Tactical Review: Ferguson’s front four shows the way forward for Manchester United

Nani celebrates after United's breathtaking second goal

A pulsating Community Shield (the annual curtain-raiser for the English football season) clash, saw Manchester United defeat their ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City, with a tremendous fightback from two goals down at Wembley, to take the latest round of Manchester ‘Bragging Rights’ thanks to a 93rd minute winner from the irrepressible Portugese winger Nani.

City had taken a two-goal lead into the break, despite their more illustrious opponents having dominated possession in the first period. David Silva’s deliciously whipped in free-kick was flicked home off the head of Joleon Lescott, who held off a sluggish Rio Ferdinand with ease, to score City’s first, very much against the run of play, before Edin Dzeko’s 30-yard drive flashed past David De Gea in the United goal. The 20-year-old was quickly labelled on Twitter, (by those who most likely have never seen him perform before) as more Massimo Taibi than Edwin van der Sar, the Dutch ‘keeper who he has replaced. A ridiculous ascertation, the young Spaniard will certainly come good.

Nonetheless, with Tom Cleverley on for United at the start of the second half in place of Michael Carrick – Phil Jones and Jonny Evans also replaced Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic – to give the side more vitality in the central midfield area, United were level by the 60th minute.

Firstly, a free-kick fizzed over from the left by Ashley Young was turned home by the outstretched boot of Chris Smalling (Edin Dzeko’s marking left a lot to be desired) before a wonderful free-flowing move freed Nani to chip delighfully over Joe Hart to level the scores. To say the move, involving interplay between Wayne Rooney, Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Nani, is the best goal English football will see this season, is not going to be too far off the money.

United continued in the ascendency and won the game deep into stoppage time when Vincent Kompany’s hesitancy allowed Nani to nick in and run clean through on goal, before rounding Joe Hart and putting the ball into an empty net.

Rightfully, the Portugese, United’s Player’s Player of the Season last year, was named as man of the match, after a performance where he was at his devastating best. But he wasn’t alone, as Sir Alex Ferguson won the tactical battle against Roberto Mancini (eventually) and showed that his United side continues to evolve (tactically) with the times.

Whereas last season, with the emergence of Javier Hernandez and the return to fitness of Luis Antonio Valencia at the backend of the campaign, United played often with a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 formation depending on the opposition, with Hernandez playing on the last man looking to break behind the defensive line, and Valencia patrolling the right flank almost exclusively. With neither player available today, Ferguson put into action a new strategy, which saw United, playing in the style of Barcelona, or more accurately Arsenal’s Invincibles, without a recognised central striker.

Whilst Barcelona have employed a 4-3-3 formation with Lionel Messi playing centrally in a position that has become known as the ‘False Nine’, the rest of Europe has marvelled. Yesterday, United pulled off a similar idea, setting their stall out similarly to the Arsenal of Henry, Bergkamp and Pires et al.

Both United of now and Arsenal of then lined up, in effect, without a genuine central-striker, playing up against the opposing sides back-four. Both sides had their back fours and two central midfielders (for Anderson & Carrick/Cleverley read Vieira & Gilberto), and then two wide midfielders playing from out to in.

The Gunners had Pires and Ljunberg, both of whom were excellent runners off the ball, and looked to Bergkamp, who played as a number 10 and was the creative fulcrum of the side, whilst Henry made his advances from a position in front of Pires on the left hand side. Ability to run from off the ball was crucial in their strategy, as was the role of Bergkamp. His ability to see the final, killer pass.

United’s plan of action would appear to do away with the criticalness of the number 10, as both Welbeck and Rooney dropped into deep roles, in effect both playing as false nines, often leaving Kompany and Lescott with no one to mark.

Gerard Houllier was a massive fan of Young's tactical flexibility

Ashley Young and Nani, both playing on the flanks also showed willingness not just to cut through the opposing defence ahead of their team mates, waiting for a potential through pass, but also would pick the ball up in central roles, looking to create mayhem, whether through their ability to dribble between the lines or through quick one-twos.

The flexibility of four to fill different roles, whether it be Welbeck drifting right, Rooney left, Nani left or central, Young central or to the right, is crucial. When United defended it was noticably a 4-4-1-1 shape that they took up. However upon attack, the quartet appeared wherever they felt they could hurt the opposition, using their intelligence to take up positions that they saw best, creating two v one situations in dangerous areas. The second goal a classic example of what could be achieved when players on the same wavelength get such a strategy right – the quick, little touches in a short space, with off-the ball runners wreaking havoc amongst a static backline. In essence, with that number of runners, it indefensible.

Hopefully, Sir Alex Ferguson will continue to nurture his side to play in a similar manner when the likes of Hernandez and Valencia return to action. The Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in May should have taught the wily Scot that he can’t compartmentalise the manner in which his side attacks, as top-class defences will find it easier to stop in it’s tracks.Valencia’s disappointing performance in the Wembley showpiece still rankles, especially after Nani’s stunning season.

Spontaneity is the order of the day. Young, Nani and Rooney are all top-quality players who can turn a game with one moment of magic. Welbeck is a youngster with plenty of ability that could well be harnessed in a similar fashion.

Versatility. Fluidity. Added attacking dimensions and extra goalscoring possibilities. United’s flexible front four has shown Ferguson the future that could conquer the Premier League (once again) and the frontier that is Europe. Perhaps even the final frontier, the tiki-taka of Barcelona.

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About AA_Richards

Football writer & all-round pen for hire. Can tiki-taka or counter-attack at pace. Differentiates Athletic from Atletico. Follow me on twitter: http://twitter.com/AA_Richards
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