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In Depth Look At United’s Formations

For as long as we have been watching United our team has always played with width. So we can all be forgiven for not seeing this one coming. Yes United have played a 4-3-3 formation on the odd occasion, and with some success, (notably at The Emirates in recent years), but United are known for their wingers. Sir Alex’s side over the last twenty six years has been characterised by a strong spine, (often with two combative rather than creative midfield players), wingers and fullbacks threatening in wide positions and a front man droping off to add creativity and link play, (think Cantona, Sheringham or more recently Rooney). This is a bit of an oversimplification but contains a lot of truth.

So we were taken by surprise by Sir Alex on this one. It wasn’t something we had anticipated, in fact for quite a while now many United fans have been calling for the signing of combative midfield players to strengthen that area. It has been a common criticism of the team in recent seasons that we have lacked a ball winner and that too often we have allowed the opposition to retain possession too easily in the centre of the park at times seemingly unchallenged. The net result has often been an inability to dominate the opposition and an open initiation for the opposition to attack in central areas. Last season outcomes, both in the Champions League and in key domestic games, (Everton at home for example), could be directly attributed to this weakness. As a consequence we fully expected Sir Alex to sign at least one combative central midfield player. He didn’t, instead choosing an alternative tactical reorganisation to address these concerns.

4-4-2 with a diamond or 4-3-3?

The differences here are subtle. With a 4-3-3 the three forwards tend to stay high with at least one of the wide attackers staying wide, usually on the side down which you are probing with the opposite wide player tending to tuck in more, (see Figure 1). The midfield players generally form up in a triangle, either with one player deeper and two ahead or two players deeper and one ahead. This was exactly how United played on the first occasion United used the new tactic this season against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup.

To transform this 4-3-3 into a 4-4-2 with a diamond the central forward drops deeper and the two wide forwards tuck in more. The midfield three from the 4-3-3 then become a narrow 4 with a player in front of the defence and one just behind the attack, (see Figure 2). The fact that the difference is subtle obviously appeals to Sir Alex who tends to tinker with his formation a number of times throughout a game. Even with United’s more traditional wider approach we would estimate that he makes subtle adjustments which change the shape or emphasis of United’s threat to the opposition on average about three times in any one game. He loves flexibility.

Sir Alex has perhaps turned to this approach for a variety of reasons; to counteract that ball winning weakness and provide greater protection for the central defence, but also to exploit the strengths of the players he has available to him. When United signed Robin Van Persie many United fans asked how we would fit him and all these creative forward players in. Would this be the end of Hernandez, where would Kagawa play? have for some time questioned whether United had the players to make a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1 work against strong opposition, particularly without a strengthening of the midfield, (and central defence). Our concerns were demonstrated in several games last year, take your pick. Everton at home, Manchester City away late in the season. Sir Alex’s answer is to change his approach……..when it suits him.

Is this the new orthodoxy?

A Lot of United fans have asked this question; some with concern, (Maggie of Rochdale on MUTV taking Sir Alex to task for example), but the answer is no. Sir Alex himself has addressed this question directly in recent press conferences. He sees this as an option to be used when it suits in specific fixtures against specific opposition.

The characteristics of the 4-3-3/4-4-2 diamond

Perhaps the easiest way of looking at this approach is to look at a couple of recent examples.

One of the most successful recent exponents of this approach is Marcello Lippi. He has used it at a number of clubs, but United fans will remember his Juventus side well. Lippi’s basic shape was a 4-3-3, but with subtle tweaks this often resembled the 4-4-2 with a diamond, (see Figure 3). At Juventus Lippi fielded three specialist midfield players, with one of these, usually Deschamps playing fairly deep. Even when Juventus came forward he would be positioned close to his two central defenders, who as Juventus attacked would split. This maintained a three man back line whilst allowing the fullbacks to push on and give some width. The full backs generally did not advance beyond the midfield but they did join in with the midfield as the side moved up the pitch.

Of the front three the central Juventus attacking player would play high when they attacked, but would drop deep to an advanced midfield position when Juventus lost the ball and did not win it back quickly. That central player was generally Zidane, the classic number 10. The other forwards, (Del Piero and Inzaghi), would play narrow when Zidane dropped deep, but would run wider when he advanced.

