It is normal when a new manager comes in, he will have his own set of philosophies on how the game should be played. In order to instil his philosophies onto the team, the first thing he will need to do is to alter the team structure or team shape. Team structure cannot be equated as formation because team formation is just a blueprint of players’ roles or a point of reference for their positions. The team shape is the direct result of players’ positioning or movement in relative to ball, teammates, space & oppositions at any moment of the game. As a result, the shape of the team will be constantly changing, thus, there will be a particular shape for certain attacking phase, certain possession phase and certain defensive phase.
The team shape is the framework for a team’s philosophies. Let’s take Everton for example, under Roberto Martinez, they have moved away from a more direct approach under David Moyes to a possessional based game largely from the same group of players under Moyes last season. The players technical abilities did not suddenly increase under Martinez but rather he altered the team structure to create a framework that allowed and encouraged possessional game to be played.
What has Moyes altered on United’s shape?
In order to find out, then Fergie’s philosophies have to be revisited to compare the differences.
“The religion at United was that when one of our players had the ball, we moved and all the others supported the play”
Sir Alex Ferguson in his Autobiography.
United’s philosophies under Sir Alex Ferguson were to play a high intensity game with quick passing and movement from all directions to overwhelm the oppositions. In order to play this type of game, the players’ movement must be swift and quick when the ball move from one area to another. As mentioned by Fergie, when a player is on the ball, then the other players must move to support that particular players from all angles for long & short passes and from wide & centre to progress the play.
Below is the illustrations from United last season, pay attention to the shape of the team. United’s players were moving in unison when the play moved from one phase to another phase in order to support the players on the ball to construct an attacking move.
The below is a youtube video of United training during Fergie’s time, skip to the passing drill and half pitch practice match, then you will get glimpse of the philosophies the coaches tried to instil and pay attention to the players’ movement.
“David Moyes is a particular fan of “segmenting” his training pitch to encourage players to cover space efficiently. One format involves the playing area divided into 24 equal squares, so the defence play high up the pitch, the wide players stretch the play, and the attackers rotate position”
by Michael Cox
As describe my Michael Cox, Moyes structured the players to cover the width of the pitch and stretch the oppositions in order to create space for themselves. The illustrations below were extracted from the match against Olympiakos. The players’ positioning were about covering space as each players covered a particular area on the pitch to stretch the play.
Below is the training regime of Moyes during his time with Everton. Skip to the passing drill and half pitch practice match and compare it to Fergie’s training regime and you will see the differing philosophies between Fergie & Moyes. Fergie was about supporting the play while Moyes is covering the space.
Implication of Moyes’ Team Shape
Moyes’ tactics enable his team to stretch the play in order to create space with each players covering all the spaces on the pitch but the problems with these tactics are the distant between each players are too big. Hence, possessional based football with short-passing and quick combination play will be difficult. Due to the distance, the play need to be more direct and this explained why a lot more long balls and crossing were played so far this season.
As players are required to cover certain space, it lacks fluidity and fluency and this resulted the rigidity of team shape which caused the team to be predictable due to lack of movement and interchanging of positions to unsettle the oppositions’ defence. Oppositions can easily read the situation to deal with the incoming attacking phase.
As a result, this explained why United struggled to string a pass together as the players on the ball lacked of options because his teammates were too far away from him. Secondly, it also resulted of the inability to penetrate through the middle because in order to so, players need to be closely linked to each other to play quick passing combination play to go through the compact defensive line.
This is why this season United played a lot more of crosses & long balls, attacking primary through the wide areas, struggling to buildup the play and keeping possession.
Demystifying the Myths
There has been a lot of theories on the reasons behind United’s woes this season but with the understanding above, let’s bust a few myths here :
Myth 1 : United’s players are not good enough.
There is a saying, players will not become bad overnight. This group of players have won the Premier League by 11 points margin less than a year ago which is enough to throw the myth out of the window. The players were under-performing simply due to the differing tactics of Moyes which unable to get the best out of the players or simply put, the tactics were not effective as mentioned above.
