The centre has always been the source of direction and control since the beginning of ages. Isaac Newton will tell you, your movement and indeed of any other object, is based on it’s centre of gravity(which makes it clear that Park Ji-Sung’s is somewhere in between his butt cheeks). The direction and control of the World Police in Langley, Virginia has the first name Central. It is therefore clear that if your objective, whether falling on your butt everytime you receive the ball,or expiring inconvenient dictators, is to establish control and direction, you need to find the centre. And solve it.
Central midfield is the most revered role and zone in all of football. It is still however debatable, whether such reverence is applied at the protestant Theatre of Dreams. And in this belated edition(there’s an apology hidden in there) of The Scope,we’re exploring the months of October, November and December with a focus on the central midfield.
1.“We will not miss Makelele”
Florentino Perez was wrong. Denying Claude Makelele an improvement on his Lego’s set to match his teammates, he went on to declare:
“His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed more than three metres….He wanted half of what Zidane was earning and that was not possible.”
The greedy bastard. After all, he had only helped Real Madrid win “only” 6 trophies. It took six years for Madrid to win anything since
Claude Makelele left. His new boss,eh erm,Claudio was predictably more hospitable:
“I have a fantastic watch. It is run by battery. Claude is my new battery.”
What both principals were describing in many words, is what the official(French for unimaginative) football term coiners, whoever they are, later called The Makelele Role. The holding midfielder. Basically the only guy allowed to bring a chair onto the pitch.
Since February, there has been a moderate switch at Manchester United, away from the holding midfielder, in favor of a box to box combination, as if in tribute to the Scholes-Keane era of the late 90s and early 00s. This tactical change has definitely come with significant effect. In this era of modern football, the idea of attackers initiating attacks from deep, and unconventional positions,has necessitated the employment of deep lying midfielders that have “defensive liberty” to counter the offensive autonomy of said attackers. It was somewhat puzzling therefore to see this radical shift of tactical protocol by United’s technical staff. Puzzling because later Sir Alex,would declare,
“I think we’re making great strides towards that level Barcelona have reached…”
in reference to a team which, despite it’s highly innovative technical standards and unmatched attack, always deploy a holding midfielder. The general effect in United’s games this season, has been the starring roles the opposition’s attacking midfielders and roaming forwards have enjoyed. David Silva, Balotelli,Suarez,Basel’s Shaqiri,Benfica’s Gaitan , have all had considerable joy playing in the grey areas against United’s mobile two man midfield. The generally unscreened defence has had to face more of an offensive threat this season than ever before. De Gea has come under heavy bombardment in his inadequately fenced bunker. October started with him being the joint most fired at target, in the league, alongside Bolton’s Juuskalainen ….whose club was at the bottom of the log with nearly 100 shots being fired at him. Considering that the 3 sides to have conceded the most shots last season were all relegated, it is puzzling indeed.
It is logical to assume that the idea of a box to box combination, was conceived from the noble premise of enhancing the attack. In the early parts of the season, the highly mobile duo of Anderson and Cleverley were part of a free scoring attack, but also highly promiscuous defence. A similarly jittery partnership of Anderson and Fletcher, left the back four brutally exposed to the sadistic Balotelli and wizardry of Silva during the Old Trafford terror attacks.
Yet in that game, United still maintained almost half of the possession. But without one of the midfielders disciplined in deep positions, it would have been a shocker if Silva and the roaming Balotelli had been ineffective.City completed just 22 more passes than United’s 393, for a team passing accuracy of 86% versus United’s 83%, reflecting how possession was evenly balanced(51%vs49% respectively). But the contrast in attacking areas was fascinating. United had 11 shots, with 4 on target, and only 3 of them came from the 3 forwards used, illustrating the low activity in City’s area. The rest of the shots came from midfield and wingers. Fletcher and Anderson completed a combined 5 key passes, showing how both were assigned to be heavily involved in the attack. This clearly had a detrimental effect on the defence with City managing twice the number of shots at 22 with 7 on target. Their attacking players who tend to play from wide coming into the middle, had a field day, facing only the centre backs as both fullbacks were attacking. Well, trying to attack at least. With a holding midfielder screening, the fullbacks have licence to attack as the anchor drops directly between the centre backs. Without one, your fullbacks need to be disciplined in defence. They weren’t and the rest is his(Mr Phelan) story. The result of not having a defensive screen, has seen a major lack of balance in the whole team set up. Cue Xavi Hernandez with the much quoted
“Michael Carrick brings balance to Manchester United.”
