Strengths and weaknesses of Manchester United in 2012/13
This season Manchester United seems to lack the defensive strengths they had in previous seasons. Yet, this is not only because of the worrying injury record of their defenders or the lack of dynamic in the midfield department. The red devils’ defensive liability stems from tactical insecurities of the collective caused by slight changes in their philosophy and also some individual tactical problems.
The defensive problems start in unused spaces
Many fans argue that individual errors, lack of defensive skills (mostly Paul Scholes), and athleticism (both, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick) are mainly responsible for United’s relatively poor defensive record. They have conceded 17 Premier League goals this season, more than any other top six team. In fact, only eight teams have fared worse.
Yet on the other hand both central midfielders do have many abilities in the defensive part of their game. Scholes is an extremely intelligent player with good positioning, an area where Carrick also excels. So their lack of dynamic is not the only reason for United’s problems, there are also tactical issues.
Most of the goals they concede come from long balls and attacks from the break – sometimes fast combination plays, sometimes with runs from one player through the second third of the pitch. Because of the huge space between central midfield and the attacking department there is a major gap in their formation.
Of course this is not something that can be changed within days. First of all, it should be said that Sir Alex Ferguson is not an idiot; he has reasons for this tactical deployment. He tries to bring passing accuracy and with Scholes a potentially decisive spark of creativity into the team but he knows that both Scholes and Carrick are not the ideal players for protecting the back four.
Therein lies another problem: the back four is probably the best in the league individually but they (just like Scholes and Carrick) do lack the needed speed for a higher backline. Their strengths lie in direct confrontation with the opposing attacker, intelligent positional play in restricted areas and collective coordination around the box.
With a higher backline they could make their pressing more effective but it would also expose a major weakness of the back four: covering bigger zones in high tempo (which is probably the main reason why André Villas-Boas failed at Chelsea). So Ferguson’s approach is to create a more compact defense with deep-lying midfielders who try to create numeric advantage in the first third of the field.
Yet with the huge space in midfield and attacking full-backs there is room for fast breaks and diagonal attacks. There are gaps to exploit on the flanks and in there’s time enough to plan an attack in midfield due to lack of immediate pressure. But Ferguson is trying to use different formations, an interesting player deployment in his classic formation and of course a more intensive counter-pressing to neutralize the weaknesses in this playing style.
Counter-pressing, Rooney and Kagawa
One main tactical aspect Ferguson has changed is United’s play against the ball and pressure against the oppositional build-up-play. While the offensive players press, the backline does not push up as high as in most high-pressing teams, for instance the FC Barcelona.
That’s why United does not possess extreme offensive compactness but Ferguson has ordered his players to be flexible when going back to their deeper positions in the basic 4-4-1-1 formation. They press backwards and put constant pressure on the opponent, just like they do immediately after conceding possession.
After losing the ball the nearest players attack the ball-carrying opponent and try to steal it back or at least destroy a possible counter. Dortmund under Jürgen Klopp and Barcelona since Pep Guardiola have the same principles but for other reasons: Klopp and his players want to be able to continue their attack while Barcelona are compensating for their high fluidity and extraordinary collective pushing up into the opposition half.
United still does not seem to have the ideal players for this pressing philosophy. But they are heading into the right direction with the deployment of Rooney as defense-supporting forward behind main striker Robin van Persie. Also the purchase of Shinji Kagawa, probably one of the best pressure-creating players in the world, could lead to a new era at United. With high pressing, the individual quality and athleticism of the players on the wing and the intelligent Rooney and/or Kagawa, they should be able to utilize their players in the best possible way.
Another plus is that they are able to change between 4-2-3-1 with one of them in the hole for higher midfield compactness, a 4-4-2-pressing-formation to block the passing options into the middle or a transforming mix of the two – the same tactics at which Kagawa excelled in Dortmund. A diamond shape was also successfully employed and could be installed long term but there is a slight problem with the new and sporadically tried defensive philosophy and United’s tactical history.
Could the trademark wingers become obsolete?
The answer to this question is probably a „no“, but with one of Kagawa or Rooney maybe pushed out on the wing and the (relatively) streaks of bad form from Nani and Ashley Young it is not as far-fetched as it may seem.
The negative aspect in the 4-2-2-2-formation is that the wingers are standing too far out wide. They may stretch the play but at the same time they create a slow-passing momentum in their offensive play due to the long distances between the players.
Often attacks start in the very same manner: Scholes moves intelligently, gets the ball, maybe plays a one-two and then plays highly accurate long-balls out to the wingers. This was an exquisite tactic years ago, because the opponents weren’t standing as deep, often played without intelligent zonal-marking and with “space-shortage”, as Arrigo Sacchi would call it.
