For much of the season Manchester United has played as two distinct teams that operate along two different tactical systems. As the season progressed United became a stronger team and doing so in part by evolving into a third mode of play, one that drew from both of those two base tactical systems.
On top of this, United played a very different system last season which could be reimplemented in the Champions League finals. Given this potential range of formations and modes of play United could implement, the major open question headed into the the final is as general a question as can be posed before a match – what system is United going to play?
One of the most interesting aspects of the coming Champions League final is the contrast between the two teams and their managers.
Alex Ferguson is the quintessential fiddler – his approach involves prioritizing flexibility, having a range of tactical choices, and making constant adjustments to take advantage of the opponents weaknesses. Pep Guardiola’s philosophy is to impose his system of play on the opposition, to dictate the terms of the engagement. He has implemented a template which allows for variation in play (requires it even), but whose overall intent is to force the other side to change how it can maneuver in response to Barça’s initiatives.
To better understand how United may try to play against Barça, let’s take a look at the different systems Ferguson’s side have employed this year.
Manchester United’s Initial Formation: 4-4-2 with a Target Man
United opened the season favoring a 4-4-2 system incorporating a target man striker up top in Dimitar Berbatov. After a poor season in 09/10 Berbatov opened this campaign in tremendous form, scoring goals at a blistering pace. For much of the first part of the season Berbatov was at the very top of the goal scoring race in the EPL.
White Berbatov was playing very well (and doing so at a time when Rooney was off form and Chicharito was still adjusting), United’s 4-4-2 target man formation had two distinct limitations.
First, as with any 4-4-2, it left Manchester United with numerical disadvantage in midfield – 2 vs. 3 – when facing a 4-3-3/ 4-2-3-1 formation. For certain opponents this numerical disadvantage put United at significant threat for being over run in midfield.
The second limitation relates to Berbatov himself, or more precisely to the role of a target man in a 4-4-2 formation. A target man type striker in a 4-4-2 requires the second striker to play close to him to form a partnership (see Rooney’s position in the diagram above). There is no point in holding up play or knocking down balls if there is no one to link up with or to collect the ball.
As such, to make best use of a target man in Berbatov up top, Rooney is required to play higher up the pitch. But needing to stay in proximity to Berbatov diminishes key aspects to Rooney’s game – namely his work rate and movement (this was also a problem Rooney faced in the World Cup when teamed with Heskey). Rooney has a strong motor and looks to drop back both to support possession and to help in defense. But if, for example, Rooney drops to defend and United try to play a fast counter to Berbatov there will be no one for him to hold the ball up for. Now this is not to say that Berbatov is himself a stereotypical target man (his game is more varied than that). However, Berbatov greatest strengths are not his movement or pace and his game does take on important dimensions of the target man game.
Manchester United: Second Formation 4-2-3-1
While United was able to play a 4-4-2 for most of its EPL and domestic cup competitions this season, for a number of matches Ferguson deemed the formation as problematic and switched to a 4-2-3-1 to maintain numerical equivalence, 3 vs. 3, against certain sides playing 4-3-3/4-2-3-1. For most of the early Champions League matches the 4-2-3-1 formation was the one he elected to use to prevent his side from losing control of midfield. Over his career, this has been one of the major areas of tactical “tinkering” Ferguson has engaged in – using a 3 man midfield in European competition.
Once a strong adherent to the 4-4-2, Ferguson, widened his tactical range by utilizing three man midfields when needed against teams that were either using three man midfields themselves or were strong at dominating possession (this is part of why Ferguson did not win in Europe until relatively late in his career). Ferguson liberalizing his tactical approach to include 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 has been a key factor in United’s increased efficacy in European competitions over the years because it has allowed United to better control in possession. And last season a 4-3-3 with Wayne Rooney as the lone striker was a primary formation used by United.
United’s CL match against Marseille earlier this season is a good example of how they could change how they play as a team by utilizing a 4-2-3-1 to create numerical equivalence in midfield:
While the advantages of the 4-2-3-1 are clear there were significant reasons for why United did not utilize it as their base system this year.
First, unlike last season Berbatov was in much better form and Ferguson clearly wanted to get both he and Rooney on the pitch at the same time and in the area of the pitch where they are most accustomed to playing (this theme will form a central tension for Ferguson headed into the CL finals – more on this later). To play both Berbatov (or Hernandez) and Rooney in the 4-2-3-1 required Rooney to play wide left.
Second, Rooney was injured, off form and going through off field controversy for much of the first part of the season. As such he was not necessarily able to support United the way he did last season when he was so effective as a lone striker.
Third, United’s depth and age in midfield are significant. The central attacking midfielder is a pivotal player in the 4-2-3-1 and United’s options in that critical position are limited.
