Manchester United: Why Is Sir Alex Ferguson Changing Tactics?

Terry CarrollContributor IIIJanuary 21, 2013

Manchester United: Why Is Sir Alex Ferguson Changing Tactics?

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    The news of Pep Guardiola going to Bayern Munich throws the Sir Alex Ferguson succession debate into the melting pot at Manchester United.

    We may never know what transpired between the two when they met in New York recently, but at last week's United press conference Sir Alex looked genuinely surprised.

    Surely there is a master plan in place, and it is not just left to Sir Alex's whim as to when he goes? You would expect David Gill, Sir Bobby Charlton and the Glazers to be in the loop.

    So now we can conclude that either Guardiola was never in the plans; or that he didn't like the uncertainty and chose a world-class club who want him now; or that Sir Alex plans to step aside in three years.

    Because unlike Chelsea, Bayern will give Guardiola all of his three years to make an impact, whatever happens. It doesn't necessarily upset United's plans, because Pep will be getting good experience with Northern European football. 

    The alternative is either that United had targeted Guardiola for next season and now have to go to a Plan B, or that they never had him lined up anyhow.

    In which case we are probably looking at David Moyes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Gary Neville, with Jurgen Klopp as the best outsider.


    How does this affect Sir Alex's tactical thinking?

    If, as has been suggested in the past, the timing of Sir Alex's retirement is totally in his own hands, then he must now realise he has at least three years, provided United can continue to succeed.

    More to the point, three years would give him sufficient time to notch at least one more Premier League title, have three or maybe four more shots at the Champions League and to put Manchester City firmly in their place.

    But what he must surely realise is that United aren't serious contenders for the Champions League at the moment, unless they get lucky like Liverpool and Chelsea.

    It is not just that several teams have improved, with or without financial enhancement; it is also that United have regressed tactically and still haven't shown how they would get past Dortmund, let alone Barcelona, if they get that far.

    There is evidence recently of some tactical experimentation to an extent not really seen since Carlos Queiroz was Assistant Manager. Indeed, if Ferguson is hankering after more trophies and especially the Champions League, he could do with a Queiroz, Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc or similar to solve the European conundrum.

    He does have Rene Meulensteen, but the Dutchman is more of a technical skills coach.

    The fact is that if United had the 11 best players in the world, they could probably play 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 all day long and crush the opposition.

    They don't and, with the major titles in mind, Sir Alex is tinkering with his tactics as well as his lineups to try and find a winning formula for all circumstances.

To Nullify the Threat of Gareth Bale?

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    This is not the first time Phil Jones has come across Gareth Bale, of course, although he did miss out on the Old Trafford match due to injury.

    What Sir Alex did with his players and tactics on Sunday against Tottenham was, at face value, bizarre.

    Why would you build your tactical plan around trying to counter the threat of Bale? United don't play like that, and Sir Alex doesn't normally do something like that.

    Some might think he was fearful of Bale's influence after the devastating loss earlier in the season, where the Welshman was the dominant influence.

    But United totally dominated Spurs in the second half of that match once they decided to go all out for a win. So why didn't they do the same on Sunday?

    Manchester United go out to win every match. Spurs play football. United haven't lost their last 12 encounters at White Hart Lane.

    Was Sir Alex paying tribute to Andre Villas-Boas? Hardly. So why on earth did he set up United not to lose, including playing a decidedly lopsided midfield and two holding midfielders for much of the match?

    He has in the past played a fluid 4-5-1 against the likes of Chelsea that can flex into a 4-3-3 or even a 4-4-2 with the right personnel.

    He will have been confident that Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa could seriously threaten Spurs at the top of the pitch, with Wayne Rooney held in reserve to press home the advantage, given the right support in counterattack, as was the case with the goal.

    And OK, the buildup play and final pass were generally not good, resulting in a shockingly poor two attempts on target.

    Yes, it was a stonewall penalty that Rooney should have had that would have sewn up the game; and yes, David de Gea was unlucky to palm his save into the path of Aaron Lennon.

    But the truth of the matter was that United handed the initiative to Spurs from the start, and the Londoners hardly ever took their foot off the throat as United played deeper and deeper.

    Before this match United had averaged 56 percent of possession; yesterday they had just 39 percent. That in itself is a shocking statistic.

    If Sir Alex did indeed set up to nullify Bale, that was a tactically naive decision, because it gave Dempsey and Lennon plenty of room to express themselves, and ultimately the two combined to put the EPL race back into doubt.