Well not this season. The only match we’ve seen him as a pure holding midfielder was against Bolton when he replaced Cleverley. Against Basel, at home, he was voted man of the match on many forums, with many declaring the return of Carrick’s attacking passing. United scored 3 and Basel had the same sentence. Most football teams with competent spies have already figured out the way past United. Bypass the highly mobile central midfield through the flanks,get behind them and in front of the defence. Outnumbered. Easy as pie. City’s last 3 goals came in after 90minutes of play and all of them used the same formula. In fact,Benfica and Basel, were the first to exploit the lack of a defensive screen in this way and thus passed on the wisdom to the rest of football.
It took 70 games for Michael Carrick to score a goal. A goal Carrick is never supposed to score. The mazy solo run, through the middle, showed the general autonomy both central midfielders are being afforded this season. Against Norwich, Fletcher’s positioning throughout the game was evenly distributed between, deep in midfield, on the right side of midfield and in RAM positions. In the same game Anderson was basically everywhere. Two box to box midfielders. A quick search through the global football community will reveal that this combination is now defunct. Except at Old Trafford. Surprisingly, against Basel at OT, United used a 3 man midfield, with Giggs roaming ahead of Carrick and Anderson, with the latter duo in B2B roles. Whilst Norwich lacked the tactical nous to exploit this peculiarity, Basel were not so ignorant. From 2-0 up, to needing a last gasp diving header from Ashley Young, to secure a soon to be useless draw. A similar 3 man midfield setup was applied at big game specialists Liverpool. Fletcher and Phil “Adrenalin” Jones, behind a very advanced Giggs. However, Fletcher was deployed deep as an anchor, limiting the advances of grey area loyalists,Suarez and Kuyt. It was a successful, disciplined performance, which vindicated the concept of maintaining a holding midfielder.
Unfortunately, the idea was quickly done away with, in the following league game. Hosting the heavy metal blue neighbours, Anderson was recalled to commence his sprinting duels with Fletcher. While they sprinted, Silva and co, elected to sneak past them quietly, via the flanks, for a sixer. The next games were predictably cautious affairs, with 3 clean sheets and more discipline in midfield.
With two “boxers”, the intention was probably to create a dynamic attack, but the result has been contrary. The rapid movements in the middle, have resulted in confusion when going forward. Mainly due to the “thou shalt not move from your post” tactics on the wings. Whilst there’s an attempt to be dynamic through the middle,there’s an even greater determination to be predictable in wide areas. Nani has lately come under pressure for less than match winning performances, but he seems to be the only wide player willing to cut in frequently and create numbers through the middle. Unfortunately for him, when he moves in, the forwards don’t move off him, but choose to play it wide again, to the other flank, nullifying the whole process and purpose of “cutting in”- i.e. attacking through the middle. Park, when played wide left, tries to cut in, but is always obliged by gravity and sudden turns of wind. In all this, the boxers are making fruitless and ultimately, pointless runs towards goal.
3. “Cross my ball and hope to die”
Basel’s sole function this season, has been the dedicated task of exposing Manchester United’s tactical weaknesses. In the final must-win, no, make it, must-draw, group match, United dominated possession at 57%, but created one chance throughout 90min, which Wayne Rooney did well to miss. The midfield, contrary to public opinion, has actually done well in keeping dominant possession, at an average of 54%. The issue has been with wing based tactics. It is clear, the desired creative outlet for United’s coaches, is the wide players. At Basel, a total of 46 crosses were attempted, with only 7 finding a target,(mostly the lone midget Rooney). Meaning on average, a cross was attempted after every 130 seconds. Manchester United are 3rd on the crosses per game chart(26), in the league behind Liverpool(30) and Everton(27). It is interesting (and prejudicial) to note the British leadership at these clubs.
It is somewhat puzzling that in the first seven or so games, the attack was based on a more dynamic platform of movement and unpredictable positioning. Mind boggling also, is the fact that, the clearly favored first team frontmen are the shortest. Perhaps the wide play should be adjusted. Patrice Evra is not the best crosser of a football, but he is probably the second top dribbler
at the club. Similar to Marcelo and Dani Alves,who both benefit from the existence of a dedicated anchor, Evra has close ball control, skill, pace and excellent link up play. It seems rather a waste, to not have him as part of the goal threat, combining with the forwards and wingers, with short, penetrative passing. Alves and Messi, have struck a deadly partnership with their link up play, as has Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo. Given that the (normally unfit) back up full backs have similar qualities, both wings could become potentially lethal forces on the attack with Nani and Young, and their goal threat capacities.
