Sauharda Karki has a detailed look at Manchester United’s defensive tactics under Jose Mourinho
Over the past decade in football, the classical 4-4-2 game plan has often been readjusted and at times almost replaced in its entirety to adjust to the changes in both regional and continental football. On quite a few occasions, having addressed the shortcomings of the shape and style, these revamped 4-4-2 approaches have proven to be successful. Moreover, the past few years have also demonstrated the versatility of the shape, with managers adjusting the formation for methods ranging from high pressing strategies to deep seated counter approaches.
This article aims to shed light on the implementation of the 4-4-2 shape in recent years with regard to the defensive phase of play, with a primary focus on Manchester United under Jose Mourinho. The article will attempt to analyze the trend of Mourinho’s defensive shape, break down the mechanics, and assess its efficacy in the last Premier League season.
With the entry of the philosophy of fluidity in attack in the approach of most current day managers, the abilities of a player in attack are given more weight over their defensive capabilities. A quick glance at the differences in the traditional and modern full back should highlight how different roles are today due to changing systems, with more preference given to the pace and ability to influence the attacking phase rather than positioning, marking ability and sturdiness. This may perhaps indicate why modern football has seen most successful teams adjusted to defend tactically rather than rely on the individual ability of players. This approach compensates for the extra attack-oriented players, with comparatively poor defensive abilities for their position, now placed in what were once considered defensive positions. There have been many varied approaches to tactical defending over the last few years with high pressing methods gaining popularity, the holding midfield position obtaining immense tactical importance and, as in this scenario, teams adapting to a sturdier shape in the defensive phase.
Mourinho’s United are one of the many teams in recent years that have utilized a 4-4-2 as a basis for defensive play. United finished the league with the second best defensive record (GA-29 CS-17) behind Tottenham (GA-26 CS-17) with both teams tied for the most clean-sheets (17). Interestingly, while Pochettino’s Spurs managed over 70% of their clean-sheets at home, United had a more even distribution of clean-sheets at home (47%) and away (53%), despite having conceded close to 60% of their goals in Away games.
Note: The statistics mentioned in this article is based on league games in an attempt to standardize data.
Shape and Setup
Regardless of the starting personnel or formation, the shape tends to resolve towards a 4-4-2 in the initial defensive phase (Fig. 1). With the often used 4-2-3-1, the attacking midfielder joins the striker to form the first line, with two wide midfielders and two central midfielders forming the second line, in front of a back four.
Intriguingly, the experimental preseason 3-5-2 also sees the team move to a similar shape in the defensive phase (Fig. 2 and 3).
Moving Opposition Buildup to Wide Areas: In general, managers have the choice of deciding where on the pitch their team does most of the defending (wide areas, central areas, high up the pitch, within own half etc.) and try to implement methods to ensure this plan functions well.
In this scenario, the set up aims to move the ball into wider areas in the early phase of defense, limit the ball from being played vertically into central areas, and defend in wider areas. While the team may be outnumbered in central areas, the player matchup (winger to fullback/fullback to winger) is almost always the same in wide areas (usually 2v2). Moreover, the wider areas are easier to overload in later phases of defense in comparison to central areas, where an attempt to overload an already outnumbered midfield would pull the defense out of position.
To accomplish this, the two forward players in the setup position themselves to guide the passes from opposition center backs into wider areas and restrict passes through the center (Fig. 4 and 5). The players stationed in wider areas then attempt to perform adequate defensive duties to isolate play in wide areas and restrict the progression of buildup.
Wide Area Overload and Winger Isolation: These methods are very similar to those employed by Simeone in 2013/14.
Once the ball moves wide, extra numbers join the area to limit the options of the wide player (Fig. 6 and 7).
In more advanced areas, an effort is made to isolate the winger in wide areas to prevent progression of play (Fig. 8).
Central marking and pressing: The basic principle of any active defensive plan is to deny the opposition of space, or time on the ball, or both.