    United started too deep and got deeper and deeper as the match progressed. They couldn't keep enough possession to make it work and press Spurs back, and their counterattacks were, with one exception, woefully inadequate.

    So why did Sir Alex really set up this way, and why is he making so many tactical changes?

To Plan for Real Madrid

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    Racking your brains to understand why United would ditch their traditional attacking plan, set up to nullify Gareth Bale and sit deep throughout the match comes up with one potential answer:

    To plan for Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo.

    This season, Real have at times resembled a one-man team. Of course that is a dangerous simplification, because they have several potentially dangerous players. 

    But that's the whole point, surely?

    If part of Sir Alex's tactical master plan was to prepare his team for the first leg of their Champions League tie, Spurs were a good place to start.

    Villas-Boas is Portuguese; but much more than that, he has served under Jose Mourinho at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan; and like the "Chosen One" has managed Porto and Chelsea.

    Both of them learned from Sir Bobby Robson.

    Jose Mourinho is one of the few managers who has managed to outwit Sir Alex a few times. In Cristiano Ronaldo he has the second-best footballer in the world, a footballer who Sir Alex knows well.

    But that doesn't mean he can stifle him.

    Gareth Bale has been compared to Ronaldo in the past and plays with a similarly powerful, direct, attacking style. They are also both goalscoring wide players who are at their most dangerous when cutting in.

    But even if this was in Sir Alex's mind on Sunday; and it did work for at least an hour, it has two fundamental flaws:

    1. It might stifle Bale or Ronaldo, but it leaves other players much more room to express themselves

    2. It resulted in United playing far too deep and gifting the majority of possession

    Sir Alex would have felt vindicated by the result if either Rooney's stonewall penalty had been given, or United had held out for one more minute. His defence and midfield played outstandingly well in controlling Spurs' mounting threat.

    But they didn't, so what did he learn?

    Surely he isn't going to try the same tactics against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu? On Sunday, the consequence was that Aaron Lennon was given far too much room to tear Patrice Evra shreds (not really surprising, that).

    Against Real, if you shackle Ronaldo, you've still got Angel Di Maria in Lennon's position, and he is a better player. And for Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Defoe, read Mezut Ozil and Karim Benzema.


    The other perverse aspect was that if the Champions League was in Sir Alex's mind, the last thing he should want to do is play deep and counterattack. He tried that against Barcelona twice and it utterly failed.

    So what other reason might Sir Alex have had to abandon his attacking principles against a team that he surely could have scored three goals against with a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1?

    And why is he tinkering with tactics anyhow?

A Lack of Wingers

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    Love him or hate him, Ashley Young is not having his best season, being hampered by injuries, but he has been a key player for United when fit.

    OK, so he hasn't been scoring his trademark goals cutting in from the wing, and his crossing could have been better at times. But it is a racing certainty that if Young had been fit for Sunday and Valencia wasn't carrying an injury, Sir Alex would have started with 4-4-1-1.

    He had the perfect excuse to play Kagawa, with Rooney still coming back from injury and having played 90 minutes on Wednesday. It is critically important for United's European campaign that Kagawa and Van Persie get an understanding as good as that between Rooney and Van Persie.

    Young and Valencia give Sir Alex every opportunity to play 4-4-1-1 when they are fit, because they can both defend.

    Surely if Young had been playing, Evra would not have been so exposed by Lennon, and Michael Carrick wouldn't have had to tidy up on the left side of the penalty box time and again. He should instead have been sat in front of the defence, starting the attacks and controlling midfield.

    And of course, Nani is woefully out of form and also played 90 minutes on Wednesday, and Anderson played most of that match also.

    So, bereft of wingers, it was natural that Danny Welbeck would get a game, because he also needs matches and can tackle; he harries well running back.

    So why not play the diamond, or especially a natural 4-2-3-1? OK, so United notionally set up as 4-2-3-1, as did Spurs, but in practice it became two defensive midfielders ratcheting left and right, forming defensive pairs against the wingers.

    If you want to win a match, you set up for more attacking than that. United don't have a midweek match this week, because they are in Dubai. So why couldn't they play a more attacking team in 4-2-3-1 formation?

The Carlos Queiroz Factor

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    Carlos Queiroz was the best coach Manchester United have ever had.

    He was No. 2 to Sir Alex from 2002 to 2003 and from 2004 to 2008. The manager benefited greatly from the partnership, and it was Queiroz who probably first introduced the 4-2-3-1 formation that could readily modify into a 4-4-2, 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 with the right players.

    Rene Meulensteen has been the architect of United's "multi-skilling" to help attackers defend and vice-versa, but it's also a basis for dynamic interchange in the front six and formation fluidity.

