A look at Manchester United’s system under David Moyes:The Importance of Full Backs


I am a lifelong Manchester United supporter, an avid football player and an armchair tactician. This is my first article discussing tactics and I look forward to some quality discussion in the comments section. I have been thinking about David Moyes’ system at Everton and so far at United, and I want to share my thoughts on a few things I have noticed. I will begin by first taking a look at the system itself, or to be precise, one of its most pervasive attacking tactics. This will then shed some light on the various qualities required by individuals and the team. Finally, I will share my personal opinions on a few other matters to round out this article. Throughout, I will remark about various related, and even unrelated, things, and I hope that you will find it somewhat tolerable, if not interesting. I have tried to make this post approachable for the tactical beginners and so I apologize in advance for the verbose nature of this post. Let us begin.


As most of us already know, amongst other things, Moyes’ system is heavily reliant on fullbacks. He loves advanced fullbacks, and it was not uncommon in Everton for the two fullbacks to be the only players in the six-yard box! As the wingers tend to narrow infield, fullbacks will be the primary way to provide width. Here is what the formation looks like in the attacking phase:

As we all know, football formations are laid out in ‘lines’, which can be seen by simply drawing a line connecting players across the width of the field. Considering this, please take a moment to look at two important lines in this “5-3-2” attacking phase formation: the first line of attack and the second line of attack. In the link above, the first line has five players and the second line has three. Note that it is not necessary for a striker to be in the striker’s position, but it is important that someone fill the position at all. For example, during the run of play, and because of the various nuances of the build-up to the attacking phase, Januzaj and van Persie’s positions may be switched.

This is a very advantageous shape to take. Look at the first line where we have five players – one striker + two wingers + two fullbacks, as shown – filling every channel of the opponent defense and providing width. The best way to visualize this: place your four fingers on a surface, the fingers representing the opponent defenders, and look at the gaps between each fingers. There will be three gaps between the fingers – this is called a channel – and two gaps on the outside – this non-channel space is what stretches the defense and provides width [though some commentators will refer to this as the ‘outside channel’]. The advantage here is the creation of space and the difficulty in marking for the opposition back four. Let me illustrate what I mean.


Take the opponent left back, for example, and imagine he marks Rafael. The next defender can mark van Persie, in which case space is created for Mata, or he can shift to mark Mata, in which case space is created for van Persie. As you can guess, the players occupying the channels are more dangerous than the ones on the outside and because of this, the opponent defense just shifts as a line. You can visualize this by placing your four fingers down again and sliding them left or right. This means that if a fullback has possession, it is usually the other fullback who will have space because the opposing defensive line simply ‘slides’ towards him. But in any case, at least one of the players in the attacking line now has space. Movement along the line by players switching positions creates further confusion, and thus space.

Barcelona employs a very similar style, but much higher up on the pitch. Though they play a different system, the 4-3-3, the idea is the same. As their fullbacks advance, the front three squeezes in, occupying every channel. Players in the first line constantly switch positions, darting inward, outward, creating space, and the second line consists of excellent midfielders who pass the ball very well and find the first line players in the space they’ve created. Barcelona uses an elaborate build-up to get their players in this shape and is very patient for the right gaps to appear to launch an attack.

Now, back to United. I was not suggesting that we would always take up this particular shape in every attack while using this tactic. This is what it would look like at high risk.

[There are generally two types of risk – individual and team. The kind of risk I am talking about here is team risk, which corresponds to the number of players you send to attack, with the maximum possible risk being the case where the goalkeeper also joins the attack. Individual risk is associated with a player attempting a move, say a pass or a dribble, which has low chances of success. Individual risk is not as important in a high-level strategic point of view, just as it is not important to plan out the details before you have a general sense of what you’re doing.]

Normally, you can expect a lopsided attack, with only one of the fullbacks attacking and the other withdrawn. In this case, the first line would consist of only four players, with a match-for-match defending from the opposition.

Now let us look at the consequences of attaining this high-risk shape, with both fullbacks attacking. Say Rafael has possession, but it is important to note that the same arguments can be applied for Evra because of the symmetry of the shape. It is even more important to note that any player could be ‘Rafael’ or ‘Evra’ here. Now there are two tactical options for Rafael: 1) Cross or 2) Pass back.

1) Cross. If Rafael is to cross the ball, he has four ‘lengths of cross’ to choose from: each ‘length’ corresponding to the other four players on the first line of attack. Here are his options:
  • Mata: Rafael can play a low driven cross for Mata, who can shoot, pass to the second line or cross further along the first line.
  • van Persie: Rafael can cross [aerial or driven] to van Persie, who can head, shoot or tap in.
  • Januzaj: Rafael can cross [usually aerial at this length because a driven cross is less likely as it has to beat a larger number of bodies] to Januzaj who can shoot or lay it off for the advancing Rooney, or someone on the second line, to attack.
  • Evra: Rafael can cross [aerial again] to Evra, who can head, attack, or restart this tactic again.


2) Pass back. If Rafael is to pass the ball, he can pass it to the second line. This means that he can give it to Carrick, Rooney or Mata [who will have left the first line of attack to join the second line right behind Rafael, if there were no good chances for penetration]. A pass to the second line is possible because the defenders will be packed further in the box because they have to mark the first line of attack, leaving more space at the top of the box for the second line to operate in. At the second line of attack, all players have two options. They can cross in a similar vein, or they can slip through-balls to the first line to attack, whichever has higher chances of success.


