After the Champions League final defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted the Barcelona side he’d just gone up against was the best he’d ever faced. Ferguson had clearly been influenced by the relentless pressing from the Catalans as well as their intricate passing to believe their style of play was the way forward in football. Ferguson saw a future were speed and technique would be the most important tools in a team’s attacking play and where aggressive pressing upon loss of the ball would play a significant role in the success of football teams of the future. It’s hard to say he was wrong in his assessment.
During the 2011 pre-season it was clear to see United had changed some principles in their play; the attacking width remained but there was a greater focus on quick combination play in central areas and more intensive pressing both high up the pitch and immediately after the ball was lost. Following the retirement of Paul Scholes, Ferguson promoted Tom Cleverley to the first team squad after several loan spells and Cleverley impressed, notably in a pre-season win against Guardiola’s Barcelona. Danny Welbeck returned from his loan spell at Sunderland and was put in the starting eleven alongside Wayne Rooney as Welbeck’s pace, work-rate and combination play was regarded higher than the revelation from the previous season, Javier Hernandez and his poacher’s instincts. The new signings Phil Jones and Ashley Young were players with the energy and speed Ferguson wanted and David De Gea replaced Edwin van der Sar in goal. After United went 2-0 down in the Community Shield against Manchester City, Ferguson introduced Cleverley into midfield alongside Anderson as Michael Carrick made way and the youngster inspired a dramatic 3-2 win for United were the second goal, scored by Nani, highlighted everything Ferguson sought; quick passing, creative combination play and a focus to get in behind the opposition. 19-year-old Phil Jones and Jonny Evans replaced Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at half time in that game and Ferguson kept the duo in central defence at the start of the season due to their speed and energy which says a lot really about the direction Ferguson wanted his side to take.
The start to the 2011/12 season was United’s best in the Premier League with five straight wins. The club scored 21 goals in those opening five matches (only Chelsea in 2010/11 can match that) where the defining game was the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal when United provided their fans with a spectacular show of entertaining attacking football. After the result, much was made of Arsenal’s young side as one of the reasons behind their historic defeat. They did have a young team, with an average age of 23.6 but United were even younger at an average age of 23.1. Arsenal’s side included experienced professionals like Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky, Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie so while their young players might have made less professional appearances than their United counterparts, the team had enough experience for that claim to be rendered irrelevant. The sole reason for their heavy defeat was a poor performance from them and a fantastic performance from an extremely good Manchester United who played better football in those opening games of that season than they ever have since.
United’s starting eleven can be seen below. The usual 4-4-2 remained but there was so much movement and interchanging of positions that it wouldn’t do them justice to put their shape into a rigid formation. It was fluid, it was flowing and it was fantastic to watch.
There were no surprises in United’s defensive structure as they defended in a 4-4-1-1 where Welbeck and Rooney alternated between pressing Arsenal’s defensive midfielder as their 4-3-3 lead to an extra man in midfield. Anderson and Cleverley in midfield were quite man-orientated in their pressing but mostly kept a position in relation to their teammates. If space appeared between the midfield and defensive line of United then Jones and Evans would step up to press while Smalling and Evra would tuck in behind to stay compact.
Regardless of their formation though, United’s attitude was aggressive. They pressed whenever Arsenal tried to build up, they were intense and Cleverley and Welbeck in particular put in so much energy into their performances. The image below is just one example of the aggressiveness of Cleverley as he goes to press Aaron Ramsey who’s turned the wrong way and can’t see the Englishman which results in Rooney and Cleverley winning the ball and setting up yet another attack. Anderson and Cleverley proved really successful in this regard and led United’s intense counter-pressing, especially in the first half. Arsenal were always on the back foot, as United’s front foot defending led their domination of the contest.
The influence of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona could be seen in United’s attacking play. The full-backs would push high down either flank, the centre-backs would split and one of the central midfielders would drop in between the centre-backs to receive the ball and initiate attack. United consistently built from the back and when the ball reached Cleverley or Anderson they would instantly look to progress the attack by playing the ball forward into the attacking quartet between the lines or in behind the defence. The verticality of United’s attacking play was perhaps a mix of Guardiola’s and Ferguson’s philosophy as United weren’t as possession-grabbing as Barcelona, but more vertical in their approach. In the sequence below, Jones has split all the way to the touchline to receive a pass from De Gea as United look to build an attack. Anderson has dropped into the space between the centre-backs.
Below we have another example of how Guardiola’s influence can be seen in United’s way of building from the back, note the distances between Jones and Evans. If Vidic and Ferdinand had played, imagine Vidic in Evans position while Ferdinand would probably have been somewhere around where van Persie is. The difference is huge.
Further up the pitch, United’s attacking quartet would move freely across the pitch and change positions with each other to help create passing angles and triangles with the central midfielders. In the example below, with Cleverley in possession, Young has moved inside and found a position between the lines and helped create two triangles with his new position. Welbeck has dropped into midfield as well as United have a strong presence in both half-spaces as well as down the right wing with Nani and Smalling, with Evra down the left and Rooney providing depth further up the pitch. I’ve highlighted four triangles which have been created by Welbeck’s and Young’s movement. The short distances between the players was the key for the free-flowing passing game built on quick combinations where players like Cleverley, Anderson, Nani and Welbeck thrived. The Barcelona influence can still be seen in United’s setup.
The creativity in midfield with Anderson and Cleverley and the change in focus in United’s attacking play can be seen in the opening goal. The ball has ended up at the feet of Anderson just outside Arsenal’s penalty area after a cleared Patrice Evra cross from the left. Given the four players centrally in front of goal and the fact Evra is still wide on the left, normally the ball would have been played out to Evra again for another cross. The change of United’s approach though, with the focus on vertical combination play could be the reason for Anderson’s choice of pass. Instead of going wide, the Brazilian scoops the ball over the Arsenal defence to Welbeck (circled) who heads home the opener.
Goals from Young (2), Rooney (3), Nani and Ji-Sung Park followed as United completed a rout. Some of the goals were spectacular, such as Young’s first curling effort and Nani’s chip.
Following this 8-2 win, United battered Bolton 5-0 and Chelsea 3-1 before the winning streak came to an end at Stoke where United drew 1-1. In the win at Bolton, Cleverley injured his foot, ruling him out of play for six weeks before he returned in a superb display at Everton where he injured the same foot again and missed the majority of the remaining campaign. United’s football slowly reverted to type and after the 6-1 loss to Manchester City Ferguson ditch the expansive and open approach and preferred a more wing-focused approach where the target was to simply win games. At the end of the season, United missed out on the title by a few seconds and Ferguson signed Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie and sold Dimitar Berbatov as he looked to restart his change in tactics. Berbatov said on his departure that Ferguson wanted to change the playing style to focus more on speed and energy which meant Berbatov didn’t fit the style Ferguson sought to implement. This change never really materialised in the way United had started the season in 2011, but Ferguson won the title back in 2013 and ended his career. The emergence of Rafael, Jones, Evans, Cleverley, Kagawa and Welbeck clearly signalled the direction Ferguson wanted United to take, further emphasised by his willingness to sell Rooney who had lost his speed in the 18 months since the Arsenal demolition. David Moyes prioritised other things though and Ferguson’s vision was never completed. Of the team to destroy Arsenal, only De Gea, Smalling, Jones and Young remains at Old Trafford. Times change quickly in football, but that 8-2 win will not be forgotten any time soon by United fans as well as Arsenal fans.