Ferguson showcases a 4-2-1-3 against Everton

August 21, 2012

Manchester United's starting line-up against Everton

The main story on the night was Everton’s excellent performance, but the more significant development in the long-term was Manchester United’s choice of formation and personnel. The arrivals of both Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie have seen many questions about precisely how they’ll fit into the side, and while this starting XI doesn’t solve the issue of where van Persie plays, it hints at a change in strategy.

I’ve written more about this at ESPN (before this match), but Ferguson has been playing a 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 system in the past three seasons or so. Regardless of what you want to call it, it’s generally featured two forwards – Wayne Rooney and one of Dimitar Berbatov, Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez. The wide players were deployed as wide midfielders rather than wide forwards.

The alternative, a 4-3-3, was generally fielded in a more defensive, cautious setting, with the wide midfielders pushing forward and an extra central midfielder used. Crucially, that extra player was never a true number ten like Kagawa.

This formation hints at something different. It will probably be closer to the flexible side Ferguson used before the departures of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, that often featured three points of attack and plenty of movement. A return to that fluid style was attempted at the start of last season, but the catalyst for that was Tom Cleverley, and when he missed the majority of 2011/12 through injury, Ferguson didn’t have the appropriate tools to play that way.

Against Everton, the formation was a 4-2-1-3, with two central midfielders that generally stayed in deep positions alongside each other, a clearly-defined number ten in Shinji Kagawa, and three forwards stretched across the pitch. The use of Welbeck on the flank might indicate that Ferguson sees that position as belonging to a true forward (although he did play wide in a 4-4-1-1 on occasion last season).

Certainly, when United approached the final third it was not uncommon to see Kagawa, a creative attacking midfielder, behind the three forwards. That’s similar to the Inter side of 2009/10, which would explain why Ferguson appeared to be looking so closely at the key player in that system, Wesley Sneijder, despite his poor form over the past two years.

The system was most interesting when van Persie replaced Welbeck, because it demonstrated the flexibility of the front three. First it seemed Rooney was going to the left, then van Persie moved to that side, then Nani went over there. Van Persie was later seen defending the right flank, then it was Rooney’s turn to move to that side. In short, with the exception of Nani (and his replacement, Ashley Young) not popping up in the centre, the three attacking players played all three positions after van Persie’s introduction. The block of three were interchangeable, but Kagawa’s position was permanent.

For now, the shape and system will need more work before it becomes fully functional, but the signs here were more promising than the scoreline suggests. United’s use of the ball in midfield was generally very good – they passed quickly, they got Kagawa involved in the play a great deal, despite the fact he was marshalled by two Everton central midfielders, and Welbeck made good runs from wide positions in behind the defence on at least two occasions to find himself apparently in one-on-one situations, though he was denied by good challenges on both occasions.

The system broke down in the penalty box largely because of a particularly poor display from Rooney, who didn’t look 100% fit and didn’t offer anything like the movement required for a lone striker. Kagawa’s performance was encouraging, but often he looked up and Rooney wasn’t in a position to receive a clever pass. Sometimes he came towards play to get the ball, but there was rarely a reverse run into a striking position, and United ended up playing in front of Everton.

For example, compare Kagawa’s passes to those of Santi Cazorla – another number ten who made his debut in a 4-2-1-3 this weekend – and there are much fewer forward passes into dangerous positions. That’s not necessarily a reflection of poor play from Kagawa – equally, it demonstrates Rooney’s lack of movement to get on the end of potential passes.

United’s problem here was a lack of physicality – not just at the back, but also in midfield. Having a creative number ten in conjunction with three forwards asks a great deal of the two central midfielders; Cleverley got stuck in but is a more creative player than he is a scrapper, while Scholes’ tackling has always been his weak spot, and he handicapped himself with a particularly silly early booking. The return of Carrick to midfield would be a slight improvement but not a solution.

United will have to focus upon ball retention to hide their lack of ball-winning ability, though few sides this season will exploit United’s physical weakness as expertly as Everton did here.

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