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The footballing philosophy of the 2012/13 Sir Alex Ferguson | Man Utd Tactics

[quote]”The diamond is seen as a little revolutionary because it goes against our history, but the level of the game in England and Europe is so high now that making yourself unpredictable is a strength. Teams will now have to think about whether we will play with two wide players or in the diamond because we have the players who are capable of doing both things.

Players like Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley can play very well in the diamond, while in Antonio Valencia, Nani and Ashley Young I also have very good wide players.”

Sir Alex Ferguson[/quote]

The classic 4-4-2 has been labelled a neanderthal system of football, even by Sir Alex Ferguson himself, and has not been relied on in its purest form for quite some time. A tale of diamonds, wingless wonders, has not regularly inspired Sir Alex’s team talk instructions. Then again, the manager has made a habit of change of late.

To long-time observers, a Manchester United team which doesn’t rely on out-and-out attacking wingers still seems almost unimaginable. But any concerned United fans needn’t worry about a lack of width: there are still plenty of attacking options down both flanks who utilise the wider spaces. Given that Manchester United famously play a possession-based passing game, the assumed narrowing of the midfield provides the two full-backs with ample space in which to roam, while counter-attacks allow centre midfielders and forwards to occupy the width of the pitch, albeit temporarily. The Manchester United of 2012 plays in a far more fluid system that their 1990’s predecessors, who regularly set up in the classic 4-4-2 formation.

DID YOU KNOW? 73% of Manchester United fans recently voted that they preferred to see their team playing a 4-3-1-2 (over a 4-4-1-1) on the popular Man Utd fan website  – thebusbybabe.com

2012/13’s Diamond 4-3-1-2

The ‘basic task’ (as Rinus Michels always put it) of each player in Sir Alex’s 2012 team is to observe this fluid approach. Depending on personnel, we might see a normative wide player (Ashley Young, for example) roaming out wide from a central midfield role, while a centre midfielder (such as Tom Cleverley) might make linear and direct runs forward; we might see Shinji Kagawa in a more advanced role with Wayne Rooney playing further forward; or we might see Danny Welbeck, Rooney and Robin Van Persie interchanging positions in a front three. All this aside, it is just as likely that Manchester United will utilise their tactical fluidity and switch from the diamond 4-3-1-2 to a 4-4-1-1 or something similar [see 2012 match formation diagrams below]. In any case, it’s worth noting that Manchester United’s formation is often player-dependant and intentionally unbalanced and unsymmetrical, in the hope of being unpredictable and difficult to defend against. Often, the team’s creativity comes about as a result of a collaboration of diverse ideas, offering an opportunistic approach to chance creation which is combined with a more pragmatic ball circulation in deeper spaces.

“We have plenty of wide players and plenty of central midfielders so I have an issue in terms of picking the team and even the substitutes…If it turns out we play the diamond consistently it would be revolutionary because it is going against our history.”

Sir Alex Ferguson



So it has become increasingly clear that the identity of the current Manchester United side is now less reliant upon an implemented system of play, as such. Rather, a loose playing style and a flexible formation that offers different solutions to any number of problems seems to be the team’s definitive characteristic. However, there are some non-variables in Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach over the last four years, particularly in terms of defence, that we can count on seeing game-in, game-out, barring an injury crisis, of course.

The four-man defence has a number of tasks to carry out during games:

  • they are to offer relief to under pressure midfielders in their own half
  • they are to offer a change of direction in play from the back
  • from time to time they are to offer the catalyst pass in counter attacks
  • the unit of defenders is to man-mark the opposition and to function as a narrow and compact back four (as the full-backs pinch in) the closer to their own goal they are positioned
  • the full-backs are to offer width in more advanced roles, as are the two centre -backs (when playing high up the field, as they marshall the half way line)
  • on occasions it is the responsibility of the full-backs to know when they are to advance forward and when they are to keep one back as a pinched-in centre-back, allowing the other full-back to venture forward and offer width

The Manchester United team circulates the ball with a distinctive mixed approach to passing. The players are educated to make the correct pass within the correct zones and, likewise, are encouraged to have a mixed approach to the build-up speed: the diamond 4-3-1-2 would usually suggest a slow build-up with short passes giving time for the full-backs to take up their place in the more advanced positions of the field. When the build-up is slower, the wider players are expected to move inwards to create space for the full-backs to take up.

However, as Man Utd champion the mixed and unpredictable approach, when the team plays without wide midfielders, conscious decisions have been made to offer width in other ways. The deep lying forward, front line and central midfielders are expected to roam into the wide areas in the event of a counter-attacking approach. It is this movement of the front three that caused Stoke City’s defence so many problems in their recent 4-2 defeat, as United’s forwards stretched and pulled apart Stoke’s defence (the strikers created an assist each and the share of all four goals).

“That flexible movement we now have up front really bothers teams…there is definitely a bigger threat about us this season.”

Sir Alex Ferguson

We can conclude that Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United offer width and creativity in the more advanced spaces of the field; they offer a reduction in space in the more defensive spaces; the build-up play is unpredictable and never relies on one extreme or the other and to top it all off, the formation is to be treated as a loose framework that can be altered by the players playing within it and other strategies employed. The players and tactical approach come together to form the basis of Sir Alex’s approach. Neither the system picks the players nor players pick the system. The approach is somewhere in between, somewhere unpredictable, to the strengths of the whole squad.

We always knew Sir Alex Ferguson was a world-class man manager, educator, and motivator, but few give credit to his ability to convey tactical ideas to his team and acknowledge that as football moves forward through the years, so must his coaching methods and approach. Sir Alex is a manager who understands that contemporary football requires a complex evolution of tactical concepts.

I wonder how many of you had doubts about Kleberson, Djemba Djemba, Bellion, Obertan, Veron, Fletcher, Smith, and how many have long forgotten their concerns. Winning the Premier League, something Ferguson knows a thing or two about, requires more than having great players on the field; it requires an approach to tactics that is flexible, unpredictable, creative, stable, and yet still offers an approach that portrays the whole as greater than the sum of its parts. It requires an all-round approach to football management, a squad game, a collaborative approach between players and staff.

Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps after all, you are a world-class tactical genius; the greatest all-round perennial contemporary manager of all time.

Assistant Manager of Oxford University Centaurs and Head of Analysis. The Tiki-Taka Handbook can be ordered from: http://shop.soccertutor.com/Coaching-the-Tiki-Taka-Style-of-Play-p/st-b019.htm Director of inspire football events | Football writer & youth academy coach - jeddavies.com | Writer on several websites as well as Liverpoolfc.tv and many more | Please follow me on Twitter - @TPiMBW or www.Facebook.com/JedDaviesFootballCoaching | Always open for a reasoned debate so please leave a comment
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