This approach worked well for Juventus because they were generally very disciplined and had a number of key players, (Del Piero, Zidane, Deschamps, Ferrara, Pessotto and Montero), who were if not the best in the world, certainly amongst the best in the world in their positions. The two centre backs were as important as the more illustrious names. This formation naturally lacks width. Juventus overcame this successfully because of the intelligence of the forward players, but also because having lightening quick central defenders allowed their full backs to advance into the wide midfield areas.

The second example worth examination is Jose Mourinho Chelsea side circa 2004-05 season, that is the first year in which Chelsea won the Premiership, (see Figure 4). In that season the team shape was close to a classic 4-3-3. Chelsea generally played a three man midfield with Makalele as the holding midfield player and Lampard and Cole further forward. The key point to note here is that Mourinho fielded two wide players, Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, and a single central striker, Drogba. Robben had a great year that season and was almost unplayable at times, but the key to this approach was Drogba who was a battering ram of a centre forward and Makelele as the screen allowing Cole and Lampard to supplement Drogba’s central threat. Mourinho was able to play a 4-3-3 with width because of the quality of Drogba and Makelele. In later seasons Mourinho abandoned the use of natural wide forwards and chose to utilise more adventurous fullbacks whilst increasing the numbers in midfield. This was a more cautious approach, and it means that we forget the more adventurous approach in his first year at Chelsea.

United’s use of these systems to date

There are a number of points about this system which flow from the examples above. Firstly to play this way you need a number of key players suited to a number of key roles. You can play this system in a variety of ways, but to make the most of it you have to select the way which suits the key players you have available. Juventus would not have played the Chelsea way because Zidane’s strengths were different to Drogba’s.

Secondly positional discipline is vital. Everyone must know their role and the movement expected of them in and out of possession. Players must follow the game plan.

Thirdly, and this is critical to United’s use of the system, it is no substitute for a strong spine. Both the teams considered above had strong central defenders and a world class holding midfield player/ball winning screen. It ironic then that Sir Alex has perhaps chosen to turn to this approach because of a lack of that type of midfield player.

United have used this system a number of times this season. Here we consider its use in a number of those games.

United v Newcastle United
Capital One Cup, 26.09.2012
(Figure 5)
The shape here was more 4-3-3 than a 4-4-2 diamond, in fact this was the most 4-3-3 United have played. As such we could conclude that this wasn’t deliberate but was rather a case of the players getting used to a new shape and not quite getting it right. What is almost certainly clear is that this was a dress rehearsal for the following week’s game in the Champions League.

United played with Fletcher, (making his first appearance of the season), behind Anderson and Cleverley in midfield and in attack Welbeck to the right, Rooney centrally and Hernandez to the left. Fletcher, sat as a holding midfield player provided a solidity which allowed a greater degree of movement from Cleverley and Anderson. There were periods of good inter-passing in the middle of the park between these players and those ahead and behind them. The midfield had a well balanced look to it and United retained possession well, although they did not create that many clear cut chances. Fletcher gave an excellent performance throughout the game and noticeably provided a hard tackling, harrying, ball winning aspect to United’s play, an aspect not seen for some time.

The downside, which was immediately evident, was narrowness. United were relying upon their inexperienced full backs to provide any width. Buttner, (making his second appearance), got forward more than Vermijl, (making his debut), but neither player provided a significant wide contribution. Rooney occasionally dropped deep or went wide allowing Anderson or Cleverley to run into the space vacated and it was from these situations that the two goals came. Rooney stayed fairly high for the most part. One final point worth mentioning is that United’s centre backs, Wootton and Keane were also very inexperienced. In view of this the experiment worked fairly well.

Cluji v United
Champions League 02.10.2012
(Figure 6)

Just under a week later and United continued the experiment with the same four players in the centre of the park. This time Rooney came deeper and the shape was more definitively a diamond. The difference here, looking beyond the adjustment of Rooney’s position was a more experienced full backs in Evra and Rafael who were more able to provide width when needed and the presence of Van Persie to partner Welbeck in a two at the front.

In the opening stages United’s shape was actually more of a 4-1-2-2-1 with both Van Persie and Rooney dropping deep behind Hernandez. It’s difficult to say whether this was by design; it could have been a ploy to help withstand an early home onslaught, but as the half wore on Van Persie moved further forward to create a diamond with a front two. Again this experiment worked with United retaining possession for long periods. United didn’t create many chances in the game and in fact fell behind before eventually scoring twice to take the game. In many respects this was a development from United’s play in the Newcastle game, with the presence of more experienced, confident and accomplished performers around the diamond making a difference.

