If there’s been one lesson to be learnt so far this season, is that the options at David Moyes’ disposal resemble a blanket that it’s never quite long enough, thus always leaving some vital parts of United not properly covered.
Wednesday’s superb performance against Leverkusen highlighted how big a difference Shinj Kagawa can make when deployed in his favoured number 10 role but, given the injuries that sidelined Robin Van Persie and Michael Carrick, the formation Moyes adopted in Germany was borne out of necessity rather than conviction.
Furthermore, the same system – albeit with slightly different personnel – struggled to hit the same heights against Tottenham on Sunday when, amid some slick passing and neat interchanges between Kagawa, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney, United were denied the acres of space in midfield they had been allowed against Leverkusen.
United’s conundrum isn’t easily solvable, for while any manager should always try to maximise his team’s strength – particularly when, as is the case with United, such strengths are few and far between – they always asked to field not just the most logical of line-ups, but also the one that can produce results and, lest we forget this is entertainment business, play good football.
Robin Van Persie is arguably United’s only world class player alongside Wayne Rooney – at least the vintage we have witnessed since the start of the season – and together they form a formidable partnership but, as we know all too well, deploying both of them forces Kagawa out wide, where the Japanese is nowhere near as effective, nor threatening as he is when he’s played through the middle – even though he failed to impress in said position on Sunday.
Considering that the midfield props itself on Carrick, the 40-year-old Ryan Giggs and a centre-back-cum-central-midfielder in Phil Jones, the aforementioned blank is likely to remain always too short, unless United spend in January – about as likely an event as a waking up to find Santa Claus in your living room on Christmas day – or they radically change system and ditch a defender.
Before you dismiss the notion of adopting a 3-5-2 formation as the ramblings of a clueless moron who’s spent too much time playing FIFA and Football Manager, allow me to buy sometime for myself by saying that I’m not suggesting that a change in formation would work or be easy/feasible.
However, considering the squad at Moyes’ disposal is far from world class, it’d be tempting to see him playing it to its strengths, without having to oust a quality player in favour of another.
Whether it’s in its Carrick-Cleverley, Carrick-Fellaini or Cleverley-Jones configuration United’s midfield struggles enormously against the majority of opponent, for the pairs that guarantee passing options (no prizes for guessing which is the recurrent name in these duos) struggle to sustain physical challenges, while the more dynamic combinations are dramatically limited from a technical point of view.
A lack of options in the middle means that United’s widemen are either starved of supplies or are fed the ball with such systematic regularity that they’re immediately double-teamed and dispossessed – that’s also partly due to their chronic inability to beat their man, but we’ll leave this for another time.
United’s back four isn’t protected well enough either, for the players forming the central midfield duo are either too busy trying to cover for each other’s errors – more often than not when Cleverley is one of the two – not suited to tackle or engaging in other activities – which, presumably, is why £27m were poured into Everton’s coffers for Fellaini.
Based on that, dropping a defender seems as logical as playing without a goalkeeper. However, were Moyes to pick a 3-5-2 formation, it’d allow him to select Kagawa in his preferred role, which would partly relieve the midfield of creative duties, thus, theoretically at least, allow one between Cleverley, Jones or Fellaini to focus on shielding the back three.
Furthermore, as much as we all love Patrice Evra, it’s undeniable that his defensive game is no longer up to scratch, in fact it hasn’t been so for a couple of seasons, but he remains a reasonably good option going forward, and the same can be said about Antonio Valencia and Rafael on the other flank – Nani and Januzaj would be valid options too, although wing-backs are probably a safer option than traditional wingers.
Rooney and Van Persie with Kagawa in the hole would prove to be a headache for the overwhelming majority of defences across the country, not to mention that having more attacking players on the pitch would increase the passing options for Carrick, as well as ensure United keep a higher line instead of dropping deep – which has already costed us four points against Southampton and Cardiff.
The romantics dreaming of the days United played 4-4-2 are, quite frankly, stuck in the past, for the a formation including two banks of four is simply no longer sustainable in modern football – certainly not with the tragically poor midfield that has hampered United for years – while the 3-5-2 in enjoying something of a renaissance, with plenty of European teams adopting it as their preferred option.
Awful as it sounds, even Liverpool have successfully switched to such system under Brendan Rodgers and with good results so far, so surely we can afford a gamble for a game or two?
Related items from Red Rants:
Tags: Tactics & Analysis