Hindsight is a beautiful thing and I won’t go into what Manchester United could have done or should have done to avoid being where they are. The situation for them is pretty clear: They are 90 minutes away from being eliminated in the Champions League and have
11 10 games left to make a push for the top 4.
We can talk all we like about whether Moyes is the right man for the job, but frankly that doesn’t matter right now. He’s here and needs to make changes. So what can he do tactically to make these tasks even remotely possible? Tactics, based on what I’ve observed, usually involve a combination of the following three things Adjusting formations, picking different players, and style of play. As far as formations go, my view is that nominal formations don’t mean a whole lot. At the kind of margins we’re talking about, a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-1-1, a 4-1-4-1, and a 4-3-3 are all about a stones-throw away from each other and really depend on the characteristics of the players themselves.
Changing the style of play: The best way to divide this is to focus on how this team would attack and how they would defend.
I chose a 4-2-3-1 for this just to illustrate what the team might look like, but the formation isn’t as important as how the players would combine and play cohesively. Also keep in mind that this is an idealized lineup where everyone is healthy.
Attacking: So let’s start on the attacking side of the pitch. Anyone who saw United v. Fulham would have seen that United put in 82 crosses of which none resulted in a goal. Crossing repeatedly is fairly ineffective when the other team knows that’s your tendency, and if that’s all that can be offered. United do have quality attackers/attacking midfielders who should play more one-twos and be active in the box. This side should be better at counter-attacking. As seen on the diagram, I’ve left out Robin van Persie. A year ago, I would have been labeled a troll, since he scored 33 times. This year, however, it might not be such a poor decision.
1. RVP is becoming too isolated that far up the pitch and he isn’t quite able to drop deep because Rooney is everywhere frantically trying to get on the ball, which is caused by neither Cleverley or Carrick driving forward and Ashley Young and Valencia being too one-dimensional. It’s a chain reaction that causes both Rooney and RVP to play sub-optimally.
2. Wayne Rooney is in better form and has been quite clinical when given high quality chances. RVP’s injuries and United’s struggles have made him snatch a bit at the rare chances that he does get. Plus Juan Mata can now play naturally in his preferred number 10 position where he doesn’t have to do as much defensive work.
Flanks: Januzaj offers a more varied threat than Ashley Young. He can combine in the center, and he can cross more effectively than Young when needed. He was arguably United’s best player in January while RVP and Rooney were injured and I don’t know why he’s been left out of the team since. Valencia’s fairly one-dimensional but he’s very quick and is most dangerous when allowed to run into acres of space. Patrice Evra would be able to provide a consistent crossing option, if Januzaj plays more in the box. Rafael would have to stay more disciplined.
Defensive style of play: Moyes prefers his two banks of four and that does somewhat match up with how Sir Alex preferred his teams. The problem is getting everyone to defend as a unit, and particularly down both flanks. Everyone has to defend and perhaps United need to be willing to play more on the counter-attack because that’s what David Moyes has opted towards this season.
Central midfield: Fellaini and Fletcher would be my choices here. Fletcher appears to be fully fit now and past the worst stages of his illness, and Fellaini has recovered from his wrist injury. Both these players offer more tackling quality and forward impetus than either Carrick or Cleverley; however, they can play more of a disciplined defensive role given the more creative attackers in the side now and Evra’s defensive negligence.
Centerback pairing: I didn’t want to take Smalling out of the team because he has impressed when playing as a CB, and he should be partnered with Phil Jones because they’re quicker and more vocal which is important.
Fullbacks: Rafael is a natural RB, and is more comfortable going forward than Smalling. He is a better attacking fullback than Evra, but is showing more defensive awareness and is quicker. Having Valencia can help nullify left-sided counterattacks too. Evra on the other hand is going to be a bit of a work around since he either takes up narrow positions defensively or he’s chasing after quick wingers on the counter. That’s why Jones, Fellaini, and Fletcher are now in the team. They can all look to cover that side, let Evra catch up, and force play back through the middle to become a solid defensive 8.
So just to recap: When attacking, United need to cross less. Rooney needs to play closer to goal, Mata should be a number 10 with more of a free role, akin to how he played at Chelsea pre-Mourinho. Defending needs more work but putting in more tacklers in midfield and quicker defenders, even if they’re less experienced can tighten up Manchester United’s otherwise porous defense.
Overall this United team will probably have less possession but given the lack of dynamic midfielders and the big games coming up against superior midfield units (Liverpool, Manchester City, Everton, Newcastle), this is our best bet. Of course if we need to grab a goal, we can always bring on Chicharito and RVP for someone.
For the Champions League, swap Mata out with Shinji Kagawa because Mata is cup-tied and Kagawa was genuinely excellent throughout the group and provided United with a real spark in the last 15 minutes against Olympiacos.