The 1999 European Cup winners are a side that captured my heart when I was at an impressionable age. The 1968 European Cup winners are a side that captured my imagination when I sat down to watch the final in black and white footage just days prior to our most recent final in 2011. England's first European conquerors then came to life for me when I was fortunate enough to meet Paddy Crerand this past summer and chat his ear off. The 2008 European Cup winners are a side that captured my mind due to Sir Alex Ferguson's tactical evolution during the Autumn of his grand Manchester United reign.
Due to the reasoning for my fondness of that 2007/08 side, it's probably not a surprise to regular readers of TBB that no other United side has endeared themselves to me like the one that lifted the European Cup in Moscow. It's also a side that Fergie could probably look to as a tactical template as he contemplates United's recent European woes.
For the majority of his quarter-century reign, the legendary United manager has varied his tactical systems but a few general constants have remained. Whether it be 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, or 4-2-3-1, Fergie has typically deployed a withdrawn player in tandem with an out-and-out striker in order to link the midfield with attack, wingers that create chances from out wide, and two relatively deep central-midfielders that offer complimentary skills. All of this with a standard back four. These tactics -- along with the strong squads that Fergie has continually built -- have certainly proved themselves during United's 12 top-flight league titles during the manager's time at the club.
However, after continual European disappointment at the beginning of the new millennium, and near a time when Fergie first publicly pondered leaving the club, United began to tactically evolve. Much credit has been given to Carlos Queiroz -- an assistant to Fergie in 2002/03 and again from 2004/08 -- because the Portuguese's time at the club coincided with when United became more structurally sound during 'big matches' in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape. Especially in Europe. The pinnacle of this was the great counterattacking 2007/08 team that conquered all domestic and continental foes.
There were two tactical keys to this 4-3-3/4-5-1 system: (1) The back seven provided structural stability against clogged European midfields. (2) The fluidity and versatility of the front three allowed for creativity on the counterattack and also the flexibility to change match-ups depending on the opponent. For example, on the 2007/08 side, any of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, or Carlos Tevez -- and Park Ji-sung in important away ties -- could interchange and be deployed optimally when the opposition was considered. A great example of this is when Ronaldo was tasked on the left flank during the 2008 Champions League final against Michael Essien -- the Chelsea midfielder surprisingly started at right-back -- and it was the Portuguese who got the better of his out-of-position marker for a key headed-goal in Moscow.
Perhaps the best example of how United could break at incredible speed occurred a season later at the Emirates during a European quarter-final away tie versus Arsenal when Park, Rooney, and Ronaldo combined for one of the great all-time counterattacking goals. The speed at which they struck was devastating.
CL 2008 09 Manchester United vs Arsenal Ronaldo Goal16 05 09 (via mary9965)
As previously mentioned, the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system was always a staple of Fergie's tactical arsenal and that continued to remain so against inferior opposition because United could simply overwhelm them with their attacking prowess. Being structurally sound in midfield wasn't a major concern against these opponents. However, since the beginning of the 2010/11 season, United have gradually gotten away from their recent structurally solid 4-3-3/4-5-1 tactical preference and this includes encounters that involved formidable foes -- both domestically and on the continent. There are two big reasons for this:
(1) The inability to fluidly interchange positions by some important attacking players hindered the United attack when they were in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape. Rather than have the devastating free roaming versatility of Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez, and Park, a front three that featured any of Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia, or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) had the tendency to be rigid and predictable. A hint to Fergie's concern in this regard occurred during the first-leg in Germany versus Bayern Munich in the 2009-10 Champions League quarter-final. The United boss revealed that he left Valencia on the bench because both Park and Nani offered the ability to switch flanks if an unfavorable situation developed in attack. The Ecuadorian had proven that he can only effectively feature on the right flank and thus, Fergie's tactical options were limited. Because an attacker was removed and an extra midfielder was deployed, variety in attack was essential for this approach.
(2) During that match in Munich, United's talisman Rooney -- then and now -- sustained an injury that largely led to a massive dip in form for roughly a calendar year. When he began to find his world-class form last season during the run-in, he returned to an 'in the hole' role in behind Chicharito -- one that he's publicly stated is his preferred role. In addition, Rooney's tremendous industry and desire to involve himself more in matches helped him to effectively track back so that he could be a combative force as an auxiliary midfielder. Against lesser or similarly talented opposition that deployed three in the center of the park -- such as Chelsea, Schalke, and Marseille last season -- United were fine in this set-up.
There were vulnerabilities though. When out of possession, United's defending in two flat banks of four with Rooney roaming near was prone to a single pass penetrating through an entire line. In addition, United were incredibly vulnerable in the space between the lines because their bands weren't staggered. If Rooney dropped deep onto the opposition's deepest-lying midfielder, a 'false-nine' sort of player could simply drop into the space between United's back four and their midfield four in search of space to receive in. If United compacted their lines and had Rooney drop even deeper onto a higher-lying midfielder, then they were vulnerable to side's that had effective distributors from deep. Intelligent movement from the opposition only compounded these problems. Last season, matches in May versus Arsenal at the Emirates and versus Barcelona in the Champions League final (*) revealed these vulnerabilities in their entirety.
(*) This link provides still-shots from the match that visually shows how this troubled United's 4-4-1-1 system.