Newcastle United v United
Premier League, 07.10.2012
(Figure 7)

This game saw a change of personnel in the diamond. Now Carrick sat behind Kagawa and Cleverley with Rooney at the tip. Welbeck partnered Van Persie at the front. Newcastle of course had prior warning about United’s new formation, but this didn’t stop United racing into an early two goal lead.

As you would expect from this position, Newcastle in front of their own fans, had to respond and their response was to change their shape. They went from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 and worked at overloading the United full-backs. This worked for them with United’s narrowness leaving those fullbacks exposed. United had had something like 70% of possession in the opening 15 minutes, but the change saw Newcastle have close to 70% possession in the next 40 minutes. The consequence for United was Kagawa and Cleverley were forced back to help out the full-backs leaving Welbeck and Van Persie increasingly isolated. United’s shape now resembled a 4-3-1-2. Seeing this, and with Newcastle still not having made a breakthrough, Sir Alex decided to act before Newcastle scored to get themselves back in the game. He brought on Valencia to replace Kagawa who had dropped deeper and deeper as the game had worn on. This pushed the Newcastle full-back back on the right and gave United an out ball. Newcastle could not know overload on Rafael and the whole United team were able to take a step forward. United’s shape changed to a 4-1-3-2, closer to the diamond, but with Rooney so deep that he was often level with Valencia and Cleverley. Playing a higher line United were now able to get men forward to support attacks and so secured a third goal. Game over! The lesson here was clear; you need the right players in the right positions to make the diamond work. Kagawa has attacking qualities and is perhaps better suited to the tip of the diamond, but does he have the defensive nous to play further back?

United v Braga
Champions League, 23.10.2012
(Figure8, 9 and 10)

This was the first of the back to back fixtures against Braga. Did United intend to play a 4-4-2 diamond in this game? We will probably never know, but if they did it proved to be the most problematic use of that shape to date. The team selection suggested that it was the intention to use the diamond, but two early goals seemed to throw the formation out of shape. For this game Fletcher returned to the base of what we believe the diamond should have been. Figure 8 shows that shape. Braga’s bright start and their ability to keep the ball saw United pulled into the shape seen in figure 9. In this game Fletcher was the one being overloaded and as a consequence Kagawa moved further back. United’s shape in the second half of the first period was as shown in Figure 10. Kagawa did okay in this position, but was withdrawn at half time with an injury. He was replaced by Nani and with a reshuffle United morphed into a familiar 4-2-3-1.

United had already started to make a comeback by half time with Van Persie scoring after 25 minutes, but in the second half they were able to stay on top and scored two goals to win. It is the first half which concerns us here however. United’s were easily pulled out of shape in that half by Braga’s movement and ball retention. Cleverley and Kagawa seemed to lose their bearings; Cleverley in particular seemed too high, almost as a winger. With Kagawa at times level with Rooney, Fletcher was left exposed. Cleverley pushing forward gave United’s shape a lopsided look with a box of players on the left. The triangles which make a diamond an effective ball retaining formation had been lost. What this game showed more than any other is that positional discipline is vital, when the players go off message disaster looms.

Galatasaray v United
Champions League, 20.11.2012
(Figure 11)

With United having already qualified from the group this game was effectively a dead rubber. A number of players who perhaps would have played if the game were more critical were left in England, whether as a consequence of minor injuries or simply Sir Alex’s choice. The midfield diamond experiment however was continued and in terms of the four midfield players this was perhaps the most promising selection to date. Fletcher played at the back with Cleverley and Anderson ahead of him. Nick Powell, making his Champions League debut played at the tip of the four. Powell was excellent, he showed maturity, composure and positional awareness. United ultimately lost the game to a set piece goal, but the midfield four again kept the ball well, and some of United’s approach play was very promising. Anderson and Cleverley ran well in the central midfield areas, always providing the triangular options for the man in possession.

There were downsides however. United’s narrowness again saw an opponent overload on the fullbacks. Galatasaray chose to pull the ball back towards the edge of the United box from wide positions rather than throwing in hopeful crosses. Fletcher found it difficult to cover this space due to the number of runners from midfield bearing down upon him. United were lucky not to concede more and Galatasaray had a number of good shooting chances in the area he was trying to patrol. The problem here was that neither Anderson nor Cleverley got back in position to help Fletcher out when Galatasaray came forward, (as Kagawa had done in the Braga game). The overall midfield performance was promising and the balance of the midfield felt right when United had the ball. Carrick was playing as a makeshift centre back behind the midfield four, and the players in front of the midfield, Hernandez and Welbeck had poor games. As a consequence despite good play in the centre of the park moves broke down when United entered the final third and as highlighted in earlier game despite good periods of possession they did not create many chances.

