Manchester United: Press Higher, Give Up On Width & More Early Season Observations

Manchester United's season has started slowly with the side failing so far to get into their stride. Here's four tactical observations that try to answer why...
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Manchester United's season has started slowly with the side failing so far to get into their stride. Here's four tactical observations that try to answer why...

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Manchester United: Press Higher, Give Up On Width & More Early Season Observations (draft)...

Ferguson’s love affair with width could be his Achilles heel

Whilst all the talk on Saturday was around the inclusion of red legend Ryan Giggs in the starting line-up versus Spurs, post-game, further introspection revealed a more worrying issue. Sir Alex's persistence with 4-4-1-1. The boss has based his tenure – and huge success – around a 4-4-2 system which relies heavily on wing-play and getting the ball out wide as soon as possible (hence why Giggs was chosen over say, Cleverley, to replace Valencia, keeping the four across midfield). United at their best, sweep teams aside with this system and attack the by-line with gusto, with the likes of Kanchelskis, Giggs, Sharpe, Beckham, Nani and Valencia all excelling over the years.

But this method has left Ferguson open to accusations of being a ‘tactical novice’ of sorts, especially on the European stage, and critique that the Scot has been too slow to react either ‘within season’, or ‘within game’.  Aside from the couple of years where United played with three central midfielders behind Rooney Tevez and Ronaldo, an over-reliance on a variance of 4-4-1-1 has been the status quo and teams have become all too familiar with how Manchester United will set up and thus have mastered the art of nullifying them.

This often leaves Fergie tinkering for the bigger games, either with variations of the 4-4-2 set up or something of a last-minute (and crucially, not coached) tactical approach to 4-2-3-1 (with Rooney often deployed deep, leaving a big space between him and the lone centre forward). Especially with the signing of Kagawa (and to some extent van Persie), United need to work harder on their application of 4-3-3/ 4-2-3-1 pretty soon in order to avoid the disaster which was last season in Europe and a recurrence of the likes of the defeat to Tottenham.

United have not kept the ball well at all this season (versus Liverpool the 4-4-1-1 was detrimental again), and have been prone to the swift counter attack, especially if the opponent presses the space in front of Carrick and Scholes. There is clearly a need to play three in the middle (or keeping Kagawa closer to the centre), which would of course still allow Valencia, Young and Nani to get game time, each adept at coming inside, linking with the attack. Starting with somewhat of a diamond versus FC Cluj was a start, and as well as seeing Fletcher back and looking close to his old self, the performance of the front three was the most eye-catching facet of the game.

United have not kept the ball well at all this season (versus Liverpool the 4-4-1-1 was detrimental again), and have been prone to the swift counter attack, especially if the opponent presses the space in front of Carrick and Scholes.

Kagawa will flourish with Rooney ‘and’ van Persie

It is fair to say that Shinji Kagawa has enjoyed an indifferent start to his United career, but there is no doubting his ability and his eye for a pass. There seems to be little wrong with the deployment of his services just off the front man, but this betrays issues of set-up. Because Carrick and Scholes sit relatively deep, and Valencia and Nani are often hugging the touchline, Kagawa can find himself isolated – and either too far away from the central duo or too far away from van Persie as he comes deep to search for the ball.  The difference then between Kagawa at present and say Silva or Ozil, is the latter two spend most of the game facing the opposition goal (not starting so high up), and getting on the ball in deep positions.

Crucially too, they have players to assist them who play across the horizontal in the final third (di Maria, Nasri, Ronaldo), and this is where the 4-4-1-1 system is not allowing the Japanese star to excel. In this sense, it has been hard to grasp the impact of a flourishing Kagawa as he has been unable to provide the sort of thrust in the team that was evident at Dortmund; and equally unable to imitate a role of similar ilk to a classic second striker – somebody such as Del Piero for example.

Rooney is looking fit again and his output in the games against Newcastle, Spurs and FC Cluj has been excellent. In a role we know he loves, Rooney has in a sense set the example for his new colleague, and what is more, there is no doubt that Kagawa and Rooney can play in the same side – just as long as their roles don’t become too similar at No. 10. Rooney is best roaming behind the striker and more effective with a midfield 3 behind him (he is less likely to wander too deep); and there is no reason why Kagawa can’t start at the tip of that diamond (ahead of say Carrick and Cleverley), thus solving the issue of isolation.

