 4-2-3-1 with the following as first choice (replacements in brackets):

    De Gea (Lindegaard)
    Smalling (Rafael), Vidic (Evans), Ferdinand (Jones), Evra (Jordi Alba/New signing?)
    Fletcher (Cleverley), Carrick (Scholes)
    Valencia, Kagawa, Nani (Young, Giggs, Welbeck or Rooney can cover these positions)
    Rooney (Welbeck/Hernandez)

    If we can keep Vidic, Carrick, Valencia and Rooney fit for most of the season I can see us regaining the title. (A big if knowing our track record).

  17. @nameonthetrophy 3 questions. Won’t u say Rooney was the focal point of the attack last season? Why Kagawa would be the focal when he arrives? Why would Ando and Fletch make good partners for Carrick in a 4-2-3-1 (w/Kagawa in hole)

  18. @jabari53 – I’d argue the focal point of our play was our central midfielder – every move went through Carrick or Scholes. Yes, Rooney was often the target but I wouldn’t suggest he was the playmaker. Kagawa’s arrival would probably see a new system used in which the focus of our play moves higher up the pitch to the ‘number 10’ – Kagawa’s favoured position.

    As for Anderson and Fletcher being good partners for Carrick or Scholes – when Carrick/Scholes hold, they can get forward. Both offer a box-to-box style that is arguably needed, much like Yaya Toure at City.

  19. @nameonthetrophy Where do you see Cleverley and Powell fitting into the equation next season? And wouldn’t u say Cleverley fits that role next to Carrick well?

  20. I’m a few days late but that has given me the chance to watch Italy twice – and their 3-5-2 formation which easily morphs into a 5-3-2 when the ball is in their half of the field. The key for the Italians is stationing Daniele De Rossi in the middle of the back three and having the benefit of Andrea Pirlo orchestrating from a deep-lying midfield position.

    These two guys are absolutely fantastic football players -really and truly “world class” – but could it not be argued that MIchael Carrick and KagawaBunga might provide the same tactical flexibility for UTD ?

    I’d like to think that there has to be a way to keep the attacking talents of NinjaEvra and Valencia on the pitch along with Nani and Rooney and KagawaBunga and one of Welbeck/Chicharito.

    Looking at this from a personnel standpoint:

    – the back “3” would be CaptainVidic/Michael Carrick/Rio (or whoever is fit from a selection of Smalling and Evans) while MrJones could serve as an apprentice to Michael Carrick in which case his talents might be best deployed;

    – the “5” would be NinjaEvra and Valencia on the flanks, with KagawaBunga in the middle pulling the strings (like the GingerNinja used to do when he could run) and Nani/Young in the “inside channels”;

    – the front “2” would be TheWayneBoy and one of DannyTheLad or Chicharito.

    What appeals to me is that this kind of formational re-jig makes optimum use of the available talent – no necessity to find a Keane-o/Hargreaves/Fletcherinho box-to-box warrior, which seems to be an impossibility if UTD’s transfer activities are anything to go by. AND it makes optimum use of the strength and athleticism of Evra/Valencia while allowing for their one-footedness.

    Of course, we all know that “formations” are notional – UTD often play what amounts to this way since the “full-backs” are frequently up-field while Michael Carrick rarely ventures forward (even if he is being partnered by Scholes). AND, of course, injuries happen so that the best-laid plans…..

    But, to square the circle and return to the Italians’ play – they’re not the best group of players that the Azzuri have ever put out on the pitch but they’ve accounted themselves very well, indeed. If Giorgio Chiellini hadn’t misjudged the long cross then they would have blanked Croatia. One mistake doesn’t vitiate the experiment. AND, of course (again !) De Rossi and Pirlo are fabulous players but so, too, are Michael Carrick and KagawaBunga while the Italians have nothing to compare with Nani or TheWayneBoy (certainly not Cassano) so I think that in terms of personnel the comparison is valid.

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