So there was more space and United not only relied more on the break but also succeeded more often. Now the ball comes to the wings, they need to take their time to control the ball and are already surrounded by two opponents. The opposing defense then blocks the diagonal passing option into the dangerous area and the way to the goal. The wingers have to go vertical and hug the line (and those runs result in difficult flanks) or they have to pass the ball backwards in order not to lose it.
This vicious cycle of slow attacks repeats, just like Barcelona, but there is no Iniesta or Messi to take the ball higher, so there is less acquisition of space. The good thing is that Paul Scholes is a genius and sometimes can find space even in the most compact formations and of course that Sir Alex is a wonderful manager with highly skilled players.
His players upfront can create something out of nothing, use errors of their opponents effectively or link-up with one another. Also they have players with various styles and qualities on the bench which gives them the possibility to change according to the context of the game or the opponent.
Kagawa, Rooney, van Persie, Hernandez, Young, Nani, Valencia…
Even in their 4-4-1-1 they are able to vary their style without major changes in formation. With Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez they have a “super sub” on the bench who can destroy teams on his own without doing anything spectacular. His secret is his movement. There are not many players who are able to open up room or drag oppositional players into the wrong space like he does.
His style is different to van Persie – who himself is not a classical poacher but can play this way. He was firstly a winger, later he played as a moving no.9 and is able to play as a traditional no.9. The same is true of Rooney though he is not as clinical as the Dutch. He even may not have a wider array of skills but his range is bigger, he is able to constantly change positions and also belong to different parts of the formation in the game.
Kagawa is a player in the same mould but preferably used in tighter spaces and between the lines. Although he hasn’t been in the same form he has been for Dortmund, he has shown glimpses of his quality frequently. To further his evolution he needs practice at his favorite position because he lives from collective understanding of movements and linking up with other players or between parts of the formation.
Similar variety exists not only in the front two positions of the 4-4-1-1, but also on the wings. Valencia is more of a vertical runner, beats players with his power and speed while Nani uses his flair and dribbling skills. In the same way he is much more vertical and is ideally played as an inverse winger even though he sometimes has to take other playing styles because of the team philosophy.
Young on the other hand is slightly more of a creative player from the side but also sometimes best played as a traditional winger. Maybe this mixture and the inconsistency is one of the reasons he started so good and later declined in the red shirt.
Anderson & Cleverley?
Thanks to Ferguson’s man management and intelligent transfers there is the possibility to rotate also on other positions. With Anderson and Cleverley there are in fact two quite dynamic central midfielders who have already played together very well.
But while they are faster than the Scholes-Carrick-partnership they also have their defensive weaknesses. Their positional play in the defense is not as consistent and disciplined as is Scholes’s or Carrick’s, who is probably the best in this department. Ferguson tried to use one of the younger ones (preferably Cleverley) with one of the elder (Carrick, because of his enormous defensive abilities).
He also wanted to install Giggs as a mixture between a positional disciplined midfielder and a creative force but this experiment failed due to the lack of awareness and too much vertical play (I really like the term “Hollywood passes”) into the attacking third of the Welsh.
So time is on the side of Anderson and Cleverley; and not only that. Both of them could – with some experience – become tremendous players, together with the new generation of defenders it even may be possible to play with a high backline and compensate for the defensive weaknesses of Anderson and Cleverley.
On the one hand, Manchester United is one of the best teams in Europe, with extraordinary players and one of the best managers in the game, Sir Alex Ferguson. On the other hand, there are many smaller tactical problems, caused by the wrong combination of players in different areas of the pitch. Especially the older players are used to another branch of football, they played a different style against different opponents with different defensive and offensive responsibilities; some of them are not able to push up as high as they used to do anymore, because they are not fast and skilled enough in their backwards-pressing.
Yet, Ferguson tries to alter his players for the better and so United is going through a phase of transition.
There are still some other tactical aspects which need adjustment (for instance the highly opponent-orientated zonal-marking), but the main problems are highlighted in this article. Still, the results this team achieves are exceptional, considering the problems it has, the opponents it faces and the injuries it has to suffer.
And with so many talents on the bench and coming through the youth ranks change and eventually titles will come. But in order to gain titles this season, the tactical issues should be sorted out within the next months, which is possible, because not only time is relative, space is also.
Ein sehr großes Danke an Markus Rill, der einen Großteil dieses Artikels lektoriert und korrigiert hat!