Manchester United and the 4-3-3

Ever since Redondo’s nutmeg on Henning Berg that lead to a Raul goal on the counter attack and the arrival of Queiroz, Fergusson has changed his tactics in the champions league. Instead of going gung-ho with an attacking 4-4-2 he now uses a more conservative 4-3-3 approach. Although this approach has yielded great results over the past 5 seasons with United reaching at least the semis on 4 occasions, I do not think united have the proper center midfield personal to play this formation this time around.

A  4-3-3/4-5-1 is a very flexible formation that can switch between a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-2-1-3. It gives the back four enough protection and is less susceptible on the counter too. The increased personal in the midfield helps keep possession and also helps in intricate passing as supposed to 2 banks of 4 in a flat 4-4-2.

Attack: The front 3 mostly consists of a main striker (a no 9) and two traditional wingers who either hog the touchline or 2 inverted wingers who can cut in from the flanks and support the striker. Rooney although prefers to play in the hole, plays the role of the no 9 and is supported by 2 of nani/Valencia/park/young depending on the opposition. United have a good front 3 with good movement and interchanging.

Midfield:  The midfield 3 requires the perfect balance with each player required to have a different asset. An advanced playmaker (a no 10 or a trequartista), a deep lying playmaker (a regista or a water carrier), and a ball winner. With the departure of Scholes and Hargreaves and the conversion of Anderson to a box to box midfielder, United have never had a perfect blend of midfield 3. My perfect blend was the Liverpool midfield of 08-09 that consisted of Gerrard playing just behind an in form Torres (no. 9) as a no. 10, Mascherano doing the dirty work in midfield by dispossessing the opponents and Alonso making interceptions and spraying the ball to the wingers and Gerrard.

Defence: With a 3 man midfield offering ample protection to the back four, wing backs are often used to make overlapping runs forward as the holding midfielder temporarily slots into his position.


Although United won the completion in 2008 with a flexible 4-3-3/4-6-0 with a front 6 of scholes, carrick, Hargreaves, rooney, ronaldo and tevez, last night against Benfica United played with Giggs, Carrick, Fletcher and the previous time they used this formation was away at Marseille where Giggs made way for Gibson. While Giggs continues to defy the laws of nature all the others are jack of all trades and offer very little in terms of creativity (Fletcher is more of a box to box rather than a ball winner) which leaves Rooney cut a forlorn figure up front which increases his frustration and his chances of being carded or worse getting sent off.

After the bore draw at the Stade Veladrome last season Sir Alex made a tweak to his 4-3-3 to play a 4-4-1-1 with Rooney playing just behind Hernandez and Park and Giggs supporting him and Valencia providing the width on the right. This system proved to be effective as Rooney could drop deep in search of the ball and he, Park and Giggs could often interchange creating confusion among the opposition defenders. Park and Rooney and Valencia had the work rate to provide the legs for the ageing Giggs and Carrick who was used to screen the back four using his reading of the game to make vital interceptions. Although this formation help United build momentum in the second half of last season the lack of legs and the inability to keep possession against Barcelona in the final must have hurt Sir Alex as much as the result.

United have started this season with a fluid front 6 with Anderson, cleverly, nani, young, rooney, Hernandez/welbeck and a team with an average age of just over 23 that enabled them to score a record 18 goals in their first 4 matches but reverted to experience for the away game at Benfica by bringing in the likes of Fletcher and Giggs. It remains too early to predict which formation United will use in the latter part of the champions league this season and whether he sticks with experience or turns to youth but time will tell what plan Sir Alex will use this time around to crack the European code…..


follow me on twitter @Alex_IS_God 



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Comment by redmisty on September 16, 2011 at 4:05

The most frustrating thing about 451/433 is that we are so often poor at keeping the ball which defeats the purpose of that formation. We may be harder to break down but only in the sense that a mid-lower league club side is harder to break down. The problem is that we don't have players capable of retaining possession in that formation. How many times did Fletch, Carrick and Giggs give the ball away almost immediately after we won possession? I'd be curious to know the pass completion stats - particularly the passes that were played forward (not interested in the 50 passes back to the defence!).


I expected us to play that formation and I expect to see it again a fair few times this season. I don't object to it per se, I just think that midfield of Park, Giggs, Fletch, Carrick and Valencia is not skillful, creative or dynamic enough to play to the strengths of that formation. On top of which none of those players is particularly great at defending. Funnily enough, the best tackler in that midfield is probably Valencia! With better finishing Benfica could have scored 3 or 4.


Still, that formation/team/line up will probably be sufficient to see us to the latter stages of the CL again and then we'll see whether we stick with it or go for broke.

Comment by 68Gaz99mufc08 on September 15, 2011 at 22:41

Just because we are beaten with a formation means its bad.




Are you saying that because I sure didn't? I said that 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 doesn't work against Arsenal which the manager has recognised over the last few years, I didn't say that 4-4-1-1 was a bad formation. Maybe it could now work against Arsenal with Anderson and Cleverley in such fine form but we'll have to wait and see what we do when we play a more full strength Arsenal team at the Emirates in January.


