Talking tactics ahead of the Manchester Derby
As the old chant goes, Manchester United fans rarely want anything but their team to “Attack, Attack, Attack (and so on)” the opposition but they face perhaps their most difficult test of the season so far. Manchester City are a rather unfathomable side, for they display great attacking intent one game or tremendous defensive tactics the next.
In the somewhat-dour reverse fixture back in November, which ended 0-0, the Red Devils played a 4-3-3 with Dimitar Berbatov up front as a lone striker; this proved ineffective although United are set to opt for the very same system this time around. Yes, United have favoured a traditional 4-4-2 this season, something which Jonathan Wilson described as an “oddity given the tribulations Ferguson went through trying to adapt to a single-striker system in the early part of the decade, and probably another indication of how his resources have been reduced.”
Yet, United’s resources are hardly reduced this time around – those were Wilson’s comments in the build up to the last Derby game when Wayne Rooney’s fitness was a concern and Dimitar Berbatov represented something of an enigma to the press. Javier Hernandez received plaudits at this time, but the general (yet premature) thinking was, and still is, that he’ll only thrive in a system where he is partnered by another forward. Now, all three are in form (Rooney to an extent), and that itself, though very basic, might be a reason to play a 4-4-2.
However, the 4-4-2 itself is a risk. Berbatov, for his twenty goals this campaign, is set to miss out and United should stick with their ‘big game’ formation, which is the 4-3-3. Much has been spoken of Berbatov’s apparent inability to play as a lone striker, yet in a few instances he has thrived in this role. It is true, though, that the 4-4-2 suits him best – playing higher up the pitch he has found considerable success. Another reason why United usually opt for the 4-3-3 in games of perceived importance is the success often found by United’s three central midfielders - and this ties in with why Berbatov is at expense of the system. Recollecting a game against Milan last season, Sir Alex said:
“It’s hard [to include Berbatov] when we decide to play three central midfield players. That’s the difficulty for him. We could have played him in Milan but the threesome of Scholes, Carrick and Fletcher have created a consistency, a level of performance that makes it difficult to change, particularly in those kind of matches. Every time I have spoken to him [Berbatov] he understands what we are doing.”
It is also interesting to point out that Berbatov was indeed the lone man in the reverse fixture. He was ineffective; but it would be unfair on him to make a conclusion out of that game. But the system is not about one man, and the importance of 4-3-3 in this Derby would be that it would best stifle City’s midfield trio. Nigel De Jong, Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure have all been excellent this season – and in order to contain them, United must play a 4-3-3. It could mean another bore 0-0, however.
Manchester City have often been criticised for their defensive system; against Arsenal, their gameplan was to avoid defeat in 90 minutes something which they succeeded in doing. There is nothing wrong with how City are set up; it might make for a dull encounter but Mancini’s tactics are rather clever. The aim is not to lose away from home – it screams out ‘anti-football’ but what it does mean is that their bitterest rivals also drop two points. Long-term, it’s a very good idea.
City do have their weaknesses, though. They often heavily rely on width offered by their full backs, but are a team that are tight and compact in the middle so United could focus on attacking them via the channels. Playing a 4-4-2, it must be included, would particularly be a no-no considering their midfield presence. United can match them in the centre of the park; but as to who United will play there remains to be seen. Fletcher is a certainty, but Carrick and Anderson will face competition from Paul Scholes for the two remaining spots (Personally, I’d leave Scholes on the bench). Nani and Park will occupy the flanks, with Rooney in the centre.
One thing for sure, and as stark as this sounds, it perhaps wouldn’t be an enthralling game as billed and might bear many similarities to the reverse fixture. Goals, if we were to have any, will come from set-pieces, or from the flanks and, naturally, from counter attacks. Prediction? Too hard to call…
United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; O’Shea, Brown, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Anderson, Fletcher; Nani, Park, Rooney