Manchester United: Analysis of Attacking Options & Goals in Fergie Time

With a tough trip to Anfield this Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson has some tough choices to make regarding his starting selection in attacking positions. Most managers would be daunted by having to leave world class players on the substitutes bench, or out of the 18 altogether. However, football is now very much a “squad game”, and no manager uses his squad as shrewdly as Sir Alex. What can we expect from United’s attackers this season?

Starting Formation/Options:

The preferred formation appears to be a 4231 (which can appear to be 4213 at times). One thing United seem to have more than any other club in the EPL is options in attacking positions. They have options of not only quality but also of variety. Summer signing, Shinji Kagawa (13 goals and 8 assists for Dortmund last season) has hit his straps early. United have never really had a pure 10. Here is how I see the team shaping up over the season. Kagawa will spend most of the season playing, in his preferred position, at 10, just behind a striker, which will be either Rooney or Van Persie for the most part. Rooney will also play games at 10 with Van Persie, Hernández or Welbeck as a pure 9. I can’t see Van Persie and Hernández playing together in a starting line up. They will however have plenty game time together when chasing games. With the aforementioned front 5 United also have 3 genuine wingers (Nani, Valencia and Young). These 8 are competing for the 4 front positions, which means 4 will be on the bench. Because of the balance needed on the bench, one could even miss out on the squad altogether (like Nani did against Fulham). In the bigger games United could also go with a 433 formation in order to bulk up in the middle of the park by going with 3 genuine central midfielders. This means that those 8 are all competing for 3 positions. For the tougher away trips United could also go with Welbeck wide left in a 433 in order to utilize his work rate. At Aston Villa, Young played many games at 10 however with all the options he will almost exclusively be used wide left. Nani covers both wide positions, while Valencia has proven himself as one of the finest right wingers in the league. Kagawa is also capable of playing on the left but with Young, Nani, Welbeck and Giggs there, he is unlikely to be seen there too often. Rooney, currently returning from injury will not need to be rushed back. This is completely different from previous seasons, where at times he has carried this United team. Last season, United would likely be rushing Rooney back in time for this weekend’s Liverpool game, but with Van Persie’s addition, this is not needed.

Late Goals/Fergie Time/Impact Subs:

Javier Hernández wheeling away in celebration, with the opposition left appealing for offside – a common sight.

Manchester United have a reputation of scoring late goals. Who can forget some of the late dramatic winners that United have scored over the years. They seem to happen all the time don’t they? Well think again. Not once did they go behind in a game and still manage to win last season. Manchester United got the least points (3) from losing positions in the Premier League, and all 3 of those occasions yielded only a draw.  This season already they have recovered double (6) from losing positions, and we are only 3 games in. Here is another stat – Arsenal recovered the most points (24) from losing positions last season. Van Persie’s 30 goals and 13 assists played a huge role in that. Now Van Persie is a United player, and already he has scored 3 equalizers and 1 winner from 2 starts. So last season saw very little late drama from United, but this season will surely be different, as already proven. Football has long moved on from the days of the 11 starters playing as often as possible. It is now a 14 man game. I touched on this earlier, United have not only sufficient cover for possible injuries in their attacking repertoire, but they also have world class options off the bench. When chasing a game United can move Kagawa into a deeper position, play Hernández alongside Van Persie with Rooney playing in the hole, or can have Nani on the right with Valencia dropping to right back (as was the case in last season’s 2-1 win at Arsenal). This is just an example of what can happen. This still leaves Welbeck (an England international) off the pitch. No opposition would enjoy seeing what United can offer off their bench. Hernández will mostly have to be happy with starts in Cup games and substitute appearances in the league, but he is capable of creating chaos as an impact sub. He is always on the move, makes good runs in the channels and chases down everything. Opposition defences will have to keep concentration because he can destroy a tired defence. With the wide variety of attackers off the bench I think United fans will once again be celebrating loads of late goals. I can see substitutes making a big difference to their season and recovering a lot more points from losing positions.

Van Persie scored two equalisers and the winner at Southampton.

Why sign a 29 year old striker?

