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Tactics & Analysis

The Tactics Board- Is Fergie’s solution the 4-2-1-3?

In only 3 games this season, it seems more likely that Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominant formation this year will be an off-shoot of the 4-3-3. The last time that Sir Alex Ferguson used a 4-3-3 as his dominant formation was between 2006 and 2009, a period when the Red Devils won 3 straight Premier League titles, a League cup and the Champion’s League. Sir Alex Ferguson has always been associated with the 4-4-2, and achieved considerable success with this formation but that didn’t stop his tactics from evolving.

Some managers achieve success with a formation, and will only use this formation for the rest of their career. A good example of this is Giovanni Trapattoni, currently coaching the Republic of Ireland national team, but Fergie has always evolved with the time, even if it is slightly slow at times. After seeing Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team win the League twice (2004-2005, 2005-2006), United started to toy with the 4-3-3 that Chelsea used, and he made several changes until this formation led to one of United’s most successful runs.

The 4-3-3-

Like all the formations that Sir Alex uses with the Red Devils, this formation has 4 defenders in the backline. Ahead of the backline sits 3 central midfielders and this offers an advantage over the 2 central midfielders that occupy the same position in the 4-4-2.

The 3 central midfielders each play a different role, with the deepest midfielder typically a holding midfielder, whose main responsibility is to shield the backline, break up the opponent’s attack and win the ball back for his side. In Mourinho’s Chelsea side, Claude Makelele played this position and had considerable success at it. Another of the midfielders is usually a box to box midfielder, who is needed to put as much effort into attacking as defending. This midfielder tends to be physical, with a good read of the game which allows him to position himself well to break up an opponent’s attack. He helps the holding midfielder shield the back line, and win the ball back while also getting forward to assist the attack when the opportunity presents itself. Michael Essein filled this role for Chelsea.

Typical 3-man Midfield

The third midfielder is the most attacking of the three. This midfielder assists on defense, but his main task is to assist the three forward attackers. He is skilled at passing, able to move the ball around the field to find the openings for attacks. This midfielder is also responsible for making late runs into the box, linking up with the central striker to create scoring chances. Mourinho used Frank Lampard in this role for his Chelsea squad.

Up front, 3 forwards played up the pitch to attack the opponent’s back line. There are several configurations the attack can take. The most basic is to play with a central striker, supported by wingers on either side. This option allows the team to attack quickly, with the wingers playing higher up the pitch than they would in a 4-4-2. In addition, with 2 wingers the attack provides plenty of width for the defense to deal with. One of the downsides to this tactic is that it leaves the central striker alone against 2 center-backs, and he can get shut out of the game unless support arrives from the midfield.

Other teams will play with a central striker, another striker out on the wing and a traditional winger on the opposite side. This option provides problems for the defense, as the wide striker will cut inside to link up centrally and this causes a 2v2 situation in the middle of the box. Also, the winger stretches the defense on one side, leaving the other side for the fullback if he can get forward. This is also its weakness, because if the fullback can’t get forward, that side can play narrow and clog up the middle.

The third option is to play three strikers up front, but this is a rarely used option as it exposes the team defensively.

2007/2008 Manchester United-

2007/2008 was a great season for the Red Devils, as they were able to win the league for a second time in a row, with Chelsea again finishing as runners-up. Finishing second was not the biggest disappointment for Chelsea that season though, as they then went to Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow for the Champion’s League final against Manchester United. After 120 minutes, the game was tied at 1-1 and went to a penalty shoot-out to determine the winner. With misses by the captain, John Terry, and Nicolas Anelka, Manchester United came out victorious after a season in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s 4-3-3 worked almost perfectly.

A team that was solid defensively, and inventive and creative on the attack caused problems both domestically and continentally for opposing teams. Edwin Van der Sar played in goal, keeping 24 clean sheets that season. Playing at center-back was Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, who made up possibly the best center-back pairing in the world at the time. Patrice Evra played at left-back, while right-back was filled by Wes Brown, with help from John O’Shea. This was one of the strongest back 5 that United has ever had.

In the midfield, Owen Hargreaves functioned as the holding midfielder, but he also had some passing skills that allowed him to make good contributions on the attack. His defensive strength in the midfield made the Red Devils a very difficult team to break down, as they never gave up more than 2 goals in a game. Michael Carrick played as the hard working box-to-box midfielder, and he had a very strong season. He isn’t a big physical midfielder, but he reads the game extremely well and this made him very effective at breaking up the opponent’s play. Playing as the creative midfielder was the Ginger Prince, Paul Scholes. At the age of 32, he didn’t have the same pace that he had earlier in his career, but he still had a great vision to play incisive passes to carve through a defense. This was one of his last season’s up front, but he was very effective and he was responsible for helping the players up front from a central midfield position.