This game, left one wondering how well this midfield four would function with strong quick centre backs to the rear, fullbacks achieving a balance of defensive stability and adventurousness and Rooney and Van Persie to the front providing alert intelligent movement to feed off the approach play.

What was clear here is that the 4-4-2 with a diamond is an option which although it allows United to achieve a good share of possession in a game, it is not one which generates chances galore. Perhaps this is not a significant concern for Sir Alex. Clearly he is concerned with developing a system that can be used successfully in Europe to ensure that the opposition does not dominate the play. He is then trusting that the sharpness of his forwards, will ensure that when chances come they are taken. To date Van Persie, Hernandez and Rooney have not disappointed in this respect.

For United however this system must still be considered a work in progress; this is an experiment we would expect to see more of in the months ahead.

Read for more of the same and follow @manutdtactics on Twitter.



  1. hulme 69 says:

    Great article. Hadn’t seen site before, but will definitely check it out more now.

  2. NBI Red Onion says:

    Brilliant analysis. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

    However, it would have been great to have a final paragraph concluding what the writer thought was our best team and formation and where he felt we needed to strengthen.

  3. Shane says:

    Yeah I agree with the above comment. All that is missing is a final conclusion on what we should do going forward.

  4. parjo says:

    Love the article, so deep and detail. Just a little bit correction: Jose Mourinho Chelsea side circa 2004-05 season didn’t have Del Piero as its right winger, it could be Robben.

  5. dazbomber says:

    Pass well and score goals ,its easy.

  6. Red Robin says:

    Why Fergie never put Kagawa on the tip of diamond with Rooney – Van Persie as striking partner?

  7. wayne says:

    For me the glaring point to all this is both Juve and Rent Boys had quality throughout their teams.Imo personnel is much more important than formations most top players will adapt,give me a team with superior skills every day of the week.When a game starts players have to adapt to whatever is put in front of them and obviously quality players will adapt better

  8. leaxan says:

    De Gea
    Rafael Rio Vidic Evra
    Cleverely Anderson
    Rooney Van Persie

    Probably Valencia/Nani, Hernandez and Welbeck as subs.
    Young doesn’t cut it as a United Player and he’s already 26+ years old.
    I’d like to see this lineup.. with our injury problems… i don’t see that happening

  9. leaxan says:

    @red robin… my point exactly i would love to see that happen..

  10. WeAreUnited says:

    leaxan says:

    De Gea
    Rafael Rio Vidic Evra
    Cleverely Anderson
    Rooney Van Persie

    Probably Valencia/Nani, Hernandez and Welbeck as subs.

    For me this is a perfect team for this year. Would be sad seeing Chicha on the bench, but if RVP and Rooney doesn’t produce, he would come in, or even start the games. I like this, even though our best wingers the duo are on the bench also.

    Can’t have everything right?

  11. leaxan says:

    @we are United : We never have everything right especially injury concerns but manage to grind it out most of the time, and that’s all down to SAF.
    I would love to see this formation/team play

  12. Mark says:

    Excellent article. Well done.

  13. Proverb says:

    DECEMBER 7, 2012 AT 13:22
    Red Robin says:
    “Why Fergie never put Kagawa on the tip of
    diamond with Rooney – Van Persie as striking

    I think it would be devastating, but providing they don’t mess up with the tactics, its also important they wander abit more so they give the fullbacks something to think about when trying to mark them, chicharito does that to perfection and although he has improved but still his all round game is not one to rely on…
    Rooney has this desire in to try and drop deep even when instructed to do so, tactical discipline is require to make this system successful
    Also our injury debacle has to stop, if it means transforming our medical system then Amen!

  14. Proverb says:

    Even when NOT instructed to do so…*

  15. Proverb says:

    Cheers to scott, this is write is worth any recognition. That’s what separate this blog from the others

  16. Proverb says:

    Cheers to scott, this write up is deserving of any recognition. That’s what separate ROM from the others..