Fourth, Manchester United’s greatest team strength this season is it’s play on the flanks. United have outstanding wingers. The 4-4-2 more naturally places those flank players in wide positions.
Finally, while Ferguson implements the 4-2-3-1, the 4-4-2 still seems to be the system he is most comfortable utilizing when feasible.
The Evolution of Manchester United: Rooney Redefines his Role and the Rise of Chicharito in the Dynamic 4-4-1-1
As the season progressed, Ferguson continued to experiment with his formations. In the process he developed an extremely interesting tactical innovation – merging key advantages of United’s 4-4-2 with those of their 4-2-3-1 in order to better take advantage of the strengths of his current squad. To do so required two major changes: 1) Redefining Wayne Rooney’s position by having him utilize his natural abilities to play more like a false 9 from the second striker postion; 2) Utilizing Javier Hernandez in place of Berbatov to gain more pace and off the ball movement at the most advanced attacking position.
After the first leg against Marseille in the Champions League, Ferguson revamped his approach and developed the 4-4-1-1 pictured above. What’s critical is Rooney’s positioning. He is playing in a hybrid role. His average position is nearly equivalent to a traditional 10 but the average position can be a bit misleading as Rooney spends considerable time both high up the pitch and dropping very deep. How he’s playing is probably more precisely described as a false 9 from the second striker position.
A great deal of attention has been paid to Javier Hernandez’s goal scoring this season. And he’s been wonderful given his youth and experience. However, the key change in United’s play hasn’t been due to Hernandez and his goal scoring prowess. For a significant portion of the season Berbatov was at the very top of the scoring table in the EPL. He was arguably United’s best player for the first part of the season. Even as Berbatov lost playing time during the second half of the season, he still tied for the EPL lead in goals by the end of the campaign. So the exchange of Berbatov for Hernandez was not a direct switch based on individual goal scoring quality. It was a change made for systems reasons.
In many ways switching Hernandez for Berbatov was a secondary consequence of a deeper tactical change – the redefinition of Wayne Rooney’s role in order to compensate for the area where United is weakest – midfield.
Last season Ferguson had Rooney play as a lone striker. This season he asked Rooney to completely transform how he plays once again. It speaks volumes about Rooney’s game that he was both willing and able to make this transition. While much has been made of Rooney’s slow start and lack of goal scoring this season compared to last, in many ways by the end of the season Rooney was playing as brilliantly this season as he was last season. But he was doing so in almost an entirely different way, one centered on passing from deeper positions to enhance the effectiveness of the lead striker and the two wingers.
Over this season Rooney’s role evolved into a role that echoed Lionel Messi’s. Rooney played more and more as a false 9 – but unlike Messi, Rooney did so from the second striker position of a two man formation. In some ways one could argue that Rooney was playing almost as a 10 or as a “false 10” of sorts.
The advantage of having Rooney play this innovative, hybrid role was that it allowed United to maintain a two striker formation while also minimizing the impact of playing against 4-3-3 formations and being outnumbered in midfield. Rooney’s work rate, movement and willingness to defend allowed him to move into deeper positions in midfield to act almost as an auxiliary midfielder, particularly in defense.
The reason why this change made United an improved squad relates to the United’s relative weakness in midfield. United are a very strong at striker, winger, center back and full back positions. Their midfield however has real limitations with each player requiring significant trade offs to be made when played. This season, United have had neither an ideal attacking mid nor an in form, multi-dimensional holding player to turn to on a regular basis. Giggs and Scholes are both still highly effective but neither is in his prime nor has great pace or stamina. Carrick is a specialist player who is very good at his job but is not particularly strong defensively. Fletcher has been injured for much of the season and lacking form. Anderson is another specialist player who is relatively good in defense but not particularly strong on the ball.
Playing a three man midfield through a 4-2-3-1 as such forces Ferguson to use three of these limited players and forces him to take off the pitch a much more talented winger or striker. The 4-2-3-1 may allow United to gain numerical equivalence but it comes at a cost of taking talent off the pitch and utilizing more players from the weakest sector of the squad.
Rather than play three midfielders, Ferguson adapted a system where he could utilize Rooney as both a support striker and a support midfielder. Rooney was able to handle this broad set of responsibilities due to the varied nature of his skill set and talent. And against the vast majority of clubs this dual role not only functioned well but provided them with maximum advantage.
However, to play Rooney in this kind of false 9 second striker role Ferguson needed a more mobile, pacy lead striker than Berbatov. If Rooney was going to drop deep and have significant freedom to utilize space and the ball across the pitch, the lead striker would need to himself excel at movement and have strong pace. For example, without those qualities the sharp diagonal passes Rooney could execute from deeper positions would have a lower probability of paying off. Without more dynamic pressure from the lead striker, very large gaps in space would open up on the pitch when Rooney moved deeper on the pitch. Despite his goal scoring prowess, Berbatov was simply not this player.