2007/2008 Red Devil Forwards

2007/2008 Red Devil Attack-

United had an extremely dangerous front line. Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Nani, and Louis Saha were all capable of playing positions up front and all of them were dangerous scoring threats (even Louis Saha, when healthy). The most frequent starting lineup had Carlos Tevez starting centrally, while Cristiano Ronaldo would start on the right wing and Wayne Rooney would start on the left wing. There are few attacking lineups that could be more potent. Ronaldo scored 42 goals in 49 appearances, Tevez scored 19 in 48 appearances, and Rooney picked up 18 in 43 appearances. These three players scored 79 out of United’s 103 goals.

What made Manchester United’s attack so potent wasn’t just the fact that it consisted of three world class players, but also how they were utilized. All three players could function in all three positions, so the players would constantly be moving on the attack, switching positions with each other, dragging defenders out of position, creating openings for each other, creating defensive overloads, and confusing the defense. The outside wingers would frequently cut inside, trying to play between the opponent’s defensive and midfield lines. By cutting inside, they could linkup and play passes to each other in order to get behind the opponent’s defense. The ability of all three players to play all three positions meant that you would see the players popping up all over the field, which caused headaches for the defense, and made them extremely difficult to mark.

Manchester United… currently-

With the acquisition of Robin Van Persie in the summer, many United fans wondered how Sir Alex would accommodate all his attacking talent. An attacking force that consists of Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez, Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia is too potent to leave most of them sitting on the bench. It seems like Fergie has gone back to the future, and is going to try and play his 4-3-3 again, but this time with a twist. Instead of playing a standard 4-3-3 like he played in the past, now it is functioning more as a 4-2-1-3. The difference between the two will be explained shortly.

Defense (4)-

The key to an aggressive attacking formation like this function comes from having a solid defense at the back, and that is what United has struggled with so far. Uncertainty in goal between David De Gea and Anders Lindegaard is just the start of some of United’s defensive issues. Many of the names in United’s defense will be familiar to fans from 2007, with the exception that they are all now 5 years older. Nemanja Vidic is coming back from a knee injury that had him sidelined from December 2011 until the season opener this August. Alongside Vidic is Rio Ferdinand, who’s now 33 years old and has struggled with a bad back that leaves him missing games. Most hope that as Ferdinand and Vidic get more game time together, the defense will get stronger. To help Vidic and Ferdinand, there are some new names in defense but these are also struggling with injuries. Another familiar name is at left-back, with Frenchman Patrice Evra. Unfortunately, Evra’s form is not the same as it was 5 years ago, as he has struggled defensively the past few seasons. At right-back, the Brazilian Rafael da Silva has put in some very impressive performances going forward, but he struggles defensively and can get caught out. These types of defensive issues make it extremely hard for an attacking strategy like this to work.

While Manchester United struggles with the defensive solidity at the backline, the attacking instincts of the fullbacks going forward is not an issue. Patrice Evra still makes dangerous attacking runs down the left side, while Rafael has shown a killer instinct when he goes forward. These attacking runs keep the opponent off balance and stretches their defense from touchline to touchline, leaving the wingers able to cut inside and attack the net.

Midfield (2)-

The midfield is where Fergie’s 4-2-1-3 differs from the 4-3-3 that he played 5 years ago. There is still a deep midfielder, functioning as a holding player and a deep-lying playmaker. So far this year, that position seems like it is destined to be filled by Michael Carrick. Some fans complain about Michael Carrick, but last season in a similar deep-lying playmaker/holding role, he averaged almost 73 passes a game with a success rate over 90%. While his ability to play the long diagonal pass to the wing isn’t quite as sharp as Paul Scholes, he still was successful with 6.0 long balls a game. Defensively, he’s not the big physical player who is going to muscle the opposition off the ball, but he reads the game extremely well and knows how to position himself. Ranked in the top 20 in the Premier League in both tackles (3), and interceptions (2.4), he is an effective defensive screen. Where United’s midfield runs into problems is when dealing with large physical threats, as they don’t have anybody to counter.

