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The Tactics Board- A tactical look ahead for Manchester United

Formations in 2012/2013

Sir Alex Ferguson has been the manager of Manchester United for 25 years, and in that time he has become a loyal follower of the 4-4-2 formation that has been dominant in England for decades. This formation has been the foundation upon which he’s built the most successful football clubs in history. He’s managed to win 12 Premier League trophies, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 2 UEFA Champion’s League trophies, 1 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, and 1 FIFA Club World Cup.

In this past season, Sir Alex Ferguson made use of several different formations which he altered depending on the players available to him, the team they faced, and the strategy he intended to use. His main formation for most of the past season was a 4-4-1-1, which is very similar to the 4-4-2 that has been the mainstay of his managerial tenure. But he also used a 4-4-2, and a 4-3-3 against some weaker Premier League teams, while he used a 4-5-1 in most of the Champion League and Europa League games. He also made use of 4-2-3-1 in the occasional League game including the season finale against Sunderland.

While the 4-4-2 formation has been the benchmark of Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at Manchester United, there have been some changes taking place within it as teams playing a 4-4-2 have struggled in continental competitions in the last 5 years. Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted the problems with this formation, frequently switching to a 4-5-1 for European games but he continues to use the 4-4-2 for most domestic games.

Sir Alex Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson has kept the 4-4-2 as the backbone of his tactical setup, but lately a new formation has been sweeping across Europe and is being utilized by more and more clubs every year. It’s the 4-2-3-1, and in this past season it was the main formation for the Premier League Champions (Manchester City), Bundesliga Champions (Borussia Dortmond), La Liga Champions (Real Madrid), and Ligue Un Champions (Montpellier). This formation has gotten more converts every year, and it has several advantages. Every player has a specific task, and has fairly specialized duties that are normally either offensive or defensive. Only the fullbacks have both offensive and defensive responsibilities. For most games, there are 6 players who are primarily tasked with defense and 4 players whose main assignment is to attack.

There have been many United fans who have advocated that the Manager needs to alter his approach and move with the times. These fans see the acquisition of Shinji Kagawa as a definitive sign that Fergie is planning a move to 4-2-3-1 in the future, as Kagawa would have very little effect on the game as a deeper lying center midfielder. While Kagawa wouldn’t function well in a flat midfield four, a 4-2-3-1 is not the only formation in which United could get the best out of their new purchase.

There are several options available for Manchester United for this season, ranging from Sir Alex Ferguson’s standard 4-4-2 and its close relative, the 4-4-1-1. Most United fans will recognize the 4-4-1-1 as this has become the standard Red Devil formation over the past 2 seasons. United could opt for the 4-3-3 that they used to great effect in the 2008 season, while Chelsea still plays a majority of their games in a 4-3-3. Another option would be the 4-5-1 that Fergie has used repeatedly in Europe for many seasons. Of course, they could make the switch and go to the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been utilized by several continental champions over the past 5 years.

The next 5 articles will look at each formation and break it down numerous ways. I’ll explain the positions and function of each player in the formation, with their roles and responsibilities. I’ll also show how the players work together as a defensive unit, and as an attacking threat. Additionally, I’ll look at how each formation would complement the Red Devils strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, I’ll show how each formation would work with the personnel that Manchester United has available. My reports will highlight any positional gaps United might have for each formation.

General Traits for Each Formation-

All of the formations that seem likely to be played by United involve a 4 man defensive line, consisting of 2 center-backs and 2 fullbacks. Now, the fullbacks will have different responsibilities and skill requirements, but the skills and responsibilities for the center-backs are very similar across all the formations United is likely to play. Instead of covering this multiple times, we’ll cover now how the center-backs play across all the formations to be covered in the upcoming articles.

In almost all formations with a 4 man defensive line, the center-backs job is almost entirely defensive. They are responsible for protecting the penalty area, and dealing with the opposing strikers. They are the last line of defense. Offensively, their job is limited. They stay fairly deep, to ensure nobody gets behind them on the counter attack. Their main offensive job is just to help control possession, and play the ball out of the back.

The primary center-back pairing this season seems likely to be Nemanja Vidic, and Rio Ferdinand. Vidic is coming back from a serious knee injury that kept him out most of last season, but Rio Ferdinand put in good performances alongside Jonny Evans. It’s uncertain how Vidic will recover from his knee injury, while Ferdinand struggles with continuing back problems. Together, they have formed one of the best defensive pairing in the past 4 years. Vidic is a hard working tackler, never afraid to move out and attack the player with the ball. He’s physically strong, and equally strong in the air. On the other side, Rio Ferdinand has great tactical intelligence. He positions himself well to close down offensive options. He’s not as physically imposing as Vidic, but he does great playing reading the game. Vidic plays as a ‘stopper’ center-back, and Ferdinand plays as the ‘cover’ center-back. United has ample back-up at center-back, with Jonny Evans playing as a quality ‘cover’ defender. Phil Jones plays as a stopper, and Chris Smalling can play either role.

With the center-back position covered, the rest of the positions will be detailed in the following articles. The first formation will be the standard formation for most of Fergie’s years at Manchester United, the 4-4-2…

By RangeRooney