If William Shakespeare were to deliver a discourse on football tactics (and there is no evidence to suggest he never did), his opening gambit would surely be “What’s in a formation? That which we call a 4-4-1-1 could easily be represented as a 4-2-3-1”. Formations are simply a way of representing a player’s position in reference to his teammates. It is the player’s role that is of importance –to the team, to the manager and to the spectators.
When we talk of Manchester United, the mind conjures up images of flying wingers, 2 central midfielders, an attacking midfielder (trequartista) and an out-and-out striker. Think Eric Cantona and the heydays of the early 90’s or David Beckham supplying Ruud Van Nistelrooy with a pinpoint cross from his traditional wide right position. It is not difficult to comprehend, nor is it an overstatement to say that Man United have exploited the 4-4-2 more than any of their English counterparts.
But 4-4-2 hasn’t always been Sir Alex’s go-to formation. He may not be regarded as a tactical chameleon, but after 25+ years at United, it is safe to assume that Sir Alex knows the best side and shape to play with, with the players at hand. Exceptional talents have, at times, forced Fergie’s hand and led to the United team lining up in a less conventional way. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 42-goal season is the perfect example of one player dictating the team’s structure.
There is also a school of thought that believes that the 1995-96 title-winning side’s formation, consisting of Cantona, Giggs, Sharpe, Keane and Butt, could be best described be as a 4-2-3-1. And when you look closer, it’s easy to see why. Giggs and Sharpe were not wide midfielders, but traditional wingers who looked to break forward and supply crosses from advanced positions. Keane and Butt were the midfield generals, sitting deeper, breaking up play and moving the ball forward. Cantona was the last piece of this jigsaw, playing between the opposition’s midfield and defence. If one were to pen down these observations on a blank canvas, would it not turn out to be a 4-2-3-1 by today’s standards?
Tactical innovation has always been present at Manchester United, lurking in the shadows of its more conspicuous cousins, Quick, fast-paced attacks and efficient yet solid defending. During the successful 2006-09 period, Man United often lined-up with Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez as the front-men with all three given the license to interchange and roam freely. Sir Alex rightly understood that restricting the above mentioned trio to specific positions on the field would amount to a criminal under-use of their abilities. He set them free from the shackles of a rigid team structure, and they soared.
The notion that Man United has always played a 4-4-2 is a misnomer, as we have seen United play many different formations over the last few years. At the same time, traditional wingers will always have a place at Old Trafford because there is simply no substitute for quality crossing and dribbling. The competitiveness of modern football ensures that all teams must have various playing styles or risk being predictable and second-guessed. As a result, versatile players are the need of the hour and will be highly sought after.
On Shinji Kagawa And Nick Powell
It must have come as pleasant surprise to its fans when Manchester United announced the official signing of Japanese international Shinji Kagawa from Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund on 22nd June 2012. It’s not usual for Manchester United to do transfer-business so early on in the window, and when they do, it’s usually a young prospect signed for the future. True, the rumour-mill was already abuzz with news of Kagawa heading to Old Trafford, but you don’t believe it till you see it.
Nick Powell is a more traditional United signing, an 18-year old attacking midfielder signed for the future. Talented as he is, it will be a huge surprise to see Powell in the first team straightaway. A loan move to a Premier League team would be an ideal scenario for him.
So what does the 23-year Shinji Kagawa bring to the table? A mobile, explosive yet creative presence in the final third is what United sorely lack, and Kagawa checks all the boxes. Quick, two-footed , with a keen eye for a killer-ball and a proven goal-scoring track-record, Kagawa should not find it too difficult to break into the first team. Once again, the question isn’t where will he play but what role he will take up.
Man United’s Achilles Heel In The Last Two Seasons
If the last 2 seasons are anything to go by, United once again proved they are ‘flat-track bullies’; in that they found it easier to play against sides technically inferior to them. It was against quality sides that United struggled to get going, mainly because the opposition figured out a way to choke United’s main creative outlet in the final third – Wayne Rooney. This resulted in the central midfielders having to take on the creative burden and push forward, leaving huge gaps in front of a young and inexperienced defense. With no designated defensive midfielder, or spoiler if you will, to screen the back four, opponents could easily break forward in numbers and overwhelm the defense.
The game-plan was out there for everyone to see. Surround Rooney and choke the supply, force United to overcompensate thereby opening up space and kill them on the counter.The 3-0 tonking at the hands of Newcastle at the start of 2012 is the right match to see this game-plan being executed flawlessly. Tiote, Gutierrez and Cabaye’s tireless running and pressing unhinged United’s ageing midfield and with Rooney covered, Newcastle could play a direct game with their two big strikers upfront.
Kagawa In The David Silva Role?
Kagawa is best utilized playing “in the hole”, a position that is already occupied at Old Trafford. As a few Youtube clips will undoubtedly prove, Kagawa’s bread and butter is collecting the ball between the lines and slipping through a neat pass to the wide men or the striker. But what if this threat were to come not from the centre, but from the flanks? For Japan, Kagawa often starts out wide left since Keisuke Honda is the designated trequartista for the national team. His natural game with the ball is to drift to the centre, where he combines with Honda for Japan.
With a host of continental sides (Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, B. Dortmund) moving to a 4-2-3-1 successfully, it will not be a surprise to see Kagawa start on either side of Rooney in the attacking band of “3”. Sir Alex might have to sacrifice a winger for an attacking midfielder, but it makes sense. A double trequartista threat is the most sensible way to break down stubborn defenses. The opposition holding midfielder can no longer concentrate only on Rooney and man-mark him – Kagawa’s threat would be too serious to leave unattended. And with his natural drift to the centre, Kagawa, in tandem with Rooney, would effectively be creating an overload on the opposition midfielders, forcing them back and giving his own fullbacks space to motor into.
If you were to cast an eye across town and examine Manchester City’s title winning squad, the above mentioned observations hold true, to a point. City has taken it to another level, by replacing both wingers with attacking midfielders. Silva and Nasri both like to play centrally after starting out wide, Aguero likes to drop back and drift out to the wings and Dzeko/Balotelli is the target man. Dare we say it, but it’s possible that Sir Alex might have drawn inspiration from those noisy neighbours!
Anticipating The Start Of Next Season
In conclusion, the 4-4-2 is not dead at Old Trafford. No, far from it. There will be times when having 2 strikers on the field will be more important than one. But for succeeding in the Champions League, it may not be enough and hence, variety in attack will be crucial. The signings of Kagawa and Powell may not necessarily herald in a new age of attacking football, but will be a throwback to the 2007 and 2008 seasons. With versatile players like Young, Nani and Rooney already at the club, the arrival of this talented duo will add to United’s options and allow Sir Alex to be flexible with his team.What this might result in is a fluid front four (Welbeck up top), capable of exchanging places and creating a mess of the opponents marking schema. They will also bring in some much-needed energy and mobility and we might get used to seeing a Man United team pressing the opposition and trying to win the ball higher up the pitch.
Quick, attacking football – but with a dash of Tactical nous.
~ Written by Parth ~