The second central midfield position is in a box-to-box midfielder role, and it appears that Tom Cleverley is due to fill that position. After an impressive showing at the Olympics with Team GB, Cleverley has returned to United and has looked sharp so far. Sitting deep in the central midfield, he helps to move the ball quickly around the pitch in the hopes of finding openings. His passing so far has been sharp, as he plays quick passes and doesn’t turn the ball over. Completing 92.1% of his passes makes him a safe option with the ball, allowing the team to control possession and probe the opponent. He also has smart movement off the ball, always moving into position to help teammates when they come under pressure. While his offense has been sharp so far this season, his defense has been surprising. In the game against Fulham, he put in a very strong defensive shift, with 4 tackles and an interception. His pace and work rate is very effective alongside Carrick, who tends to sit deeper and his movement can be slightly languid.

2012/2013 Manchester United Lineup

Playmaker (1)-

Now, in a 4-2-1-3, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley operate as the ‘2’ central midfielders. Instead of playing a typical more attacking central midfielder ahead of them, as you would in a 4-3-3, Sir Alex Ferguson has used Shinji Kagawa in a more advanced position as the ‘number 10’ or trequartista. Kagawa plays right behind the front line of attackers, as the creative hub of the attack responsible for linking the midfield up with the 3 forwards. Shinji Kagawa has looked very good for United so far. He has shown a great touch so far, as well as a very skilled range of passing. He’s able to take the ball under control in tight spaces, and play the ball into advanced positions that can take a defense apart. His passing skills are impressive but his best attribute so far has got to be his movement. He moves laterally from touchline to touchline, looking for small gaps to play into and his touch and vision are such that if he finds a small gap, he can receive the ball and play the ball forward. To go with his movement and passing creativity, he showed against Fulham that he is a much more dangerous scoring threat as a trequartista than if he played further back as a central midfielder.

Forward (3)-

Again, Manchester United has an embarrassment of riches to play as a forward in the 4-2-1-3. Rooney, Van Persie, Welbeck, Chicharito, Nani, Young, and Valencia are all viable options to play up front, and this could be one of the best strike forces in the world at the moment. Now, with Rooney’s injury against Fulham, there hasn’t been much of a chance to see how Fergie is going to play the front line. The only real chance we got to see was the final 20 minutes against Everton, so I’m working off of that and conjecture.

It seems that Fergie is opting to play Robin Van Persie centrally, with Wayne Rooney supporting from the left side. On the other wing, he seems to be choosing between Nani and Ashley Young. This front line functions very similar to how it did 5 years earlier, with all of the players capable of playing in any slot. The main difference now would seem to be that the winger, Nani or Ashley Young, will come in and play centrally less frequently than Cristiano Ronaldo did. This is a change, but not a big change. The ability for all three forwards to play all three positions means that the defense will have the same problem they had 5 years earlier. Additionally, Van Persie and Rooney seem to have better passing skills than the forwards from the earlier team.

After scoring a combined 57 goals last season, an attack that combines Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie with the movement of Nani or the passing of Ashley Young will give defense serious problems.

Playing Defense-

I’ve explained how this formation works when United is on the attack. But this formation also offers the Red Devils some advantages defensively. So far this season, United has used the three forwards to press high up the pitch, attempting to force a turnover deep in the opposition’s zone. These three forwards are normally used to pressure the opponent’s 4 defenders, and they struggle to get the ball forward. It can cause a turnover, or force them to play a long ball forward. Once the opponent is able to get the ball out of their back line, the wingers immediately drop deep and link up with the 2 central midfielders, creating 2 banks of 4.

After the initial pressure up the field, the team ends up playing a 4-4-1-1 defensively. The central striker is left up the pitch to continue pressuring the opponent’s backline; while the trequartista marks the opponent’s deepest lying midfielder. Having three central midfielders makes it difficult for the opposition to overload the Red Devils in the middle of the pitch. Additionally, when the wingers drop back, they can help the fullbacks to deal with the opponent’s wingers.


With Wayne Rooney’s injury, we haven’t gotten to see Sir Alex Ferguson play this formation with his first choice players. He has used this formation for parts of every game, often playing Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia up front alongside Robin Van Persie. Unfortunately, a lineup like this doesn’t allow them to shift positions and confuse the defense. Valencia is only effective on the right wing, and Welbeck has struggled out on the wing and frequently just comes inside near Van Persie, which makes them easier to mark.

Hopefully, when Rooney is healthy, we’ll finally get to see this formation on the pitch with the first choice players at each position. The importance of having 3 forwards who can shift positions is what makes this formation works, while the addition of Shinji Kagawa who plays provider and goal scorer from a more advanced position should make the defense’s task even more difficult.

By RangeRooney