    Take the first goal against Liverpool, which involved 14 passes; or the goal against Spurs, which may have involved only five passes but relied on positional interchange.

    As Gary Neville pointed out in the post-match analysis, this buildup turned Kyle Walker inside out to the point that Van Persie was left unmarked at the far post when Cleverley's cross came over.

    Kagawa out on the right flicked the ball to Carrick in midfield. He cut a pass to Welbeck on the left wing, who ran across the face of defence before slipping a pass to Cleverley, now in an advanced right wing position. He curled an exquisite ball right across goal to Van Persie coming in on the far post.

    How would that work if everyone was in rigid positions? Kagawa was supposed to be in the hole, Cleverley in left midfield, Welbeck on the right and Van Persie upfront.

    And it is that fluidity which is the hallmark of United's success this season; it is what will get them to the Champions League Final (along with Van Persie's goals) if they do. But they probably won't.

    But it didn't fit at all with the lineup and tactical approach that Sir Alex used on Sunday, once Spurs dominated possession and United sat too deep in their own half.

The Need for a New Coach

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    Full marks to Sir Alex for his experimentation with players, tactics and formations, but it caught up with him on Sunday.

    He may rightly say that Rooney should have had a penalty, but Spurs actually deserved to win, because United created virtually no chances at all.

    Was Sir Alex trying to emulate the way Chelsea beat Barcelona and Bayern?

    He has already used the "diamond" to good effect in beating Newcastle 3-0, but that may have been mainly down to the surprise factor against a poor Newcastle team suffering from injuries. He has tried it a few more times with less effect.

    A 4-2-3-1 has been far more effective and, together with his preferred 4-4-2 formation it gets the most out of his best midfield pair, Carrick and Cleverley. Anderson can also deputise for Cleverley if needed.

    United's traditional way is to play 4-4-2, and surely their success in accruing more points than ever before at this stage of the season vindicates the attacking approach.

    If Sir Alex has been messing around with formations to achieve more defensive stability, he may be making a mistake. Playing Carrick and Jones as holding midfielders is not United's style. It didn't get the result on Sunday, and Real Madrid will be far more formidable.

    Swansea have shown this season that you can play good football and still beat the big teams.

    The defensive problems earlier in the season were not the fault of tactical formations, they were down to: a catalogue of injuries; no settled defence; playing people out of position (particularly Carrick); and starting with Scholes and/or Giggs in central midfield.

    The latter caused United to start too slow and play too deep. Sound familiar?


    Time for a new coach?

    We're not talking about the technical skills coach here. Rene is doing a good job.

    But Mike Phelan is by no stretch of the imagination a good enough coach to solve the European conundrum. If he was, United would have beaten Barcelona.

    Jurgen Klopp is exactly the sort of coach Sir Alex needs right now, but he would only come as manager. 

    He fits the Ferguson mould. He has built a title-winning team against the might of Bayern Munich with a mixture of homegrown youth and shrewd buys.

    Most important he is a modern coach. He understands how to plan and flex a team to play and beat the very best. His tactical destruction of Manchester City and matching of Real Madrid demonstrated that.

    So while Sir Alex can surely take United to another EPL title this year with arguably one of the strongest squads in strength in Europe, he will need a big dose of luck to triumph in Europe.

    Yes, he has shown he can re-form United in the middle of a match and now has the players to play with this fluency and fluidity. That will beat most sides in England.

    But you have to fear for United in the Champions League. A 4-4-2 could work if everyone is fit and United get a little luck. It is more likely to produce a 4-3 score than a 1-0. He has a goalkeeper fitted to Europe, and Rio and Nemanja are back in harness with Jonny Evans waiting in the wings.

    But the one formation he hasn't tried is the one he may need most of all to succeed at times, and that is the 3-5-2. This needs either three centre-backs or a Javi Martinez-type defensive midfield to sit in between two centre-backs.

    It would best utilise Evra and Rafael, who are better at attacking than defending, and would assure control over midfield without abandoning United's attacking principles.

    Roberto Martinez and Michael Laudrup have used it to good effect. The former even deployed it to beat United at the end of last season.

    So full marks for United's 71-year-old manager for still being prepared to innovate and get the very best out of his players. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

    But he does need a modern coach alongside him, not only to help with tactics and formations but also, as Carlos Queiroz did, to see the subtle changes and come up with the ideas that United need during a match when they're being overrun.

    Real Madrid have just thumped Valencia. Let's hope they don't do the same to United.