First-choice for last season's run-in included Chicharito as the out-and-out striker, Rooney withdrawn as a central creative force between the lines, Park and Valencia as functional wide players, and Carrick and Giggs as a passing midfield tandem. Despite the success of this side last season, at this season's beginning, Fergie elected to use a much more fluid and interchangeable front four -- Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Nani, and the newly acquired Ashley Young -- with a mobile central-midfield duo -- Anderson and Tom Cleverley -- that provided late-arriving runs into the box. After failing to defeat Barcelona twice in the Champions League final during a three year span, perhaps Fergie wanted to build one last great side with similar attacking principles to his great 2007/08 side -- one that actually did defeat Barca in the Champions League semi-final prior to Pep Guardiola's recent impressive run.
The movement and quick one-touch passing of this season's early attack resembled the fluid front three of 2007/08. However, gaps were left in behind this all-out attack as their lack of structure allowed them to be ripped apart early in the season by Manchester City and Basel -- both events occurring at Old Trafford. Despite topping the table at the time, United had allowed the joint most shots in the Premier League two months into the season. Even though the attack was impressive, United were too open against formidable foes.
Once again, Fergie went to back the drawing board. First, he drastically reinstalled discipline and structure into the side and United spent much of November and December staying in the title race by grinding out 1-0 league wins. This provided an invaluable foundation as United eventually found their league form and they obviously sit well positioned right now in the title race with 9 games remaining. However, United still failed to find results in Europe as they were embarrassed in Basel when they bowed out of the Champions League in the group stages and they were twice played out of the park by La Liga side Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.
The goal of football tactics is about finding the optimal balance between attacking prowess and defensive solidarity while maximizing the whole of a side from the personnel at your disposal. It's not the be-all and end-all because United's vulnerability to high-intensity pressing partially has to do with United's midfield personnel as well. However, Fergie's side does seem to have learned the basics of defensive structure and this could be aided if they comfortably learned to play in the similar 4-3-3/4-5-1 system that the 2007/08 side were often deployed in during European competition. An extra midfielder would simply allow them to compete better in the center of the park while the midfield trio could also stagger themselves a bit so that United aren't so vulnerable in the space between the lines. An effective front three -- one that preferably has versatility and interchangeability so that enough attacking variety is provided -- can balance the side. In England, this is generally less important because so many sides play in 4-4-2ish systems but on the continent, these tactics are vital.
Next season in midfield, if Paul Scholes doesn't retire at season's end again, he could operate as a deep-lying playmaker (CM1 in the diagram above) or he can play a few yards higher and pull the strings in a Xavi-like role (CM2). Carrick is capable of playing either role and he can also provide a bit more defensive ability (*). Ryan Giggs can provide drive (CM3) while Anderson can do the same (CM3) or he can sit a bit deeper (CM2) and use his industry to liberate passers like Carrick and Scholes (**). If Darren Fletcher ever returns and in anywhere near the same form of his past, then his running ways can be used in (CM2) as well to free up deep-lying passers. Youngster Paul Pogba appears well-suited to play any central-midfield position (***) as he appears to be a box-to-box player with athleticism and technical ability. Tom Cleverley is a 'carrier' type that seems perfectly suited to provide driving runs on the counter (CM3). Phil Jones' energy can be used deep or in a box-to-box role by being combative (CM1 and CM2). There are a lot of question marks about the personnel in the center of the park but this tactical template may allow United to better compete again in European competition. Two relatively deep-lying players also -- just like in the 2007/08 system -- similarly mimics the same roles in United's 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system. There's just an extra player near by in a slightly advanced role.
(*) A player like Javi Martinez would be ideal as a smooth distributor in a midfield trio as the holding player. His size and strength would probably allow him to adapt to English football quite quickly as well. Okay, okay... I need to stop talking about him.
(**) Luka Modric would be ideal in the 'CM2' role as the heartbeat of the side. I should probably stop dreaming again...
(***) Ugh, another 'if he's around next season' -- this paragraph is depressing me.
Up front, United potentially have the foundation pieces in place for a fluid and flexible front three. Fergie needs to look no further than the players he often deployed at the season's beginning. Both Rooney and Welbeck can play centrally or out wide while both are willing to track back and defend. Nani and Young can play on either flank while the latter can even play centrally in behind a lead striker. And there's still Park that can play on either flank and he's a valuable tactical weapon to mark marauding full-backs or dangerous deep-lying playmakers (from a CM3 sort of position). United likely doesn't lack the quality to be devastating on the counterattack in a fluid front three. The personnel available seemingly is versatile, skilled, and has enough pace to provide the needed attacking thrust.
What of Chicharito and Valencia? The former can still be a tremendous option late in games off the bench and he still can feature prominently in Fergie's 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system. The latter is still a direct option to stretch defenses in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system but he's more optimally suited for 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 right now. The latter system is not going away and it's one that is still very effective in overwhelming similarly shaped sides in England. It provides value because it has enough attacking power to consistently pick up three points against inferior opposition. Sides that are always well-structured but lack the attacking thrust to consistently break down opponents tend to be better in cup competitions in comparison to league races. It's important for a club like United to be able to break sides down and also play on the counterattack. It's time for United to use the great 2007/08 side as a European tactical template so that Fergie has the option to confidently use either system.