Sir Alex Ferguson has often been referred to as a “tactical magpie”. He’s not particularly known as an innovator of systems but one of the reasons why he has provided consistent success for over a quarter of a century at United is because of his ability to keep up with the times. He has never been limited by a belief in a single system or style.
Last season was the first time that United had failed to win a single trophy since the 04-05 season. While finishing 2nd on goal difference in the league was certainly no embarrassment, performances in Europe were the most disappointing in years – failing to go past the group stages in the Champions League and being outperformed comprehensively by Bilbao in the Europa League Round of 16. While it was still arguable that drastic change was not required and that the foundations for future success were present at the club itself, it was becoming clear that some changes were needed in personnel and system.
Subtle Changes in Style
The changes to United’s style of play this season has been more subtle than drastic. United have begun to use the ball more methodically and seem to be relying less on width with more narrow shapes. The first hint at a change in style came as early as United’s first preseason game where the team used something resembling a midfield diamond. While United have not continued with that shape, the shapes have tended to be narrower than those last season which could be a sign of the manager trying to strengthen the middle. In the Carling Cup game against Newcastle for example, United were playing without any real right winger.
United’s narrowness drags the Newcastle defenders centrally leaving the right-back, Vermijl, in acres of space on the flank as highlighted above.
According to whoscored.com, United have the 2nd lowest % of forward passes, only behind Barcelona. The narrower shapes and more methodical passing have led to a degree of difficulty in breaking down sides which was evident even in preseason.
An area which highlights how United seem to be focusing more on ball retention this season has been the passing out of the back. United now have the keeper look to play short passes out of the defence with the popular system of having the centre-backs drift wider, full-backs push up and a midfielder drop deeper to receive the ball and spread the play.
Darren Fletcher(circled) drops deep to receive the ball in between the United centre-backs showcasing how United try to pass it out of the back.
Changes in Personnel
United’s signing of Shinji Kagawa was an interesting move which again hinted at a change in both shape and style. Kagawa is different to all of United’s other attacking options in that he is a modern number 10 and provides lateral movement towards the flank to link-up and interchange with wingers and full-backs.
One of the problems United have had this season so far is not being able to get the best out of Kagawa. It’s not really the fault of the player but has more to do with United just not being used to playing with a number 10. The team has been designed for years to use the flanks as the creative outlet of the side.
Another problem for Kagawa has been his link-up with strikers. van Persie and Rooney in particular are strikers that like to drop off and this isn’t that complementary to Kagawa’s role. It can leave United without a striker stretching the play high up the pitch. This can lead to situations where United have a lot of possession in front of defences but not enough penetration.
Neither One nor the Other
Perhaps United’s biggest problem this season has been that the team has been caught somewhere in between a patient passing approach and a more direct approach. United have neither pressed regularly to win the ball high up the pitch to help a possession-based style nor have the side moved the ball quickly out of defence to facilitate a counterattacking style.
United have gone behind in 5 out of 6 league games and arguably still haven’t put in a very convincing overall performance. United have been caused a lot of problems by teams that press, particularly in the first half against Liverpool when the side did not even manage a single shot on target. The lack of a ball-winner in midfield is particularly evident. But this was an issue even last season. What has compounded the problems this year has been that the side have been too sluggish in possession at times with the methodical style of passing.
Sir Alex has often been forced to move to plan B – a more direct 4-4-2 often featuring exquisite long balls to the flanks from the evergreen Paul Scholes. This of course raises the question as to whether United should go back to the old tried and tested methods. But, these changes in philosophy take a lot of time to execute properly and could be part of a long-term vision of Sir Alex’s on what is the best way forward for the club. Short term loss for long term success perhaps?
What is interesting to note is how the players that may be suited to a more high energy pressing possession style are not really guaranteed starters at the moment – Cleverley, Welbeck, Anderson, Hernandez etc. One can see how young defenders like Jonny Evans, who is very comfortable on the ball, could fit into a possession-based style. This new approach might be most rewarding in a couple of years time when veterans like Scholes, Giggs, Ferdinand and Vidic are replaced by younger players.
Conclusion – Long-Term Vision?
While United seem a bit lost at present, it’s becoming clear that Sir Alex has a long-term vision for the club, possibly beyond the end of his wonderful tenure at the club. These subtle changes in style seem to be part of a long-term vision that could take a few years to come to fruition. With this in mind, it is perhaps not that surprising to hear news of Sir Alex supposedly holding talks with Pep Guardiola with regards to the former Barcelona man possibly taking over the reins at Old Trafford. While questions as to whether the change will be good in the short-term or if it can be a successful transition will be raised, it’s clear that Sir Alex is once again thinking to the future even in the twilight of his reign.