How Sir Alex Ferguson Has Changed Manchester United's Tactics This Season

Max TowleAnalyst IMarch 21, 2013

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 10:  Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson looks on during the FA Cup sponsored by Budweiser Sixth Round match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on March 10, 2013 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

After the crushing end to the last Premier League season, Sir Alex Ferguson wasn't going to allow the same mistake to happen twice.

His Manchester United team have looked a different beast, winning games with an unprecedented efficiency.

The Red Devils have played some great football this term, but there have been underwhelming displays that produced grinding wins completed in a typically "United" fashion.

Barring any crazy finishes, Old Trafford looks set for a 20th league title to be added to its vast trophy cabinet.

Here is a look at the season so far from a tactical standpoint, and how things have changed since that fateful Sergio Aguero goal.

How They've Set Up

In terms of formation, Sir Alex hasn't changed much from last season.

The 4-2-3-1 remains his preferred setup of choice, but he also hasn't been afraid to dabble in formations not usually associated with the Red Devils.

First and foremost, the Scotsman's brief flirtation with the diamond formation showed fans that the 71-year-old is not afraid of experimentation, even in the twilight of his managerial career.

The diamond's most successful application was in a resounding win over Newcastle late in 2012.

"It is revolutionary because we're going against our history," he said at the time (via The Guardian).

Its main purpose is to slow down the pace of the midfield and to exercise real control in the middle of the park.

Michael Carrick played as the formation's playmaking midfielder, with Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley acting as central shuttlers asked to cover plenty of ground through the channels.

A natural consequence of the formation is a lack of width, but full-backs Patrice Evra and Rafael were able to bomb up and down the flanks more than usual, while attacking playmaker Wayne Rooney often found himself in wide positions.

With wingers Antonio Valencia, Nani and Ashley Young struggling for fitness at the time, the stopgap lineup allowed for a greater flexibility and left Newcastle overwhelmed in the middle of the park.

The Red Devils have also had success with the 4-4-1-1 formation this season. One they used far more often in 2011/12.

This has been used in several of United's biggest games this season, with Danny Welbeck entrusted with the central attacking midfield role against Real Madrid.

Same Players, New Roles

The recent Champions League defeat to Real Madrid broke the hearts of fans of the Red Devils, but it simultaneously proved that United have what it takes to compete with Europe's best.

Welbeck's role against Los Blancos was to mark Xabi Alonso out of the game—something the young Englishman was able to do to great effect.

His pure energy and relentless pursuit of the ball disrupted Real's deeper-lying playmaker and gave his side a real tactical edge.

Welbeck is known to most as a striker, but this season he has rarely played as the No.9.

He has been given plenty of playing time on the wing, despite the fact his crossing abilities are below average.

Another player who has found himself played in a variety of positions has been Phil Jones.

He has been given playing time at right-back, centre-back and most prominently, in defensive midfield.

The England international was granted the task of marking one of the Premier League's biggest attacking threats, Marouane Fellaini, out of a recent Premier League game.

Jones was the star performer against Everton, and he proved to many that this is the position where his future lies.

Of all the Red Devils who have found themselves in unfamiliar territory, Wayne Rooney has been the most notable.

Although he has played in a deeper midfield role before this season, the forward's transition to attacking midfield has become a permanent one.

With the goalscoring onus on Robin van Persie, Rooney has had to further develop the creative side of his game.

The transition has been difficult at times, but his progress suggests that his days playing as the lone striker may be numbered.

The only worrying fact from Rooney's season is that he is yet to develop an effective partnership with Van Persie.

Their successes have been separate; their best performances in different games.

What the Numbers Say

Comparing Manchester United's statistics from this season to 2011/12, there are several interesting points that suggest conscious tactical changes Sir Alex has made (via EPLIndex).

Last term, of all the Red Devils' open-play passes, 41 percent of them were made in a forward direction. This season, that statistic has dropped to 31 percent, with the difference adding on to passes made to the flanks.

This indicates that United have made far better use of the width of the pitch, despite the apparent lack of form of all their wingers.

Last season it seemed like the team were often forcing matters, while this time around attacks have been better crafted with an added patience.

Wayne Rooney's role in this respect has been key—his distribution to the flanks has been one of his best attributes.

The side has created a clear-cut chance an average of every 38 minutes per game, as opposed to every 47 minutes last season.

The most fascinating aspect of this statistic is that the Red Devils have averaged fewer chances per game, but have made things count when higher up the pitch.

This clinical attacking nature owes a lot to the awareness and deadly finishing of Robin van Persie, but full-backs Rafael and Patrice Evra are also due plenty of credit for improving their efficiency going forward.

What has impressed you about Sir Alex's tactics this season?


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