And after drawing 0-0 with Marseille in the first match of the CL Round of 16 in which they utilized an ineffective 4-2-3-1 formation with Berbatov in the middle and Rooney on the left, Ferguson reconfigured Rooney’s role and inserted Hernandez into the line up, radically transforming the United system in the process.
The other associated tactical change Ferguson made to the system as they shifted to the 4-4-1-1 was to often have the left winger pinch in to further support the middle of the pitch (more on this later in the potential match up of Park vs. Alves).
How Barça Should Attack Manchester United
Shifting to that dynamic 4-4-1-1, United elevated their game and starting playing some of their best football of the season. This formation quickly became Ferguson’s first choice system of play. Even against teams that played 4-3-3/ 4-2-3-1 formations like Marseille and Chelsea, United were able to compete in midfield because Rooney dropping back turned a potential 2 vs. 3 disadvantage in midfield into a 3 vs. 3.
But this in turn raises a major tactical question Ferguson needs to answer going into the CL final. His first choice system this season functionally requires Rooney to almost play two positions at once. While this may work against the vast majority of teams will it work against Barça given the blaugrana’s rapid ball circulation and off the ball movement? Or will playing Rooney in this hybrid role leave him between spaces while making United even more vulnerable to being outplayed in the middle because they will be at a 2 vs. 3 disadvantage in terms of formal midfielders?
To gain some insight into this question let’s take a look at the recent Arsenal’s recent 1-0 victory over vs. Manchester United as a model.
Arsenal vs. Manchester United at the Emirates: Insight into How Barcelona Can Attack
The screen shot below illustrates the problem that United’s 4-4-1-1 can have against a 4-3-3 executed by a team that understands passing and ball possession.
United is not only outnumbered in midfield but they are also in poor defensive shape to challenge what Arsenal is doing in attack. Notice how Arsenal has not only formed one triangle in attack – but two. United is attempting to defend those two triangles with a straight line of defenders. In order for United to regain shape Rooney must not only exert tremendous work but position himself with great anticipation and precision. If he doesn’t do all of those things United can be left exposed in midfield. The next screen shot illustrates how Arsenal made Rooney’s job as a defensive false 9 very difficult through intelligent movement:
The screen shot above provides key insight into how the Champions League final may unfold if United utilize their 4-4-1-1. Notice how deep Rooney is on the pitch. He’s a striker who is defending deeper than either of his midfielders. Rooney’s responsibility in this match was to mark Arsenal’s holding player Alex Song.
Second strikers are often tasked with marking the opposition’s holding player. What’s interesting about the dynamics above however is that Rooney’s responsibility as a striker isn’t simply to mark Song higher up the pitch. His responsibility is to mark Song and track him across the pitch regardless of where he goes. Rooney has to do this because Carrick and Anderson are already responsible for marking Ramsey and Wilshere.
If Rooney doesn’t track Song Arsenal will have a free attacker in midfield. As such, functionally Rooney is acting as a midfielder now. Rooney will likely play a similar role against Busquets in the CL finals.
But Song is making Rooney’s job as an unconventional false 9 defender very difficult through his intelligent forward run towards the flank. Song’s goal here is to drag Rooney out of position. In essence what has happened is that Song and Aaron Ramsey have interchanged positions. And in doing so they have created confusion for United. Rooney has done his job – he has tracked Arsenal’s holding player. But then Ramsey drops deep as does Wilshere. Carrick and Anderson cannot afford to chase the two Arsenal midfielders because they are trying to maintain defensive position. If Anderson closes down Ramsey on the ball an enormous gap in space will open up.
Cesc Fabregas is often projected as Xavi’s heir apparent. But Fabregas and Xavi don’t play the same tactically. Fabregas plays in a much more advanced position. Ramsey however in many ways makes a much better proxy for how Xavi tends to play because Ramsey also plays in a deeper position. By staying deeper as the holding player drags Rooney forward, not only is Ramsey able to find time and space on the ball he forces United to open up space between their lines. Notice the space that has opened up between the two midfielders and the backline despite Anderson and Carrick trying to not lose compactness. We see the results in the next screen shot:
Robin Van Persie in his role as a false 9 has dropped deep into the space between United lines that have cracked open. Ramsey has no problem sending the ball to feet because Anderson was unwilling to move forward. In addition, Nasri has also moved into this open space by moving centrally off his original wide position. Nasri is open and unmarked in this space.
The problem here is that even with Rooney dropping deep to create a 3 vs. 3 in midfield United do not have a true defensive holding player positioned between the lines in front of the back four. Rooney job isn’t to maintain shape or play space – it is to track Song. And Song has dragged Rooney into a position where he is irrelevant to the team defense. Song is essentially acting as a decoy. United’s second problem is their susceptibility to the false 9 dropping between the lines. They don’t have a player in that space to mark that player.