Van Persie is 29 years old and United have offered him a 4 year deal so he has no re-sale value. I think everyone has given up predicting when Sir Alex Ferguson will retire however he can’t have too long to go. He wants another league title before he retires so he needs an instant impact. There is no time for him to groom a youngster now. Sir Alex has a history of signing from within the division, and the simple reason is that the players are already settled into English football and are used to the league. They have also proven that they can make a big impact at Premier League level. Look at signings such as Saha, Sheringham, Young, Valencia, Rooney and Berbatov. All these players settled in very easily, and as far as this season goes, Van Persie already appears to have settled in. His performances thus far have proved that he can make a huge impact at United. Gary Neville spoke last season about Ferguson’s awareness of his side’s goal difference, and losing the title last season in that manner, would have hurt the Scot. Van Persie’s addition should improve United’s goal difference significantly.

Gary Neville, May 2012:

“I’ve been in that changing room for 20 years – it’s his worst nightmare. Losing a championship on goal difference is what he always talks about, every single season. In January, in February, in March, whatever month it is going for a Championship, he will say if you’re 1-0, 2-0 up, ‘score three, score four’.”

How do United’s title challengers compare?

The lack of strikers seems to be a bit of an epidemic in the league this season for the top clubs. The two Manchester clubs are the exception, no wonder they the two main rivals for the title again, with Chelsea following closely behind.

City have 4 strikers (Agüero, Tévez, Džeko and Balotelli) who offer very good variety. When playing a lone striker they have the option of Yaya Toure or David Silva to play the support role. There is good aerial ability, pace, physical presence and great talent within their striking pool. I can see City also getting many late goals this season as their bench is stacked with quality.

Chelsea, the other main title contenders, have problems. While they bought well in the summer they failed to address their striker shortage. They have seen Didier Drogba, Romelu Lukaku (on loan) and Nicolas Anelka (in January last season) leave the club, while no one has been brought in as replacements. Chelsea are now left with Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge as their two options. Fernando Torres had been poor since joining from Liverpool and last season was no different, scoring 6 league goals, none of any importance. Daniel Sturridge on the other hand managed 11 league goals, mostly from the right, yet he seems not to be trusted as a central striker. If injuries occur, Chelsea will be in trouble. Chelsea do have goals from all over the pitch though. The likes of Hazard, Oscar, Mata, Moses and Lampard will not only score many goals but will also put many a goal on a platter for the likes of Fernando Torres.

Other contenders for the Champions League spots have similar issues. Arsenal have brought in Lukas Podolski (who mostly plays wide), Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla (who plays as a 10), while Van Persie has left the Emirates. As seen this past weekend, Wenger chose to use Gervinho as a central striker while he waits for Giroud to settle in. This is made worse by the fact that Chamakh has not made a good impression since joining Arsenal and has yet to make a matchday 18  this season. Liverpool offloaded Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt and Andy Carroll in the summer and only brought in Fabio Borini (and failed in their pursuit of Clint Dempsey). This leaves only Luis Suarez as a central striker with the possibility of  Borini moving into a central position if needed. The only options off the bench are youngsters such as Daniel Pacheco and Adam Morgan. Tottenham Hotspur let Pavlyuchenko leave in January, Saha was released in the summer and no new strikers came in, bar the permanent deal for Adebayor. This leaves Defoe and Adebayor as their 2 central strikers with Dempsey as emergency cover.

Hernández equalised at Anfield last season, after his introduction from the substitutes bench.

Liverpool game this weekend:

Robin Van Persie is expected to lead the line, with Kagawa playing in behind. The selection on the left wing is up in the air. Welbeck would offer work-rate, and excellent link-up play, whilst Giggs would allow greater control of the game, and the possibility of overloading Joe Allen, who will be isolated in Lucas’ continued injury absence. Nani is another option, but there are doubts over his defensive capabilities. Wayne Rooney is a week away from a return. In the past, he may very well have been included on the substitutes bench as an insurance policy. That is not needed with Hernández on the bench, as well as two of Welbeck, Nani and Giggs.

About Ralph Staniforth

Ralph Staniforth is the editor for Cape Media's Leadership In Sport website,, has written for Vuvuzela Magazine, and is a college qualified football coach. All views are his own.

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