Retrospective #4: Manchester United’s tactics in 1967

Growing up in the 1970s, tactics was never something that was discussed much. United played 4-4-2 week in and week out with the same players turning out each Saturday afternoon. We had Coppell and Hill on the wings, Daly and McIlroy in the middle with Pearson and Macari up front. If someone was injured then David McCreery was the usual substitute. When Gerry Daly was sold, Jimmy Greenhoff joined from Stoke City and partnered Pearson up front with Macari dropping into midfield. It wasn’t that complicated. I can’t even remember discussing the likely team as Tommy Docherty usually told The Manchester Evening News in advance and the team was published in the Thursday or Friday evening edition.

This continued to be the case well into the 1990s when ‘talking tactics’ suddenly become a popular pastime amongst supporters and pundits alike. Andy Gray on Sky Sports started a trend that now sees chalkboards, heat maps, pass completion ratios, possession percentages and so on. These things just didn’t exist in the 1960s and 1970s when TV rarely showed an entire ninety minutes of action and we were lucky to see all the goals on ‘Match of The Day’ or ‘Star Soccer’.

Or so I thought.

I recently picked up a copy of the FA News magazine from March 1967 and was totally astounded to read an article by Clive Bond, a member of the coaching staff at the F.A. The article was in fact an analysis of United’s tactics and formation throughout the mid-1960s and made me aware of certain parallels with the Manchester United side today.

Here is what Clive Bond had to say with some of my comments added:

During the past five seasons, Manchester United have been one of the most successful sides in British soccer. In Division 1 of the English Football League their record is:

They won the FA Challenge Cup in 1962/63 and have reached the semi-final each season since.

The semi-final of the European Cup was reached last April and the last four of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup the previous year.

By any standards, these results must be judged as successful, but failure to reach the highest honours by the narrowest of margins has frustrated the fans.

Success in professional soccer is obtained in a variety of ways, viz:

  1. By winning regularly which leads to
  2. Being in the race for league and cup honours for the best part of the season
  3. By getting on the European circuit, through the European Cup, Cup Winners Cup or Inter-City Fairs Cup

Crowds will flock to see a successful side and they will flock in greater numbers to see a successful side which

a) plays attractive soccer, and

b) contains well known international personalities

Manchester United score highly on all of the above factors and as such are the biggest gate attraction in the country at the moment. But they are still labelled as ‘inconsistent’, ‘flashy’, ‘temperamental’. What successful side is not inconsistent, since consistency would mean occasionally winning all matches? That a team of such calibre should rise to great heights as United did at Benfica last season is natural, and following such a performance all other efforts by comparison must appear sub-standard. That is the price of fame and success. Critics tend to be idealistic.

Attempting an analysis of Manchester United’s style of play from a subjective standpoint and without any knowledge of the methods of training and team preparation they use, is obviously fraught with danger. But critical analysis, albeit subjective, from an unprejudiced source is often interesting.

Most successful soccer teams are made up of players who between them provide a balance in terms of:

  1. Consistency of performance, regardless of the status of the game. (Clearly this is vital for league and tournament play, where results are obtained over a long period) and
  2. Inventiveness and artistry – the ability to produce the unexpected, a quality which creates confusion and panic amongst defenders.

In most teams, the general pattern emerges in that players at the rear are consistent and careful with good reliable defensive techniques; whilst the mid-field and front line player needs that quality of inventiveness – that flair to produce the unexpected. In the United team, Stepney, Dunne, Brennan, Foulkes, Stiles, Herd and Aston are the straightforward players who provide the foundation stone. This remark is not intended to indicate that these players are poor quality, in fact their very consistency, lack of flamboyance is the quality required, for the team are fortunate to have Law, Crerand, Charlton, Best to provide that sparkle and touch of class.

Basically, the system United use is a 4-3-3 with Stepney, Dunne, Noble, Foulkes, Stiles providing the rearguard which is linked by Crerand, Charlton, Best to the front line of Herd, Law, Aston.

With Cantwell, Sadler, Brennan, Fitzpatrick, Anderson and Ryan to call upon, Matt Busby has a first team squad with strength in depth.

This was a particularly interesting point as the programme of the day (see below) shows a 2-3-5 formation. However, most older Reds would have believed that we played 4-4-2 with Best and Aston on the wings, Charlton and Crerand in the middle with Law and Herd up front. Clearly this was not the case.