Now that we have seen what the Moysey system looks like, or at least one of his attacking tactics, what are the most important skills the players need? Amongst the myriad of other attributes players must have, these are the ones that complement the system the most.

Strikers: headers + trapping the ball [to lay it off to the advancing second line] + finishing
#10: through balls + long range finishing + lobbed balls over the line of defense
Wingers: pace + headers + crossing + passing + dribbling
Midfielders: discipline + key passes + crossing + passing + tackling + stamina
Fullbacks: stamina + discipline + passing + pace + crossing
Defenders: discipline + organization [to send fullbacks forward or hold them back] + pace + tackling + passing

When I list these attributes, by no means am I suggesting that we need players that have all the attributes and more. Remember that players are a mixed bag, and that someone may excel at passing and heading while being slightly limited in terms of pace and dribbling abilities. This is natural. However, it is also important to know exactly what one is talking about when one talks about attributes. Allow me to quote the Dutch master himself, Johan Cruyff: “What is speed? The sports press often confuses speed with insight. See, if I start running slightly earlier than someone else, I seem faster.”

Along with these individual qualities, the team as a whole must be good at circulating the ball. The most important element of this is the speed of circulation. This is the top criterion in Louis van Gaal’s systems, and if he does come to Tottenham, expect stunning ball circulation from the Spurs [or you can see the Netherlands display this in the upcoming World Cup]. Let me illustrate why circulation is important. Van Gaal believes in creating 2v1s against him because this means that if two opposition players are on one of his players, then somewhere else on the field there has to be a 0v1 in his team’s favor. Of the 10 outfield players on both sides, if two are marking one, this leaves the rest of the field as an 8v9 [10v10 -2v-1 = 8v9], which necessarily frees up a person [i.e. a 0v1]. However, these 0v1s don’t always happen to the striker or the #10. Imagine an unmarked Valencia right behind Rafael, a very common situation. The objective then becomes twofold: to create this 0v1 in dangerous locations and to find this free person as soon as possible through excellent circulation before the gaps close. This why I love Dutch tactics: they view the game as a whole, as a ‘totaal’, with impacts of all ‘subsystems’ felt on the whole system. People think Total Football refers to players interchanging positions and being able to play all roles, but that is merely a consequence of their philosophy, not the philosophy itself. The main idea is that nothing is isolated. Everything is connected.

Anyways, I was saying that circulation is important to get into the above-described attacking shape in the first place, à la Barcelona, and especially important is the speed of circulation to make sure that the channels can be exploited before the opponent reorganizes or closes the gaps. The fastest way to move the ball is, of course, the long ball or the cross. However, these longer passes are also riskier than short passes. For short passes, one-touch passing is the fastest way to circulate the ball.

A Few Other Matters (on my mind grapes)

A lot of fans are panicking that Moyes isn’t the right man for the job. Where are the results? Where is the attacking flair? People draw comparisons with other managers who are all in their first year with their new teams – Guardiola, Martino, Ancelotti, Pellegrini, Martinez – and the success that they’ve had. Why doesn’t Moyes adapt to the squad rather than making the squad adapt to him?

While there is something to be said about a manager who adapts to his new squad, it is not what United were looking for when they brought in Moyes. Moyes has a long-term plan, exactly like how he built up Everton. Moyes will not adapt to his squad because he needs to get started on his long-term plan right away, so it can arrive sooner. If he’s adapting to his players all the time, what happens when the group of players themselves change, like the overhaul that may be coming up? And, you also have to consider how switching approaches can send mixed signals and undermine authority.

Frequently mentioned is Brendon Rodgers taking over Liverpool and trying to implement a certain passing style, something that was visible right away. What is visible for us? Moyes’ plan is coming in waves, in modules. He may have planted a few components – like the increase in one-touch passing that I’ve noticed, which goes with my point of ball circulation – but is unable to put in other components because he lacks the required elements, like a younger LB and a fresh midfield. To be honest, all good coaches are quite stubborn on their preferred systems [Cruyff, van Gaal, Ancelotti]. They know them inside out and know how to train the players accordingly. I just hope that Moyes at the very least learns to take more risk, the very thing I love about watching United. As a match goes on, we aren’t afraid of taking the risk to win a game. This is why we always had incredible late game attacks in swashbuckling style. I hope this continues in the future.

Manchester United have just emerged from the biggest organizational inertias known in football, the Fergie reign, and no one in the club has any idea what a non-Fergusonian United looks like. This factor is normally discounted heavily when making comparisons with other clubs [Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City] that have a culture of cycling managers, and thus have more fluid organizations. Normally, I am against massive squad overhauls and am very cautious of bringing too many new players too soon. However, this summer may be one of the few windows where bringing in many new players and offloading some dead weight would make sense. I have much faith in Moyes as the man for the job. However, in my opinion, he would need at least three to four years to fully retool the team. This is virtually impossible in modern times because of the money involved in modern football and fans’ impatience, especially vocalized through social media. And the fans are right to agitate. We are the world’s best club, and we should be at least dominating most matches if not winning them. If we are doing neither, that is a major cause for concern. Nevertheless, Moyes is a very intelligent and methodical man who can function not only as the head coach, but also as a manager who knows how to run a football club. But a club of United’s size? That will surely take time. Whether he gets this time remains to be seen.

-Diwas Neupane(Guest Writer)

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