If Rooney plays the same way, Busquets will be able to drag him out of position with simple runs where he changes positions with Xavi as well. And Messi in turn should be able to find space between the lines as Van Persie has. Both Villa and Pedro should be able to exploit that same space between the lines that Nasri has and allow them to link up play with Messi. Finally, in this situation Carrick is left 1 vs. 1 with Wilshere. Carrick is a good possession midfielder but he is not a strong defender. And against Barça he will be left trying to mark Iniesta and do so without another midfielder behind him. This is an enormous advantage for Barça.
This is a central tactical problem for United. Rooney dropping deep may solve the issues of numerical advantage in midfield of a 4-4-1-1 vs. a 4-3-3. However, solving the numerical problem does not solve the problem of position and open space. And Rooney’s innovative role and work rate cannot provide a response to Messi’s false 9 role. This is potentially disastrous for United because there is no team in the world that can exploit space between the lines like Barça can. Vidic and Ferdinand while both strong defenders in the box and facing up attackers aren’t particularly mobile or pacy. Neither turns very well. They could be forced to step up to stop runs started between the United lines which not only exposes them to be being beat on through balls and acceleration but also exposes them to picking up cards.
The other area where United’s defense will have a tactical challenge is along the wing due to Dani Alves. The screen shot below illustrates a few important issues Barça can exploit:
Ramsey has once again dropped deep to receive the ball and build play. Xavi is the best in the world at this. Rooney is once again doing his job – he is marking Arsenal’s deep midfielder. But United is faced with another problem here. Song has also maintained a deep position in the center circle – this is an area where Busquets regularly positions himself. Neither Anderson nor Carrick want to come forward to defend him because if they do United will lose compactness and open up space between their lines. As such Rooney is essentially responsible in his false 9 second striker role not only to defend vigorously, but to defend two men at once.
Here we can see that a support striker with a high work rate who is willing to track runs and defend deep may make up for numbers in defense but that does not mean that he can necessarily create a sound defensive shape. Ultimately marking players does not mean you are controlling space.
The second thing to notice is Park and his positioning. Moving to the 4-4-1-1, Ferguson had Park not only play as a defensive winger to mark the opposition right back, but to pinch inwards to assist in defending in the middle. Here Park is trying to support Rooney in containing Ramsey who has significant space on the ball. But there is only so much support Park can provide because he too is tasked with playing in two regions of the pitch. If he pinches in too much – the RB will have acres of space to run into. Against Dani Alves there is no way Park can pinch in to any significant degree. Given this, Park will not be able to assist in defending the middle as he usually does. Just by staying in a wide position, Alves will be hindering Park’s ability to contribute to United total team defense.
Finally, notice where Chicharito is positioned. He stays high up the pitch to try to position himself in a dangerous area to attack on a quick transition counter. But this positioning comes at a real cost because Hernandez is not in a position where he can contribute defensively. This is the very real cost of playing a two striker formation against a team that is strong in ball possession. Even if the second striker drops deep to defend, the striker at the top will often be positioned in areas where he becomes a redundant defender.
Barça in Defense: Guarding Against the Flanks
The area where Barça will encounter the most danger from United is along the flanks. United has very strong wingers – Valencia is in outstanding form since returning from injury. His pace, play on the ball and crossing make him very dangerous. Given that he lines up against the area where Barça is theoretically weakest given lack of players being match fit – left back – Valencia is likely to be United’s most dangerous player. The danger along the right flank is further heightened by Fabio’s ability to attack from RB and Rooney’s ability to send strong diagonal balls through the channel between the CB and FB.
In a similar fashion, Barça will also need to be cognizant of Chicharito given his pace, intelligent runs and understanding of space. Chicarito staying high up the pitch represents a critical trade off for United. His positioning makes it difficult for him to defend in the areas where Rooney and United need support. But it may also represent United’s best chance to score a goal.
United have become a better, more dangerous team as the season has progressed. They are strong across the pitch but have vulnerabilities in midfield. And it’s very difficult to beat Barcelona if you are exposed in that region of the pitch as space between the lines is something that you cannot leave open for Messi and Iniesta to exploit. Villa and Pedro should stay in wide positions and make delayed runs to move diagonally for when the United back line loses shape as they are forced to close down the ball when it is in between the lines.
Ferguson has a real dilemma entering this match. The tactical system that has produced his team’s finest level of play this season may be particularly vulnerable to breaking down against Barça’s own style. Does he keep that system or switch to another system which he used prior but then discarded as the season progressed? What does a manager who needs to tinker do?