Clive Bond continues with his analysis:

This style of play seems to have developed around the abilities of:

a) Bob Charlton, having graduated from orthodox inside forward and left wing, has now matured into a fine mid-field player with a very high work output. His tremendous speed, coupled with a deceptive change of pace and direction, makes him a hard man to pin down.

b) George Best, having served a spell on the flanks, is really too gifted a player to wait for service and now finds himself working mid-field with Charlton, fetching and carrying, covering in defence, and initiating and backing up attacks. A cheeky dribbler who, from his initiation in the team as a 17-year-old, has confidently attacked defenders. Capable of beating three or four opponents in succession, he can redress the numerical disadvantage blanketing and covering defences provide.

c) Denis Law was initially an orthodox inside forward, fetching and carrying, but undoubtedly his greatest asset is his quick reflex and eye for the half chance and rebound in and around the penalty area. This is a rare gift which Matt Busby is now using to the full by leaving Law as the spearhead and letting others in the side do the mid-field grafting.

Thus Charlton and Best work mid-field backed by the experience of Scottish International Crerand – an all international trio which provides a mid-field combination second to few in club football.

I have to admit, at this point my jaw dropped considerably. Apart from Charlton’s work rate, which is seldom discussed, the description of George Best ‘fetching and carrying, covering in defence’ was in complete contradiction to the George Best legend. And yet, when you look at his goal scoring record during this period it is relatively modest. In his first term, 1963/64, he notched only six goals. He hit the target 14 times in 1964/65, some distance behind the 39 strikes of Denis Law and 28 of David Herd. He registered a similar total in 1965/66 and only 10 in 1966/67. Upon reflection, this is not surprising given his junior status in the side at this time. Things changed considerably in 1967/68, with Law and Herd out of action for long spells, Best was moved into the front three and scored 32 goals in all competitions, 28 of them in the league. He then became a force up front and remained in the attacking three.

Clive Bond then looked deeper into the tactics and personnel.

When John Aston is in the team, he generally assumes an orthodox left wing role and attempts to attack down the outside of the fullback. Since David Herd is often on the right flank, but is not blessed with the qualities of a flank player, it is vital to have at least one flank player in the team who can go round the outside of the fullback. David Herd rarely attempts this manoeuvre, more often cutting inside or laying the ball off and moving inside for the return pass and shot. Herd, with Law, is the principal goal scorer in the team and can usually be found in striking positions when the attack reaches the penalty area.

Billy Foulkes has occupied the centre half berth in the United team almost without break since the Munich disaster. He is a most competent and dependable defender, dominating in the air and hard in the tackle, without being a sparkling offensive player (this work he rightly leaves to others in the team who are more competent). Foulkes must be nearing the end of his first team career and many have suggested and predicted that Matt Busby would buy a class centre half – Mike England seemed an obvious choice. It would now appear that David Sadler may be Foulkes’ successor.

Sadler, a Kent schoolboy who obtained schoolboy international honours at centre forward, came into the United first team as a centre forward but failed to establish himself in this most difficult of positions. Following spells in the Central League side at inside forward, wing half and centre half, he came back into the first team in a mid-field role (usually when George Best was on the left wing). Sadler is a most constructive player, and if he can develop sound defensive qualities he will make a truly great centre half. The recent match, West Bromwich Albion v Manchester United, showed he has yet quite a lot to learn in terms of positional play (Astle got on his blind side several times – scoring once with a header), but he could well become an international in this position, which will make increasing demands in terms of offensive and defensive responsibilities from all players.

Norbert Stiles has developed out of all recognition as a player these past two years. In 1964 he was an enthusiastic but rather crude player, who stamped himself on a game by sheer dint of effort. After a long spell in the England X1, his soccer has matured and he provides steadiness and cover in the Manchester defence.

Brennan and Dunne, internationals both, regularly occupy the fullback positions. Reliable and thoughtful, they rarely allow opposing wing men room to move (which often leaves the defence rather square). They could not be rated as imaginative offensive players, but with team-mates this quality is hardly required. Brennan has recently been replaced by Noble.

The goalkeeper’s position has for some time been the principle team problem at Old Trafford. Gaskell, an outstanding schoolboy international, has not been able to add the vital qualities of reliability and safety first play to his undoubted natural flair. Stepney is at present in the process of consolidating his position.

That completes quite a cavalcade of stars, and with such talent, United can adapt their basic 4-3-3 system to the needs of the moment. Best or Charlton can move up to make a 4-2-4. Stiles could easily modify his role to that of a ’front centre half’ or a ‘sweeper’ and with Crerand playing deeper one has the basis of a blanket defence; so necessary for their two legged European matches. Having watched United over the past three seasons, my major criticism would be that they appear not to have been very tactically conscious. As a team, they are used to dictating the tactics and when, rarely, they are up against it, they do not seem to have the ability to adapt their play sufficiently.

Is Denis Law a tactical captain?

Are Manchester a tactical outfit?

Whatever questions are posed, there can be no doubt that they are a great club side with perhaps the finest club manager of all time.

