Let’s get this out of the way: Manchester United are playing well below their standard, David Moyes is partially to blame, but definitely deserves more time. Whether Moyes will ever achieve greatness as a United manager is a matter of speculation, but anyone asking that he be sacked is being far too hasty. The squad and playing style needs to be adapted to suit a new manager, and any financially responsible club is right not to gorge on big-name signings just to make their fans feel better.
David Moyes may or may not land Juan Mata within the fortnight, but irrespective of the outcome of this transfer saga, there are perhaps other, tactical options available to Moyes for improving United’s performances.
4-2-3-1 & Moyes’ tactical inertia
What has been somewhat surprising this season has been David Moyes’ reluctance to move away from his favored 4-2-3-1 system. Every manager tends to have a favored system that they try to implement when they move to a new club. When Pep Guardiola joined Bayern Munich, he had already acquired Mario Gotze to play in the false-9 position, something he had done with Lionel Messi in his time at Barcelona. Now, over his tenure he has adapted tactics to feature Mario Madzukic, a typical center-forward. Closer to home for Moyes, Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers tried to use his favored 4-3-3 upon joining from Swansea City, but eventually shifted to a 4-2-3-1. Since then, he has shifted between the two formations, as well as a 3-5-2 (or 3-4-1-2) to great effect.
Which brings us to the question: just how suited are Moyes’ men for a 4-2-3-1? With Wayne Rooney usually the one to take the number-10 role, Shinji Kagawa has had to play on the left side of midfield, or not at all. While Shinji naturally drifts to the center when played there, Luis Antonio Valencia on the opposite flank is much more comfortable hugging the touchline most of the time. This is not ideal, as right-back Rafael does a good job of providing the width the team needs, and Valencia’s crossing is not good enough to justify having both these players in the same side. There’s also the matter of having 3 players (4 if you count Rooney) vying for the single striker position available.
So effectively, in Moyes’ 4-2-3-1 set-up, a second striker is being played as a number 10, a number 10 is playing as a left midfielder, and two players on the right flank are performing nearly similar roles. And the manager continues to use this formation day-in and day-out.
Is Juan Mata the answer?
The murmurs of a Juan Mata move to Old Trafford have turned into a roar in recent days, with multiple media channels reporting news of ‘talks’ and ‘planned bids’. But what will Mata really bring to the table? To clarify, there is no question of the Spaniard’s talents – he could walk into any Premier League side with the exception of Chelsea and Manchester City. His creativity on the ball and ability to slip a ball into a striker’s feet is exceptional. However, the fact remains that he is proper number-10. A number 10, who has seen minimal game time since the day Jose Mourinho decided that the number 10 position in Chelsea was reserved for youngster Oscar. Mata then went on to lost the left-attacking position to the likes of Willian and Andre Schurrle. Mata is a number 10, and is unlikely to excel in any other role. So what’s the point of signing him if Moyes is adamant on sticking to a 4-2-3-1?
Can United afford another Shinji Kagawa? Risk wasting another masterful midfielder simply because the number 10 spot is for Wayne Rooney? Or will Moyes give him the central role, and have only one out of Rooney, van Persie and Hernandez playing in the single central striker role?
The 3-5-2 option
When Brendan Rodgers moved Liverpool to 3-5-2, it was for one major reason: maximize the potential of his uber-talented front two, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. And it worked like a charm. Liverpool raked in the goals, and the newly formed “SAS” became the most feared strike partnership in the League. Being a manager who has 4 excellent front-men at his disposal, 2 of whom (Rooney and van Persie) are clearly amongst the top strikers in the world, it is surprising that he hasn’t atleast tried using a 3-5-2 so far.
The back-3 and wing-backs
A 3-5-2 becomes a 5-3-2 when defending: the 3 defenders form a relatively compact line in front of the goal, while the 2 wide men (wing-backs) track back in defence. When it comes time to attack, the wing-backs are supposed to charge forward, while 2 of the 3 center backs spread out, nearly as wide as a full-back would be in a 4 man defence.
This means that, with the exception of the central defender in the back 3 (a role Nemanja Vidic could easily fulfil), the other two need to be versatile defenders who can function both as center-backs and full-backs. Manchester United already have the likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, who have played in roles across the back-line, and would be natural fits for these two positions. Similarly, the wing-backs need to be players who can attack and cross down the flanks, but also get back and contribute in defence. Rafael and Valencia are both tailor-stitched for this role. Valencia has played as right-back in the past (including against Liverpool early this season), while Rafael is a right-back who regularly finds himself in the opposition third (he averages an impressive 1 key-pass per game). On the left, Patrice Evra is also technically suited for the role, though his fitness levels may be a matter of concern.
Midfield and attack
In the center of the park, the two central midfielders can be selected out of Carrick, Fellaini, Tom Cleverly and Darren Fletcher. Depending on the opposition, Moyes can tweak this midfield pairing as each has different skill-sets to offer. While Carrick is excellent at protecting the back-line and playing clever short passes, Fellaini (if given the license to charge ahead) can be as much a threat as Aaron Ramsey has been for Arsenal this season. It is just a matter of letting the monster off his leash when the moment calls for it.
A 3-5-2 would also allow for Moyes to play both Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, while being able to play Shinji Kagawa, Adnan Januzaj or even Juan Mata (if he signs on) in the number-10 role. He would have the luxury of having Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez to call upon from the bench when needed.
It’s easy to look at a team that’s not doing well and declare that all the players are rubbish. It’s exactly the treatment meted out to the Tottenham squad when they were failing to score goals under Andre-Villas Boas. Now, under Tim Sherwood, the team has found its shooting boots again, and suddenly no one doubts that the players are quality. This is also the position United find themselves in right now. And Moyes needs to take more risks while he still has a chance, else he won’t be at the helm when the players become world class again.