In this context, both marking and pressing maneuvers are implemented in different areas of the pitch to reduce space for wide players, and time on the ball for central players. In wider areas, with a matching number of players, the opposition can be marked and allowed little space, with restricted movement and containment of crosses from wide areas.
In central areas, with many teams now opting for extra numbers in midfield, the players are often outnumbered resulting in a mismatch in marking. The central roles are involved in pressing of central opposition players in an attempt to reduce the amount of vertical passes played to central areas, and thus complement the effort to force the opposition buildup into wider areas. The opposition players in central areas are forced to be on their toes and receive most passes in a moving position, with little time to turn or make a progressive pass/run (Fig. 9).
With reduced time on central players to receive the ball, this approach is also seen to increase the number of interceptions made in these areas, especially against teams that build up through the middle.
The mechanics of the set-up do indicate that it should function better against opposition formation with a 2-man midfield, since the equal central numbers and positional matchup should allow for better marking alongside pressing in central areas. This signaled for a better look into the defensive performance of the system against various formations (Fig. 16).
There have been other teams that have employed a similar defensive setup in recent years. Among these, one of the more successful defensive plans was Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side of 2013/14. The solid functioning defensive system paired with an efficient and appropriate counter approach in attack allowed the team to perform much of the above initial expectations.
• Simeone’s 13/14 side conceded the least goals in the league (26).
• Alongside Barcelona, Atletico averaged the least number of shots conceded per game (both at 8.9 per game).
Though the defensive approaches were similar, the offensive plan of the two sides differ.
Another successful example bearing similarities with Mourinho’s setup is Ferguson’s United side of 2007/08. The set up was a similar 4-4-2 with a similar approach of pushing the ball wide to do most of the defending and keeping central areas clear. Since the type of formations faced in the league back then (most with a 2-man central midfield) allowed for more matching positions with the opposition, SAF’s side seemed more efficient at marking opponents and limiting play in central areas alongside a decent amount of pressing.
Rui Vitoria’s Benfica side has been seen to utilize similar methods in defense, although unlike United, they utilize a 4-4-2 shape variant for both attacking and defensive phases. The team showed how lethal the system can be when paired with an efficient attack that balances the defensive setup. However, one thing made clear through Vitoria’s side is that the setup struggles when opposition is allowed to play through the center. This called for a further look into how Mourinho’s team fared in similar situations, and whether this was an actual tactical weakness.
• Benfica finished as league winners last season having conceded the least number of goals (18).
• At the other end, Benfica scored the most goals in the league last season (72).
• Benfica were third in terms of least shots conceded per game (8.7).
• Benfica were third in terms of least crosses conceded per game (15).
Let us now look into certain components affected by the setup and how they reflect in the team’s performance.
The shape and system allows for more efficiency in quick transition and counter attacking. With the shortest distance to goal on the counter being through the middle, an efficient counter system would require at least two central players in attacking positions during the defensive phase, with a supporting wide player along one flank to join in if progression through the middle is restricted. This 4-4-2 shape readily permits the 2 central players needed in attack (Fig. 10).
Furthermore, with the approach directed to guide the ball towards one flank, a player in the opposite flank will almost inevitably be free to join the break. In an ideal situation, this would allow at least three players to dictate the progression of the counter attack.
The efficacy of the shape has already been proven on multiple occasions in recent years. In the 2013/14 season, Atletico Madrid used a primary counter approach that was heavily benefited by the defensive shape and system. Ferguson’s 2007/08 game-plan incorporated a counter system based on the same shape and similar defensive principles in a season where the attacking trio of Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo reaped the benefits of the approach. Leicester City employed similar methods under Ranieri in their league-winning season.
