Sir Alex Ferguson has used a counterattacking approach while in a 4-4-1-1 shape for contests against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City. This seems to be his 'big game' system for this season.
Because there has already been some wonderful tactical analysis done on the Manchester derby by both Michael Cox and Jonathan Wilson, I don't really feel the need to be redundant by trying to offer something similar. In addition, the match was actually quite simple from a tactical perspective in that once the shapes and strategies by both Manchester United and Manchester City could be deciphered -- a counterattacking 4-4-1-1 versus a possession-based 4-2-2-2, respectively -- not much changed as the drama unfolded. In fact, there are some who believe that discussing tactics is pretty pointless for United's 3-2 defeat of City at the Etihad on Sunday.
* 'Manchester City 2-3 Manchester United: possession versus counter-attack' | Michael Cox | Zonal Marking
* 'Manchester United's fast breakaways down flanks cut City wide open' | Michael Cox | The Guardian
* 'Derby shows what has changed in Manchester over last 6 months' | Jonathan Wilson | SI.com
What's interesting, though, is that a pattern is emerging in regards to Sir Alex Feguson's tactics for 'big games'. Just as he did at Stamford Bridge in the 3-2 victory over Chelsea in late October, the manager once again emphasized structure in shape and when possession was won, his side tried to quickly transition into space down the flanks. It's debatable if Arsenal is considered a 'big game' anymore, but it's worth noting that in the game versus the Gunners the weekend after the Chelsea encounter, the same starting XI was selected and a similar approach was used. Ahead of the derby, though, it wasn't quite clear what system Ferguson would use. Antonio Valencia's surprise inclusion versus City (he was declared unavailable by Ferguson in the pre-match press conference) resulted in the exact same starting XI as in the Chelsea and Arsenal games. These contests versus Chelsea, Arsenal, and City have probably been United's biggest matches this season and they are the only ones where Ferguson has taken such a pragmatic approach. It's been hugely effective as the Red Devils have been flying down the flanks in these games.
Typically, United control the possession in most matches and if they aren't overrun in midfield, they generally dictate the tempo as well. The challenge for them usually is finding a way to the penetrate the opposition's defenses in the attacking third -- often while the Old Trafford faithful bellows out "attack... attack... attack, attack, attack!"
In Ferguson's counterattacking 4-4-1-1 approach though, the emphasis is on keeping the shape compact with two banks of four while Wayne Rooney is asked to drop deep into midfield as well when defending. Having the majority of possession is not needed and if anything, United are almost inviting the pressure onto themselves so that they have space to break forward into when the ball is won.
United don't necessarily defend deep in this system as their back four generally push up and away from their own box. This puts them close to the two deep-lying central-midfielders and this helps to shut off the space between the lines. Against teams like Chelsea and City, two sides that have tricky playmakers who enjoy roaming in this space, this has generally been an effective strategy. The biggest vulnerability, though, is when a ball is played in behind the United defense as Rio Ferdinand having to defend on the turn is not one of his strengths. There were a few scary moments with Sergio Aguero trying to run in behind the defense on Sunday but the 34-year-old Ferdinand generally handled this well on this occasion.
Michael Carrick sits deep in the midfield and his terrific positioning is important for protecting the back four and patrolling the space between the lines. The movement of the hard-working and mobile Tom Cleverley is generally more vertical than Carrick's as he does well to receive the ball in deep positions while he also gets forward when necessary for late-arriving runs into the attack. Both do well to swing passes wide as well for the full-backs and wingers.
When United do win the ball in the 4-4-1-1 counterattacking system, the wide players and Rooney -- the latter in a No.10 sort of role -- are the key players for transitions. Against Chelsea, United continually created 2 v 1 overloads when Eden Hazard failed to track back and the superb duo of Valencia and Rafael continually took full advantage against the isolated Ashley Cole at left-back. Against Arsenal, United took advantage again on the right-side as left-back Andre Santos' poor positioning continually allowed space for breaks on the flank that he was supposed to be protecting. United's second goal in the derby resulted when David Silva was out of position leaving Valencia and Rafael to get past Gael Clichy for the cross on Rooney's second goal. Ashley Young deserves credit as well for strong performances against both Chelsea and City. The left-winger works more central positions, though, in comparison to Valencia, but he's been tremendous on the counterattack as well. This was evident during the derby by his fantastic work with Robin van Persie in setting up Rooney's opening goal.
When Rooney's in the mood, his work-rate is hugely important for United. On Sunday, United's No.10 may have been fortunate not to be booked after a rash challenge on Yaya Toure in the 3rd minute (it was already his second foul too) but it exhibited that he was ready to put in a shift. The two compact banks of four when defending is fundamental for Ferguson's counterattacking approach but Rooney dropping back onto the opposition's deepest-lying midfielder is key as well. His failure to do this against Sergio Busquets in the 2011 UEFA Champions League final shows how vulnerable United can be when he's not in the mood.
Rooney is important for United when they go forward too because of his intelligent movement. Against City, he continually found space between the lines. On the first goal, van Persie dragged Vincent Kompany out of position when the striker came deep for the ball. The Dutchman and Young then played a quick combination and this left the latter in space to run at Matija Nastasic. With Kompany too far behind the attacking move, the Serbian was forced to try and slow down Young and while this was occurring, Rooney positioned himself deep enough to where he could slip City's defenders for the opening goal. On the second goal, RvP occupied the two City center-backs and Rooney held his run and finished from a position between City's defenders and central-midfielders.
Later this season, when Ferguson anticipates that it may not be prudent for his side to engage in a proactive battle, he knows he has an effective counterattacking strategy for the big domestic games. In Europe though, it'll be interesting to see how this might work against other elite sides. United have not faced an elite continental foe since that 2011 final against Barcelona. Interestingly, there are some top sides in Europe who also prefer to play on the break at times (e.g. Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund to name a few) so there could be an awkward feeling-out process at the beginning of any of those potential games. United haven't had a truly great side since 2009 when they were able to play pragmatically on the counterattack in big games in a 4-3-3 shape. Can this current United side reach the same heights? If they can, this counterattacking 4-4-1-1 will have to come through for them during this season's grand encounters.