  17. Denton Davey says:

    It would seem that the key element in these formations is the interaction between the “holding midfielder” and his two mates. When things went tits-up it seemed to be because of a malfunction in the positional discipline of the two mates.

    What’s noticeable to me from this analysis is that Anderson seems to be almost constant whereas Cleverley and Kagawa were tried in a variety of situations and, basically, found wanting. Why ? A couple of questions arise here: is YoungTom good enough ? and is this the best way to make use of KagawaBunga’s attacking strength ?? My sense is that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “no !”

    Indeed, how different would these experiments look with a fit, healthy and at-his-peak DarrenFletcherinho playing on the right side of the midfield trio ?

    It must be incredibly frustrating for SAF that he seems jinxed – he can’t get his ready-for-prime-time midfield-three of MIchael Carrick, DarrenFletcherinho, and Anderson healthy, match-fit and game-ready at the same time. So, he has had to tinker, trying alternatives like over-using his two veterans or playing a kid who just doesn’t seem quite good enough or a new guy who isn’t defensively-savvy.

    What’s perhaps the most amazing aspect of this analysis is that UTD have been able to lead the EPL and gain entry into the knockout-phase of the CL while experimenting with players/formations. It sure makes me wonder how good this team could be with a settled first-eleven playing together in a formation that suits those guys.

  18. FletchTHEMAN says:

    Great article. Hope we see more of this.

    Sadly, I find that I am still a bit confused about the Alex Diamond? :(

    Happily, my level has been dramatically elevated by this piece. Thus
    my confusion starts at a much much higher level than where it was at before :cool:

  19. Diego says:

    What’s with all the fancy combinations… Just get the ball to the wings and cross it ffs.

  20. FletchTHEMAN says:

    SAF: “The number of penalty kicks they get – 21 in the last year or something like that. If we got that number there’d be an inquiry in the House of Commons. There’d be a protest.” :lol:

    Here are the stats:
    Both United and City have exactly 21 pens over the last 2.5 seasons.
    But United average only around 50% of these at home, whereas City get 90% at home.
    So Sir Alex is saying the home advantage for City appears greater.

    Mind games!

  21. King Eric says:

    dazbomber – Ha spot on pal, all these “formations” and “tactics” do my swede in. Football is easy if played the right way.

  22. King Eric says:

    Diego – Ditto!

  23. United Till I Die says:

    haha @ Diego – on me ed son!


  24. denton davey says:

    Diego @ 16:27: “What’s with all the fancy combinations… Just get the ball to the wings and cross it ffs.”

    Let’s all go backwards, eh ?

    UTD’s wing-play hasn’t been up-to-snuff, while the four centre forwards call all head the ball not one is a serious aerial threat against central defenders who are often four inches taller and very athletic. Furthermore, playing with two wingers has meant that UTD have been consistently over-run in midfield.

    I suppose that these issues wouldn’t be problematic IF TheLads could play with 11-outfielders – three in midfield and two on the wings – but no one seems to be willing to grant that advantage apart from the usual ABUs and even they will only allow the eleventh outfielder to be the referee.

  25. Neil says:

    Hats off to the author of this piece. Made my head spin at times but it was excellent.

  26. Twons says:

    I`m sure SAF would enjoy reading this article…
    Great analysis and a great read…
    ROM forevaaaaaaaa kudos to you as well

  27. murt73 says:

    So as city are shite in europe and us succesful, why cant we just play european style and hammer them to bits..question is are we capable of playing in the manner of their opponents did in CL, We are but not often enough. It seems ages ago since we humiliated roma at OT with that 100 mile an hour pass and move. On another note watching Celtic the other night and in recent european CL matches the atmosphere was electric and surely was a big factor in keeping the team going. Hope they don’t give them too much respect either and need to go out on that pitch having their balls sacks slung up over their shoulders

  28. says:

    Thanks for reading our piece and for your comments. We attempt to address some of the points made here.

    In respect of a final paragraph and the best United team/formation currently, our approach tends towards the analytically, if we were good enough to give definitive answers we’d be making our living in the game. But………….

    Since you ask its our view is that its horses for courses. In Europe, (putting aside last Wednesday’s game), we have tended to use the 4-4-2 diamond, and it it for these games that we think Sir Alex has devised this strategy. He had to do something after last years European campaign where we were overrun at times and failed to control possession for long periods. Looking at the first four games of this years group stage you would have to say that the strategy worked.

    Having said that Sir Alex has used it in a number of domestic games probably more than he intended, and probably because as Denton Davey points out our wide players have been poor this year.