4. Lil Big Man
Nani, is Manchester United’s most influential player,in terms of actual football actions, contrary to most people’s opinions about Wayne Rooney. His influence has been on a par with David Silva’s at Manchester City. With a tackle success rate of 63% vs Silva’s 65%, he has been the best non-defender “defender”, even eclipsing the likes of Phil Jones. He’s only been dribbled past 8 times, with Silva being skinned 17 times. Offensively, Nani’s influence has been essential for the team. Currently the league’s best dribbler,he has already notched 7 assists, just 1 behind Silva. With 6 goals scored, 1 ahead of DS, it is strange that Nani has not been used closer to the goal area as the City maestro. Particularly given the fact that he is the league’s 2nd most creative player, with 48 chances created for his teammates, again, 1 behind Silva. Both players create a goalscoring chance every 29 minutes.
He is also the league’s most prolific crosser, with 27 successful from a total of 121 attempted. And that’s where the comparison ends. David Silva has completed 9 crosses so far, from a total of 49 attempted,but has attempted a total of 1046 open play passes, meaning nearly a thousand were short passes, on the ground(95.3% of his passes). Nani has attempted 675 open play passes, 18% crosses and 82% on the ground. His overall pass completion rate has suffered (70%) when compared to Silva’s 85%, considering that his open play pass completion rate is a respectable 79%. It is clear that a specific tactical adjustment is necessary here, to get Nani in and around goal, and also to make better use of his dribbling and creative prowess, by relieving him from the seemingly pointless task of perpetual crossing.
5. A Jones of all trades
Much of United’s success and failures, have been directly linked to Nani and Phil Jones. Mostly, their proper or erroneous employment on the pitch. Nani was the best player in white at Basel, but was also a big factor in the failure. Crossing all night to the lone , thoroughly ineffective and vertically inadequate Rooney, was a puzzling tactic. Similarly, the short Phil Jones, has had a mixed effect on the team’s results. Considering the fact that Evra has a better aerial duels record, it’s brave to have him at centre back. Fabio Cannavaro,overrated as he was, is probably shorter, but was a master of timing and positioning. Jones has none of those attributes and his displays in central defence have been detrimental to his teammates. Ferdinand has suffered due to his shape disrupting bursts from central defence, especially with no holding midfielder to maintain the balance, as he demonstrated his jittery capacity against Benfica. At right back, he has done well, applying his thunderous speed and dribbling to great effect. In central midfield, he has had mixed performances. His adrenalin inspired style, put Fletcher under considerable pressure against Liverpool. Similarly, out of depth at Basel, playing with Giggs,his passing was functional and mostly unstructured. But he completed 2 successful dribbles and a goal. His performance against Wigan perhaps highlighted his attributes. A number of attempted dribbles from midfield and 1 key pass, shows that he is really happy when on the move. Very Anderson-like in his approach of driving the team forward. Against QPR,his partnership with Carrick proved instrumental, with another key pass, an attempted through ball and 3 shots. It may prove a stroke of genius,converting him into either a permanent right back, or attacking midfielder, as opposed to the next John O’Shea.
6. Global Press-edence
Currently, United is 5th, on the highest amount of shots conceded and climbing quickly to reclaim top spot, after Championship products, QPR,Norwich and Wolves, dared to overtake. This unwanted accolade has been mainly achieved by the abandoning of the holding role, but another issue has had it’s effect. Just like the holding role in midfield, it is a global trend to press high up the pitch. And just like the holding role, United have abandoned this technique despite its considerable success early in the season. Once again, only Nani seems to be adhering to modern football trends, as he is the only forward player willing to put proactive pressure on defenders. The zonal marking defensive system the Reds are using,is reminiscent of the “park the bus” protagonists of the early nineties. And the minute the word, “reminiscent” is applicable, it is clear you’re anything but trendy. Being disobedient to global trends is not without effect, especially when you interact with the rest of the global village, every weekend. Luis Suarez,Sergio Aguero,Frei,Shaqiri and even Pablo Aimar,have pressed United’s unprotected defence into submission and duly infected the back of the net.
At Barcelona, Sergio Busquets or Seydou Keita sit in the middle and send their 5 bull terriers, M.I.X. Fabregas and Sanchez,to pressure the opponent’s defenders and midfielders. At Real Madrid, Alonso is deepest when out of possession as the rest of the players harass the opposition high up the pitch. Most defenders are not skillful enough under pressure, to wiggle out of a tricky situation, close to their goal, so they’ll either hoof it desperately, divert pressure by backpassing to even less skilled goalkeepers or simply direct it out of play.
Either way, possession is conceded, in mostly dangerous areas. Perhaps the same technique should be re-applied by United. Getting into a predictable, two band defensive shape, and retreating, is risky business in the modern game, because it affords the opposition, even more time to structure an attack, or draw a foul, closer or even inside the box.
Most of Manchester United’s problems have come from major technical decisions and tactical peculiarities. The most controversial and consequently, most devastating, has been the retrenchment of the holding midfielder. We really miss (a) Makelele.
[Statistics and analysis does not include Carling Cup matches]