Myth 2 : Tom Cleverley is an awful player.
Cleverley does not fit into the type of English “ideal” player; Hollywood passes, long range shot or hard-tackling. He is a player who likes to play short passing to recycle possession and quick exchange of passes for combination play with quiet efficiency. As mentioned above, the team shape demands a more direct playing style which does not suit Cleverley’s possession based game of pass and move. Talking about him passing sideways, he just lacks the options for forward passes as the shape of the team is too stretched.
Myth 3 : United’s midfielders were weak.
Darren Fletcher has summed it up “The midfield players at this club, especially in the last few years, have probably gone unnoticed and done a lot of work to help other people perform. It didn’t bother us as long as the manager and players knew we were important to the team. That is all that mattered and maybe we were covering for other people by doing extra work to allow the flair players to go and attack.
“You have got to remember we play 4-4-2 a lot at United so it’s not as if there are three in there and two can bomb forward. Most of the time, we are up against three other ones so we’re having to cover.
“There is a lot more to it than simply saying we should be getting on the ball, creating and scoring goals. That is not really our role at Manchester United, especially in the last few years, and that has been explained to us. We try to perform the way the manager has asked us to perform.”
The main responsibilities of United’s midfielders are to provide the balance to the team even during Fergie’s time.The role of creating chances and scoring goals should fall on the shoulder of the forward players and the midfielders are to facilitate the attacking players to venture forward and to hold position to avoid being exposed.
People said that United’s midfielders always being overran but most of the time, they were being overran simply because they have numerical disadvantage against 3- men midfield. Their jobs became even more difficult under Moyes as they lacked of options and support to progress the play due to the stretched team shape as the players were too far away from them.
Myth 4 : Rooney is better than Kagawa.
The reason Moyes preferred Rooney ahead of Kagawa is because Rooney directness and athleticism is more suited to the tactics of covering space, stretching the play and direct football. Kagawa is a more sophisticated type of players who plays with subtlety, thus, Kagawa unable to utilise his qualities with Moyes playing a direct football with stretched team shape which doesn’t encourage passing game to be played. To put it simply, Rooney stretched the play while Kagawa knitted the play.
Myth 5 : Valencia & Young started most of the matches due to lack of options.
Valencia & Young are the mainstay in Moyes’ starting eleven even though they are not playing well because both of them are more disciplined in covering the space for the team width. Players like Kagawa, Januzaj and Welbeck who can offer more versatilities at the wide areas were not selected because they are more likely to drift inside and moved around. You might be asking, the reason Moyes brought in Juan Mata is because of desperation or he would to change his philosophies? Only times will tell as he reverted back to his usual philosophies of covering space when Mata was not available for the match against Olympiakos.
Myth 6 : United will improve if they able to bring in better players.
A big transfer kitty will help but it will not guarantee United will get back to glory days under Moyes. Just imagine bringing players like Kross, Fabregras and Reus to play a direct style of football under this stretched team shape. it won’t worked. If Moyes can’t find a place for Kagawa, what is the point of bringing the same mould of players who will not be suited to his tactics? If he can’t adapt to find the correct philosophies to get the best out of his current players, under what circumstances that he will change his philosophies? If he change his philosophies with the new players, then why don’t he change his tactics earlier to get the best out of his current squad of players but to do so after new players are brought in?
In conclusion, there is no good or bad tactics, if the tactics worked on the pitch then it is the right tactics. Clearly, Moyes’ philosophies are not working right now. It is hard to predict whether his philosophies will become good given time but at the same time, it is difficult to imagine how can it works with the modern football right now as today’s defences are more compact and denser. This explained why majority of the top teams today employed short passing and quick combination play to penetrate the limited spaces of today’s defences. In order to do so, the players need to be closely linked, a lot of movement and fluidity in order to penetrate a much more organised defences of modern football.