    If we are going to use this system on occasions the choice of the midfield four is critical. We too would love to see Kagawa at the tip, and we think this will happen in time. The reason it probably hasn’t happened more to date is because he’s still finding his feet in English football and because of his recent injury problems.We’d also like to see Powell in this role. He is going to be some player. Up front there is no question we would love to see Rooney and Van Persie develop a partnership. We wont say any more than that on this issue here as if Scott invites us back our plan is that our next article will look at which United players would be best suited to which role to make this system work to the maximum.

    Having said all that we would still like to see United play a 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-1-1 on occasions so that brings us to the areas that need strengthening.

    We need to look at the holding midfield player, whatever system we use. Fletcher is an important player for United, but he’s not got back to where he was before his injury yet and to have only one player of his type in the side is a weakness. The wide midfield players/wingers seem to be becoming a problem. We are also going to need a leader in the centre back position soon. That makes it sound like we have got lots of weaknesses, but we don’t intend that. We still expect that United will win or be very close to winning the league this year and not because the standard is necessarily low but because although this United side is a work in progress we are improving.

    We don’t think we will see the diamond on Sunday as it might leave our full backs a little exposed against City’s usual 4-2-3-1, but who he will play is anyone’s guess. It all depends if you believe Sir Alex’s pronouncements on injuries. We would expect some width as he in the League game against Chelsea.

    Parjo: Have you ever seen Robben and Del Piero in the same room at the same time? We rest our case!

  29. Red Robin says:

    Proverb & leaxan

    Kagawa used to play behind the two strikers at Dortmund and Rooney can play in his natural position. People keep on bashing Rooney for playing bad and lack of his goals. But forgot that Rooney is mostly not playing in his natural position nowadays. For me, we better forget the idea to turn him into midfielder, its better for Rooney to keep playing as striker.

  30. 20LEgend says:

    @ Denton Davey :

    Spot on mate. Thats what i’ve been telling all the plastic barcelona wankers for the past three years now. If the injury curse hadnt hit us, we would have been able to play a fully fit and at-the-peak Darren Fletcher and Owen Hargreaves in the midfield. The game would’ve been very different.

    Coming back to the formations, I wholeheartedly agree with Wayne on the fact that personnel is a lot more important than tactics. When United played in the treble season, they played a seemingly rigid 4-4-2 but still had loads of possession. Why? Roy Keane. He was one ridiculously good player who could not only just tackle and inspire(as most recent fans imagine), he was also excellent in keeping possession and instrumental in starting attacks. Equally important were Beckham and Giggs who were not only good ball keepers, they also occupied half the team themselves giving space for the ginger prince to weave his magic.

    My point is, as noted by the author, while the diamond is excellent for keeping possession, the wings make us far more threatening albeit a liitle less dominant on the possession. The diamond will be far more threatening when the Japanese maestro comes back because of his ability to play in closed spaces(which rooney isnt very comfortable at) and his ability to thread a pass. Rooney can partner Rvp with Kagawa as the trequartista. But we still wouldnt be rampaging past teams if we were playing the good old 4-4-2 with our wingers in form and a midfield of carrick and Ando at their best.

  31. StatesideAussie says:

    Many managers/coaches have a favoured tactical system and will then seek out the right players necessary to implement it. This in one reason that explains why there’s usually a flurry of transfers when a manager joins a new club; even if the club was successful before the new manager joined, the new guy will want to put his own systems into place.

    Sir Alex’s approach seems different, especially these days. There is a lot of experimentation, a lot of chopping and changing — not just in the starting team but tactically as well. Most managers try to fit their players into a preconceived tactical approach that is fairly consistent. But Sir Alex’s tactics appear to be a moveable feast. The question is: why?

    Some of it may be driven by injuries, or individual form, or his rotation policy, but that doesn’t seem to tell the full story; it helps to explain the changes in the starting line-up, but not necessarily the seemingly constant experiments with our tactical approach. Believe it or not, but other clubs have injury crises too (Arsenal’s recent record is at least as bad as ours), and they also have form issues and crowded schedules that force team changes. Yet tactically, they are more consistent than us: enforced team changes rarely cause more than a slight tactical revision.

