The Manchester United obsession with formations

During the November of 1986, Manchester United appointed Alex Ferguson as their manager replacing the outspoken Ron Atkinson. Besides the first couple of fruitless seasons, Ferguson then set about a period of domination which heralded over 30 major trophies. United sides have always been synonymous with playing fast flowing edge of your seat type football. Ferguson had his teams set up to play with an attacking swagger, like a boxer getting onto his front foot and jabbing away at his opponent before landing the knockout blow.

Robin Van Persie on Ferguson: “We came from behind 26 times the season we won the title. The mental strength of the team was unbelievable. Fergie always made you express yourself. sometimes he would come in at half time and say, ‘Boys, where do I start? It’s boring! Imagine me, 72 years old, watching this kind of game? Excite me. Try a pass over 40 yards. Try a dribble. I don’t care if it goes wrong. I want to sit on the edge of my chair. Please excite me. And make the game quicker.’ He was a genius”.

United predominately played with a 4-4-2 formation, although Ferguson always liked to have one of his forwards drop deeper in between the lines of midfield and defence, making it harder for the opposition to mark. Eric Cantona started this trend. Given a free role to influence the game how he wished. Success followed and the formation stayed. Cantona retired in 1997 and Ferguson signed Teddy Sheringham to fill the void. Dwight Yorke was signed two years later and went on to form a deadly partnership with Andy Cole. Wayne Rooney later was given the responsibility of the deeper role in which he flourished, becoming the club record goal scorer.

Two banks of four provided a platform on which to build on. To this day for me this is by far the best formation of which United have and should still be playing. Wide men and box to box midfielders were part of the dynasty in which Sir Alex had built. Often in Europe, Ferguson flirted with a 4-5-1 formation to try and compete with the continental style of play in which he would come up against. With more foreign managers coming to the Premier League, these sorts of systems were packed away in their suitcases. 4-4-2 had died. Until last season that is. Leicester resurrected the old-style formation and went about blowing away the competition and lifting the title.

Louis Van Gaal started his reign with a back three, fresh from his World Cup exploits with the Dutch. The United faithful were not impressed. Results and performances suffered and LVG switched to a customary back four. By then it was too late and the title was already beyond United.

Mourinho so far this season has switched between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Unsure of his best eleven and system, the changes have been on a weekly basis. But what is this we are starting to see again? Three at the back for the third game running. At times against both Boro and Rostov, United had six lined up along the edge of their penalty area. On both occasions the result was good enough to justify the selection, but if United crash out of the Europa League and then League form suffers, Jose could well find all his good first seasons work come undone with sections of supporters.

Do formations really work? A player moving a yard either side of where they should be could make all the difference. Once the players step over the white line, are they thinking about their jobs in the set up?

Brian Clough: “Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes”.

This summer’s recruitment, which no doubt is already underway, will underpin how Jose will take this United team forward. A back four in which the manager can trust is what you will see moving forward once Mourinho gets in the players he wants. Three at the back may well be fashionable right now, a needs must if you like for United. The manager will look to get his team back to a fluid style of play which involves a back four. United currently have neither, but if they keep scraping results like they have recently then maybe, just maybe, Mourinho can get this team back into the Champions League next season.