If you were familiar with my comments, you would know that I'm a huge fan of 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 because I think it's our best formation and it's usually when we're at our brilliant best and I wish we could use it against every team we come up against but we can't because we don't have as strong a midfield as some of the other teams do. I just think with the right players, we could make 4-3-3/4-5-1 work and work well and I think there'll be times later on in the season where we'll have to rely on that formation because I doubt Sir Alex will go 4-4-1-1 against any of the better sides in Europe after what happened at Wembley.


In the Everton game, we had Scholes, Fletcher and O'Shea in midfield with Giggs wide, no wonder we drew 3-3 and gave away a 2 goal lead in the last 3 minutes. In the Villa game we didn't play 4-3-3/4-5-1, we played 4-4-2 with Hernandez and Berbatov up top with Nani right, Park left and Carrick and Fletcher in the centre and yes we were completely dominated in the middle of the park by Villa's young midfield.

Comment by Red As Tomatoes on September 15, 2011 at 21:55
Just because we are beaten with a formation means its bad. We were beaten loads with 4-3-3 against chelsea, beaten by barca doing the same. We may not have lost games but we lost possession, initiative and relied heavily on the fact we have a great defense. Remember the everton game, the aston villa game, teams who should have no chance against us come out and dominate our midfield while we have this formation that is meant to be able cope with 3 man midfield. Anytime we look bad against poor teams more often than not 4-3-3 is being used. Lets keep track of it this yr, the performance will show it.
Comment by Alex_IS_God on September 15, 2011 at 20:47

well i am not against us playing a 4-3-3, all that i am saying is a fletcher/giggs/carrick cm wont work (to be honest they looked out of touch as it was their first start in a while), maybe a cleverley/anderson/carrick mid will work with young and nani on the wings. 

07-08: a fluid front 3 with a false nine ie 4-6-0

08-09: played ronaldo as a no9 in a static 4-3-3 with rooney and park on the wings

09-10: the wayne rooney show

10-11: played a 4-4-1-1 with rooney, park and giggs interchanging and hernandez leading the line

11-12: maybe SAF will try something new this time around like jones in the "pepe" role in the latter stages


Comment by 68Gaz99mufc08 on September 15, 2011 at 20:30

Let me clarify that when I say we get overrun by a 3 man midfield when we play 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, I mean against the better sides. I should've put that in there although I was talking about the more difficult European away games, which would obviously be Barcelona, Real Madrid who I think we would struggle in midfield against if we played 4-4-2 and more closer to home Arsenal who we were beaten by at the end of last season when we played 4-4-1-1.

Comment by Red As Tomatoes on September 15, 2011 at 20:02

i am sorry gaz but that is not just true, we get overrun only when we play 4-4-2 against barca. everyone else we hold our own, get more than 2 shots on target and look potent.


a few points


we do not have the players to play 4-3-3 with any efficiency. we play it the same way teams at lower levels do when they come to us. unlike barca and chelsea who keep those 3 forward, our wing forwards track back always, its in their nature which comes from playing 4-4-2.

b) we prefer triangles and our players depend on it, but 4-3-3 needs midfielders to move with the ball including the carrick role to make up the numbers. we dont have those players.


c) most importantly we dont play it regularly or stick to it as our one singular formation, the other teams have it at their only formation! how are we going to play against teams who have 3 midfielders in their midfield as a regular thing when we only use it from time to time? you go, copy someone elses formation and expect to be better at them in that formation?


at the end of the benfica game, we were worse playing 4-4-2 than the 4-5-1 because changing formation from such a defensive formation to a more attacking one is difficult. its why when teams come and do it to us, they get tonked as soon as they concede and try to attack. i cannot say this strongly enough, unless fergie intends to go buy a striker, midfielder suitable for the formation and intends to sell vidic (because 4-3-3 requires passing defenders which for all his talents, vidic isn't the best at) we are just going to be going against our nature. the manchester united that scares people is not playing 4-3-3, it never has and never will be not unless revolutionary change occurs in the line up

Comment by 68Gaz99mufc08 on September 15, 2011 at 19:02

I personally hope we stick with 4-3-3/4-5-1 when it comes to the more difficult away games because when we play 2 in the centre of midfield against a 3, we get overrun, it's as simple as that. How successful we can be using 4-3-3/4-5-1 depends on the personnel we have playing in that formation.


In the latter stages of the Champions League away from home against Barcelona or Real Madrid for example with a full squad to choose from, I would hope to see a front 6 the same or very similar to this.



          Cleverley      Anderson      

Nani                                        Young



Last night I feel we were too rigid because of the players that were playing. While defensively we may seem to be a little more solid with Valencia, Park and Fletcher playing, going forward however we lacked creativity and a real threat from the wide areas.


With a front 3 of Rooney, Nani and Young, we have 3 players who are quick, can score goals, can get back and defend and can interchange which makes them all very difficult to mark. A midfield 3 of Carrick, Anderson and Cleverley I think would provide us with enough creativity, attacking threat, energy and defensive cover. I realise that it's quite an attacking formation but I think attack is the best form of defence and I think we should be aiming to have a go at teams instead of being defensively solid and hard to beat whilst lacking little threat going forward.


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