Barcelona under Enrique on occasions implemented parts of the system, with Rakitic assigned to do most of the defending on the right flank in the early defensive phase. This allowed Messi to move closer to the center, permitting three players (Messi, Suarez, Neymar) to be available in advanced areas for the counter, and at least 2 players always available in central attacking positions for counter progression no matter which flank the ball was won in (Fig. 11)
It was inevitable that Mourinho would integrate a counter component into his approach, but perhaps was waiting for his defense to adjust. However, unlike Atletico or Leicester, counter attacks still appear to be secondary approach in Mourinho’s offensive system. With players like Mkhitaryan, Martial, Lukaku and Rashford available, more emphasis can perhaps be expected on the secondary approach in this coming season (Fig. 12).
Note: Of the 7 entirely completed counter attacks made by United last season, 6 came in the last three months of the season.
The system ensures that defending is concentrated in wide areas, position matching and close marking of wide players. When properly implemented, the system is known to limit the number of crosses conceded (Fig. 13).
However, a mismatch of positions out wide or failure in adequately defending wide areas may result in dire consequences for the team. A good example was United’s return game against Arsenal at the Emirates. The home side went with a 3-4-3 that succeeded in causing a mismatch out wide, with most United players pulled centrally. This exposed wide areas, especially exploiting United’s weak left side of defense.
• United finished 4th among teams with least crosses conceded per game last season, with 16 per game (16% better than league average).
[Atletico finished the 2013/14 season in 4th among teams with least crosses conceded, with 17 per game (20% better than league average).]
• United conceded just 2 goals from crosses resulting from build up play. (both against Arsenal, both assists from United’s left side of defense)
Defending Central areas
As mentioned earlier, the setup has been known to undergo problems against opposition capable of opening up central areas in buildup. Knowing this issue, the United midfield is often seen closing down opposition players with space in central areas as soon as possible. Judging from the performance of Mourinho’s team last season, the importance of keeping the opposition from exploiting central areas was further emphasized. A major proportion of the side’s defensive problems came from central areas.
An analysis of the goals conceded by United last season also indicate towards an issue in defense when the team fails to keep play away from central areas (Fig. 14). [The goal analysis also revealed a considerably weak left side of defense in comparison to the right last season.]
• Over half the goals (54%) conceded solely from open play buildup by United in the league were assisted from central areas.
• Close to 78% of buildup play goals assisted from outside the box by the opposition were from passes through central areas.
• All goals conceded from crosses and pull-backs from wide areas have come from United’s left side of defense.
Mourinho’s additional measures during the defensive phase involves marking central players and closing down opposition players in matching central positions. Unlike drastic measures of very closely marking opposition or heavy pressing aimed at dispossessing the opposition player, the moderate levels of pressing/marking employed by United are perhaps more focused at forcing the opposition to rush and misplace passes in central areas (Fig. 15).
With less time and space for central players, this method was seen to increase the risk of opposition passes through the middle being misplaced, creating a lot more interceptions for the team.
• United averaged 15.3 interceptions per game last season (second best in the league).
Attempting to close passes through central areas prompts opposing teams to attempt aerial play through the center. When the setup is in proper function, the midfielders are closely tracked and wide areas marked leaving the opposition CBs with limited short passing options. This often prompts long passes from the opposition defensive line. This results in the team having to defend an additional number of aerial balls in the defensive phase.
United have, however, managed to compensate for this with a more than adequate average height among players in the spine of the formation (CMs/CBs) paired with decent ability in the air, in a very similar fashion to how Simeone compensated for similar problems back then.
This may also seem to have played a role in reducing the number of goals conceded from set pieces despite the high number of fouls, again very similar to Atletico 13/14.
• Despite ranking second in conceding most fouls per game, United conceded just 6 goals from indirect free kicks and corners, the best record in the league.
In addition to this, balls directed behind the defense seemed to have been compensated for with a well drilled, efficient offside trap system.
• The United defense averaged catching the opposition offside 2.6 times per game, the second best record in the league.
With tactical defending, player ability and performance in defense has a larger impact on the number of fouls committed. Poor tackling, positioning and defensive decisions from a player placed in a position requiring more tackles would result in quite an increase in fouls given away. Mourinho encountered this problem last season with Pogba occupying one of the two CM positions. With the player having a hard time balancing out his attacking and defensive roles in a 2-man midfield, the midfielder gave away quite a few fouls. As the season progressed, the numbers stabilized with Herrera soaking up more defensive responsibility. With Matic brought to the squad to reduce the restraints on Pogba, a further reduction in these numbers is expected.