Prophetic words from Bond, not only did David Sadler develop into a centre-half at United but also won two caps for England. Additionally he questioned United’s tactics when things weren’t going their way, maybe one of the few faults of Matt Busby, whose ‘just go out and play’ philosophy didn’t always work, particularly in the big games. This is borne out with the Reds losing so many semi-finals during the 1960’s at home and in Europe. He also raises an interesting question about the tactical intelligence of Denis Law, but that is another story.

It is also at this point that parallels can be made to Alex Ferguson, who until recent seasons often struggled to make quick tactical changes during a game. Significantly, Ferguson also had a poor record in semi-final’s, albeit predominantly in Europe. Ferguson also ‘tinkered’ with a range of formations including 4-1-4-1, 4-5-1 as well as 4-3-3, so popular with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side, in a bid to find the best fit with the squad at his disposal. It appears over the last four seasons, Ferguson has developed that tactical nous that perhaps Matt Busby lacked. This has resulted in Manchester United reaching three Champions League Finals and winning two Premiership titles. However, regardless of that consistency there are still losses in significant one-off matches, such as the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester City.

So while analysis of tactics and systems may be a relatively new pastime for many supporters, particularly those brought up in Docherty’s and Atkinson’s 4-4-2 era, the 4-3-3 system was not only the preferred formation of the 1960s, but also a very successful one.

Unfortunately little footage of Manchester United in the 1960s exists to the extent where proper analysis can be undertaken. Nevertheless, I will be taking a much greater interest whenever I see those old black and white images on MUTV and am thankful that for once, the FA seemed to have produced something worth reporting.

This was written by Tony Park. Tony is a Manchester United youth historian and statistician. You can follow him on Twitter.

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3 responses to “Retrospective #4: Manchester United’s tactics in 1967”

  1. Julian says :

    I think the notion that Busby was not a tactician is not correct. Although he did very much believe in his players expressing themselves he also was astute in sizing up the opposition. United played 4 2 4 for the first par tof the 60’s with best out wide on the left, hence the lack of goals. Crerand and Charlton ran the midfield with Foulkes and Stiles an excellent centre back pairing. With the success of 4 3 3 in the mid 60’s and onwards, Best came more into the middle forming a threesome withi law and Herd before the latter’s injury. Sadler dropped back in support of Charlton and Crerand in midfield. Crerand was a huge influence on the way United played.

  2. hugh williams says :

    there so much history at united thanks for the article great read

  3. Redsnout says :

    An article which defies the popular belief (which i also believe), Busby was never a paradigm for strategic football. various anecdotes and disclosures prove that many technocrats in football at that time used his tactical slovenliness as a yardstick against him. Charlie Mitten once said “i never saw him coaching anybody at all” which was similar to the inference Johnny Morris dispensed later “He never said once to me anything about improving my play at outside left”. The palaver between Noel Cantwell and Busby became famous, though/because it holds various inflections in different bourgeoisies of football. To the question of United’s FA cup triumpher “How do we play, Boss”, the Scot famously replied “We play football”. As i said, it has various inflections which obviously depend upon which side you are in. Busby was once quoted “There’s only one way to play football…that’s four at the back, two in the middle and four upfront” which, one should remember, was before Brazil made it a preeminent tactic in world football. he never proffered much tactical nous like his peers Herbert Chapman, Frank Buckley or like his contemporary counterparts like Gusztav Sebes or Albert Batteux. Busby’s ideology was plain and simple, a philosophy of “liberation — That is helping players to get beyond their inhibitions of consciousness” which really don’t negate the fact that his team played the best football even in the late 40’s. Though he showed he’s no tactically effete by putting his offensive players Carey and Aston in deep positions to start play from the back (A Strange Kind of Glory: Eamon Dunphy), he was never bestowed with appreciations and respect from technocrats like eastern European managers during that period.
    Busby was the first one to bring manager-as-his-own-man concept to British football, a stark contrast from imperial and effete traditionalism dominated football culture; brought one-for-all camaraderie, socialism and egalitarian modernity in to United dressing room; tantalized vitally opposing ideas like modernity and tradition, local and continental, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon; became a father figure to almost everyone at the club. but he never once was lauded as a tactically ingenious manager in his life though England’s humiliating defeat at Wembley to Hungary made every layman in the country to believe that Busby’s the prophet to lead English football to eternal glory (which he did once with United.) this article will give everyone (to me at least), who believed Busby’s contribution to football on purely footballing ideology basis is sterile, a food for thought.
    Fascinating insight in to the late 60’s United football by the way, something i thought i’d never read about. Any particular sites in internet deals with football of 70’s? please share in this comments section if you know any. cheers. Top article, again.

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