In something of a 4-2-1-3 then, both players can work closely together to provide the service for van Persie/ Welbeck, and United could utilise the creative talents of both players as they seek to operate in slightly different areas of the pitch. United’s new recruit would do well to see the pitch ahead of him and is adept at playing short and sharp balls into the feet of the forwards, and getting beyond where he can. Rooney’s focus should be across the final third, and interchanging positions with van Persie rather than looking to come deep.

It is fair to say that Shinji Kagawa has enjoyed an indifferent start to his United career, but there is no doubting his ability and his eye for a pass.

Goalkeeper rotation much ado about nothing

Much of the talk on the terraces has been about Ferguson’s continued rotation of the No. 1 jersey this term, with many taking issue with the relative demotion of the Spaniard in favour of Lindegaard for the bigger games. In truth, there seems to be little wrong with the policy, with United starting the season with seven wins from nine, and second half against Spurs aside, without ever getting out of second gear – and both keepers operating at a fairly consistent level.  This may have been the plan of Steele and Ferguson before a ball had even been kicked this season, with perhaps the only telling alteration being the favouring of the Dane for the league games following the de Gea ‘blip’ versus Fulham.

It could be said that de Gea wasn’t quite at his best versus Everton too, despite making four fantastic saves in the game. Ferguson is ever the master at detecting even the slightest dip in performance of his players (or in this case not achieving full match fitness), and the young keeper did seem to be slightly nervy at Goodison Park; a little bit slow to release the ball; electing punch instead of catching, and unusually slack in his passing from the ground.

On the ‘Fulham goal’ that gave Jol’s side a chance of snatching a point, and it has been a typical Ferguson tactic over the years to keep his youngsters on their toes by keeping them on the bench, goalkeeper or otherwise. United were holding on against the Londoners and a point from the first two league games would have had immeasurable consequences on team morale and indeed the start of the season in general.By rotating then, he has not only ensured that Lindegaard has been kept ‘in the mix’ and match fit at a time in the Spaniard’s career where he is still becoming accustomed to the league and where leaving him open to media criticism could prove disastrous, but he has ensured de Gea stays focused on the job at hand. He is clearly the more talented of the two keepers, and seems to have the stronger mindset to match.  Fans must heed Fergie’s request for patience, and reap the rewards in the seasons to come, where he will undoubtedly become a United regular, and perhaps the league’s best keeper to boot.

Given that ‘possession’ has never really been an issue for United over the years, it is still bemusing to see the media (and fans) bemoan the lack of a ‘ball winner’ in the centre of midfield.

United must press to avoid conceding first

A notable, and much talked about tenet to United’s season so far has been the inability to score first. The team conceded first versus Everton, Southampton, Fulham, Liverpool, Tottenham and FC Cluj, and eventually lost the games at Goodison Park and at home to Spurs. It is a trend that can’t continue as Unitedhave often been put on the back foot in games in the first half, which changes the nature of the game completely; the opposition can afford to sit deep and defend in numbers, leaving United open to further counter attacks.

It is vital that United press the ball with greater intensity from the start of games (which is much harder with a straight 4-4-2), keeping a consistent shape and defending as a team if they are to reverse the trend. Given that ‘possession’ has never really been an issue for United over the years, it is still bemusing to see the media (and fans) bemoan the lack of a ‘ball winner’ in the centre of midfield. Whilst an athletic midfielder in the form of a Toure or even a Moutinho would of course be a useful addition, United’s issues at present appear one of function rather than down to the midfield component.

A ball winner is not required in order to press the opposition (merely needs to be committed and intelligent), and aside from the games versus City and Liverpool last term, United kept the ball and took the game to the opposition. Michael Carrick (with Lucas) remains the best ‘defensive’ central midfielder in the league, so adept at reading the play and intercepting the ball. Defensive unity requires the full eleven to know their role, and keeping a slightly higher line with a focus on pressing high in midfield could reverse this worrying trend.

At the back, it is true that three of arguably the most complete back four in Europe in recent years – in Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra – are each playing beyond their peak, but in truth the talent is still there and Ferguson will know how influential these players are to the likes of Smalling, Jones, Wooton and the ever improving Rafael. It is essential that Ferguson maintains a regular centre back partnership, and with neither Vidic, Ferdinand or Evans making fantastic claims for a regular berth, a decision must be made on a pair, and quickly. In short, a regular defence, and a regular formation, with an emphasis on pressing high up the pitch should see the solution.

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