• United finished 2nd among the sides with the most fouls given away in the league, with an average of 13 fouls per game.
• Pogba gave away the most number of fouls in the United squad last season, averaging 2.1 fouls per game, amassing almost as much as CBs Bailly (1.1/game) and Rojo(1.1/game) combined.
• Pogba was third among PL players with most fouls given away.
Defensive Performance vs Various Formations
The setup showed a variable performance against different formations. Results against the commonly faced formations in the league last season will be discussed.
Facing the 3-4-3 seemed to cause the most problems. Games against 3-4-3’s often called for compensatory changes – such as the game against Chelsea where Herrera was used to tactically negate Hazard (Chelsea finished the game with no Shots On Target).
The experimental preseason 3-5-2 project that Mourinho has undertaken may be a part of his attempt to address this problem.
• Of United’s 5 league losses, 3 were against a 3-4-3
• United lost every game against a 3-4-3 away from home (3 out of 3), conceding an astonishing average of 3 goals per game, and scoring just 1 goal in the three games.
(Statistics show a comparatively better performance against the 3-4-3 at home.)
• United showed an overall poor performance against the 3-4-3 (50% loss percentage), conceding more goals per game (1.7) and shots on goal per game (3.3) than against any other formation, with a goal conceded from every 2 shots on target.
The 4-3-3 variant was the most faced formation in the league, thus requiring the system to function against these shapes for the team to perform well defensively in the season. The set up performed well against the 4-3-3, perhaps exploiting the fact that most of these teams looked to find their midfield three in early phases of buildup and play through the middle. United managed 7 of their 17 clean sheets against the 4-3-3
• United managed clean sheets in more than half the games (54 %) against the 4-3-3 (7 clean sheets in 13 games).
• United averaged lesser goals per game (0.54) while facing the 4-3-3 than against any other formation.
Theoretically, the setup was expected to perform well against the 4-4-2. The matching positions were expected to allow for more efficient marking and pressing and thus better chances of winning back possession.
Although not all areas of performance were up to theoretical expectations, the set-up provided a good performance against 4-4-2’s.
• United averaged more possession (61.97%) against 4-4-2’s than against any other formation.
• United’s best average tackle success rate (73.3%) is against the 4-4-2.
• The team averaged the least shots conceded (8.5 per game) and SOT conceded (2.3 per game) when playing against the 4-4-2.
• Mourinho’s side achieved a higher win rate (67%) against a 4-4-2 than against any other formation.
• United did not lose a single game against a 4-4-2
(Additionally, United averaged the best scoring record (2 goals per game) while playing against the 4-4-2 formation.)
Note: The system was also seen to perform well when facing narrow formations with a 4-man defense (4-1-2-1-2/4-1-3-2 etc.) but there is insufficient data to adequately demonstrate this. This may perhaps be a result of the opposition trying to play through center due to the narrow shape, which eventually proves difficult since United’s system restricts these areas, and attempts to push the buildup wide. This aspect will have to be looked into further this season.
Role of Pragmatism in United’s play
Knowing Jose Mourinho’s footballing philosophy, there is no denying the additional tactical maneuvers employed by the manager to handle specific opposition threats that affect his team’s tactics and performance.
With this setup at United, Mourinho’s philosophy has remained quite the same. Indicators from games early in this season have shown that the manager is willing to tweak his game plan in order to obtain favorable results.
Super Cup vs Real Madrid: Zidane’s approach of building through the middle and the caliber of Madrid’s central players, and the fact that United have struggled when central buildup is permitted meant that Mourinho would more than likely take compensatory measures.