    I am not sure we will ever know the answer (unless Sir Alex himself chooses to tell us, perhaps after he retires). But the following are some of the possibilities:

    * Sir Alex himself views tactical variety as a necessity, given the variety of styles United are likely to play against during any given season (from Stoke to Barcelona). He believes no single tactical approach can be universally effective. Most tacticians recognise that there never has been, and never will be, a “perfect” strategy. This is Sir Alex’s way of dealing with that reality.

    * He values tactical flexibility because it makes us unpredictable to other managers. Let’s not forget that a rival manager once described Sir Alex as a “tactical anarchist”.

    * Sir Alex would prefer to be more consistent but doesn’t feel he has the right players to execute his preferred tactical approach (whatever that may be). So instead, he’s just trying to make the most of the players he does have at his disposal by moulding his tactics to suit them (rather than try to shoehorn the players into his preferred tactical approach). If this is the case, the question is why doesn’t he have the players he needs? Maybe they’re not available. Maybe he can’t afford them. Or maybe they don’t meet his standards in other ways (I have long suspected that SAF values character and attitude at least as much as he values skill and athleticism).

    Whatever the truth, the FACT remains that United do not have a consistent tactical approach, and that is something that must place a tremendous burden on the players and the coaches.

  32. denton davey says:

    StateSideAussie – I completely agree with the somewhat-befuddled scepticism of your message. SAF’s genius seems to make non-sense of the attempts to pigeon-hole his “tactical anarchy” – too many commentators seem locked-in to one system (or another) and don’t give the WilyOldFootieKnight credit for finding an optimal method of dealing with his player AND their opponents.

  33. Rd54 says:

    My team
    De gea

    Smalling. Vida. Evans

    Tony. Jones. Tom. Young

    Wazza. Kagawa

    Van persie

    And my team for tonight

    De gea

    Rafael. Smalling. Evans. Evra

    Carrick. Jones

    Fletch. Van persie. Wazza


  34. alfREDo says:

    Great article from ManUtdTactics,
    hope to see follow ups throughout the season!

  35. says:

    Of course its about the players, at last as much if not more so that the tactics; it’s football’s chicken and egg question. You need the right players to make a tactical formation work, but you also need the right tactical formation to get the most out of the players you have. Any formation can work, and no one system is necessarily superior to another.

    Stateside Aussie I think all three reasons you give are part of the answer. Sir Alex however has always valued flexibility, and even when he has a regular system he has varied it on occasions.

    If you look at Rd54 preferred team, United played something very similar, although not quite as shown, last year for about twenty minutes in number of matches, (notably Fulham away last December), albeit with different personnel. We like Valencia deep, he is much more of a threat if he receives the ball deep or when he is moving. If he receives the ball high and he’s static he just lays the ball off rather than taking on his man. We wrote about this on our own site in the summer analyzing his game when we named him as our player of last season. His not reached those levels this year, but we live in hope. City are concerned about his ability, so I would not be surprised to see him tomorrow at some stage, probably in the position Rd54 shows Fletcher in your team for tonight, (I hope you mean tomorrow).

  36. says:

    And another thing…………..

    Denton Davey is spot on, Keane was a one man midfield. He made the 4-4-2 work. How do you replace a player like that?

  37. denton davey says: @ 10:31: “Denton Davey is spot on, Keane was a one man midfield. He made the 4-4-2 work. How do you replace a player like that?”

    Cheers, M8.

    How to replace Keane-o ? Sign Daniele De Rossi. Simples. Alas, not likely.

  38. StatesideAussie says:

    manutdtactics and denton: I remember that when we bought Hargo, Fergie talked about how Hargo’s energy and positional sense would allow him to cover the ground and the do the work of two men, thereby freeing SAF to do what he really wanted to do … which was to play 442 with two wingers and two up-front, without getting overrun in the middle.

    Well, we all know what happened to that idea…

  39. says:

    denton davey, StatesideAussie:

    “We don’t think we will see the diamond on Sunday as it might leave our full backs a little exposed against City’s usual 4-2-3-1, but who he will play is anyone’s guess. It all depends if you believe Sir Alex’s pronouncements on injuries. We would expect some width as he in the League game against Chelsea”.

    Thought it was noticeable today how similar our game plan, particularly in the first half, was to the first half in the league at Chelsea. Lots of counterattacking width. In fact it was lovely!

    Valencia, (who we were told was injured), was excellent and Young had probably his best half of football in a United shirt in that first half. Game plan was spot on, and everyone in a Red shirt was on message. He went for width when he needed to. Marvelous.


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