Tactics Tuesday: How Bob Bradley Can Learn from Sir Alex

It’s unlikely any manager would turn down the opportunity to pick the mind of Manchester United’s revered gaffer, Sir Alex Ferguson. Oh, his brusque manner might put off some, but we doubt Bob Bradley would hesitate if given the opportunity to chat with Sir Alex. And given the hints Bob has dropped in the past, it might have already happened.

Were the two managers to sit down together, we think Sir Alex’s advice would boil down to one word. Versatility.

This seasons United’s squad has fielded a variety of formations in their pursuit of domestic and continental glory. Let’s peruse a few of those set ups to see if we can find any advice for Bradley the Elder.

Formation: 4-4-1-1 (Chelsea, Champions League, 2-1 victory)


Manchester United’s most recent triumph was knocking Chelsea out of the Champions League. One week ago, Ferguson used a 4-4-1-1 to stymie legendary manager Carlo Ancelotti. In the first leg, United won in a battle of 4-4-1-1 vs 4-4-2. Anecelotti switched his formation to a 4-3-2-1 in the second encounter, but the end result was still a United victory.

Key Tactical Nuance – Wayne Rooney’s passing

Facing a man deficit in the middle of the pitch, Ferguson instructed Wayne Rooney to drop deep into midfield. To further United’s cause, Rooney constantly sprayed passes from endline to endline, creating quite the passing chalkboard.

Rooney negated Chelsea's man-advantage in the middle by dropping deep and sending passes wide.

He rarely sent any passes to teammates in the middle. Chelsea’s central midfielders, who didn’t have traditional wingers in support, were stretched thin trying to cover the extra ground.

Lesson for Bob – avoid congestion

This might be a lesson Bob has already taken to heart, as he used similar tactics to defeat Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup. However, we’ve yet to see Clint Dempsey start as a withdrawn forward in a match in which the USA knows they’ll be bereft of possession. Dempsey has the deft touch necessary to replicate Rooney’s impressive passing spread.

Formation: 4-5-1 (Arsenal, FA Cup, 2-0 victory)


In the FA Cup quarterfinals, Ferguson countered Arsene Wenger’s possession-based 4-2-3-1 with a counter-attacking 4-5-1. Ferguson didn’t even try to match Arsenal’s short passing game. United invited Arsenal into the final third before ruthlessly pushing forward on the counter.

Key Tactical Nuance – fullbacks as wingers

As Arsenal always uses at least one inward-thinking winger (and sometimes two), Ferguson put two fullbacks at outside midfield.

Fullbacks Rafael and Fabio were deployed at outside midfield in United's countering 4-5-1.

Brazilian twins Fabio and Rafael possessed the speed, endurance, and defensive know-how to track Arsenal’s wingers yet simultaneously put themselves in dangerous positions moving forward.

Lesson for Bob – let the young guns do the work

In USA’s most recent friendlies, winger/fullback Timmy Chandler was quite impressive. Ferguson’s countering 4-5-1 seems like an ideal situation for the youngster. And while Jonathan Bornstein might not be every USA fan’s cup of tea, he does have both pace and industry

If the US ever faces a side as possession obsessed as Arsenal, making use of these two defenders as wingers could be a decisive strategy.

Formation: 4-1-4-1 (Everton, Premier League, 3-3 draw) 4-4-1-1 (Liverpool, Premier League, 3-2 victory)


For our last mini lesson, we’ll examine the role of striker Dimitar Berbatov in two separate formations. Against Everton, Berbatov was the lone striker in a 4-1-4-1. In a match with Liverpool, the Bulgarian partnered with Wayne Rooney, and the two forwards alternated between staying up top and dropping into the midfield.

Key Tactical Nuance – target forward who wasn’t

In both matches, Ferguson eschewed the use of a traditional target forward. Instead, he relied on the silky Berbatov, whose languid play will never be confused with that of a traditional bruiser. Over the two games, Berbatov didn’t win a single free kick (nor did Rooney win one against Liverpool).

by Guardian Chalkboards

And despite the lack of a physical target up top, United won both matches.

Lesson for Bob – maybe Jozy doesn’t need to play every game

We here at FFG think Jozy Altidore is more than a traditional target forward (though his career arc has been quite odd). However, he is nowhere near as accomplished a passer as Clint Dempsey.

Ben and I are itching to see Dempsey deployed as a false-nine (essentially the role Berbatov played against Everton). The tradeoff for losing Altidore’s pace and power would be that extra bit of quality in build-up play, an exchange that could, at times, be vital.

Gringos, what do you think of our lessons for Bob? Do international managers have enough time to implement formation changes from match to match? Or should Bob choice a formation/strategy and stick to it regardless of the opposition?

2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Gringo Primal says:

    I think there’s enough time to switch formations and tactics. We might over analyze the amount of time factor. As long as it’s not big changes (and the ones you proposed weren’t drastic), it should be ok.

  2. AdamFromMich says:

    I think the National team has time to learn a couple of formations well enough to use in meaningful games. I’ll be happy when we get there with our 4-2-3-1, as long as we don’t abandon our 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2 as you’ve pointed out). This should give us more flexibility.

    Then BB can use some practice time for ‘maximum attack’, ‘maximum defense’, and ‘playing with a man down’ variations for special situations.

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