Mourinho has been known to use positional matching on the field to attempt at tactically negating specific opposition players (Fig. 17). Knowing the threat posed by Madrid’s midfield diamond, his focus was very likely on this area. Of the three United players in matching average positions with Madrid’s midfield, two (Herrera and Matic) were utilized in the attempt of tactically negating opposition players (Kroos and Isco respectively) while Pogba was given a free role on the left side. However, with Madrid’s fluid midfield often roaming from position off the ball and adapting to play, Mourinho’s side lost the midfield battle on the night.
Friendly vs Man City: Holding midfielders and central attacking midfielders are known to cause problems against a 4-4-2 shape, with both roles implying that opposition players lie in the space between the lines. With the entire setup based on moving opposition play wide in the initial phase and preventing play in central areas, a midfielder dropping deep to receive passes and allow buildup through the middle is a very big threat.
Mourinho was seen trying to address the issue with the holding role in this game. With City playing with a three-man midfield and Guardiola’s known approach to creating devastating buildups through central areas, Mourinho attempted to reduce the threat posed by the midfield trio with his known approach of positional matching and marking. Considering Toure’s holding midfield role to be the only midfield role with a fairly constant position in City’s buildup phase, Mourinho employed his attacking midfielder (Mkhitaryan) to mark and close down Toure when City tried to move the buildup to central areas (Fig. 18).
Conclusion: Is it worth putting so much tactical emphasis on defense?
With all this focus and placement of precious training time and effort on defending tactically, the important question would be whether the method pays off on the pitch.
In terms of performance, it has already been seen with various teams in the past that when tactical defending is implemented correctly, the system does improve the overall defense without bringing much increase in the amount of effort and energy the players put in.
Although utilizing a very different system for defense, another example of a team from the Premier League enjoying success from defending tactically is Pochettino’s Tottenham. After his arrival in 2014, Tottenham finished the first season under him in 5th place, yet had conceded 53 goals, the highest number conceded by a 5th placed PL team in over a decade. Perhaps realizing the problems at the defensive end, the revamped system resulted in a drastic improvement in performance in the next two seasons.
• Pochettino has now reduced goals conceded by an astonishing 50%, from 53 in his first season to 26 in 2016/17(Fig. 19).
• Tottenham conceded fewer league goals than any other premier league side last season (26), 7 fewer than league champions Chelsea.
• In the last decade in the Premier League, only two sides have conceded fewer goals (SAF’s Man United 07/08 – 22 and 08/09 – 24), both of which won the league in their respective seasons.
For Mourinho’s side last season, defensive performance was crucial in the way the season finished, especially because of the poor conversion stats at other end of the pitch.
• United lost every game in the league in which they conceded more than 1 goal.
• Over the past season, statistical trend shows an improving defense as players settle into the manager’s approach.
• United conceded 9.5 shots per game last season, their least in almost a decade (Fig. 20).
There is an interesting indicator of the change in defensive performance over the course of the season, with the team adjusting to the setup.
While the number of interceptions/tackles/shots conceded and ball possession remaining fairly constant (Fig. 21), the average number of goals conceded per game gradually reduced as season progressed (Fig. 22). This shows an adequately functioning plan, with better performance achieved from the same amount of defensive effort.
• United conceded just 10 goals in 19 games in the second half of the season (70% of total goals United conceded were in the first half of the season).
• Mourinho’s side were conceding just 0.52 goals per game in the second half of the season, a whopping 50% less than the first 19 games (1 goal per game).
• 11 of United’s 17 clean sheets (65%) came in the second half of the season.
• United conceded just 1 goal arising completely from opposition buildup in 19 games in the second half of the season (Fig. 23).
On a general note, it is an exciting thing for modern football that many managers are willing to invest time and energy in the defensive phases of their teams. The past few years in football has seen the birth of several ingenious defensive strategies, with quite a significant portion of these setups being implemented by bigger teams.
There is a slowly developing realization among both managers and fans that defensive football and playing good defense are two very different entities. Perhaps there is still hope for a more wholesome and inclusive modern culture in football.
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