In last week’s column I called for a closer look at how managers translate their tactical vision to the first team, which would entail understanding their preferences on the training pitch. Today I want to look at a concrete example and some of the questions it raises.
One of the major topics of idle conversation in football involves how well a club will fare under a new manager. A lot of this is discussed in terms of psychology—will the new players trust the new boss, trust his leadership abilities, or will they feel undermine by a new set of directives.
These are no doubt important questions, but of course the tactical preferences of a new manager are paramount. If a manager is too technocratic and rigid in their approach, they can pull a “Gasperini at Inter”—forcing an unfamiliar and inappropriate system on a set of players for which it is ill-suited.
We often think of these problems strictly in terms of formations: playing the wrong players in the wrong positions. But there are a host of problems that can arise when an incoming manager attempts a completely different approach in training, too.
At the moment, one of the most anticipated managerial debuts will be that of David Moyes’ at Manchester United. Last May, shortly after Moyes was touted as Sir Alex Ferguson’s likely replacement, Michael Cox wrote a breakdown of Everton’s tactical approach. Here’s a snippet:
David Moyes is a particular fan of “segmenting” his training pitch to encourage players to cover space efficiently. One format involves the playing area divided into 24 equal squares, so the defence play high up the pitch, the wide players stretch the play, and the attackers rotate position.
Another setting has the pitch divided lengthways into six narrow bands of 12 yards each – the back four must occupy the nearest four “bands” when the ball is on one flank, then the middle four when the ball is in central positions. There’s also a strong importance placed upon positional responsibilities at transitions from attack to defence, with players ordered to organise themselves immediately, usually into two banks of four.
Cox based part of his piece on Moyes’ training scheme published in Elite Soccer Magazine. Essentially Moyes uses segments to encourage his players to learn to ensure they are covering spaces and reacting to the movement of their team-mates. The idea is to get his players eventually moving fluidly in attack whilst at the same time covering open space. Moyes augmented this approach by playing training matches with contrasting formations (you can see some of the segment training here while Moyes was still at Everton here—note how careful the players are to ensure they`re covering open channels).
Moyes also trains with a three-goal pitch, a training exercise in which teams are encouraged to quickly switch play should one of the goals be effectively covered by the opposition team. Again, the point here is to encourage the ability to transition quickly to adapt to a defensive barrier. As Cox notes, the approach worked well at Everton, with the side posting the highest number of passes in the final third of the pitch.
I thought it would be interesting to gain some insight into Alex Ferguson’s approach to see if and how it contrasted with Moyes’. The best I could do was dig up another Elite Soccer training session, this time from 2010 (I don’t have a link, sorry!). It’s a little old, and no doubt Ferguson was always innovating so this could have been obsolete by this season, but it did contain some very interesting insights into United’s method in improving their potent attack.
The session in particular involved attacking wing play and shooting. Ferguson’s approach is more focused on individual technique and versatility in attack, and is about shooting accuracy and speed. The first exercise uses two balls to practice long distance shooting and crossing accuracy with a midfielder and striker linking up, and then a third ball is added, along with two wingers and another midfielder striker pair.
It can be adapted for a 10v10 practice match using half the pitch, in which only one defender is allowed in a wide zone to allow 2v1 situations to increase the frequency of crossing. Players must finish balls from the wing with one touch. The emphasis on quick, accurate shots should provide food for thought for those interested in United’s incredible shot% last season (I’m not going to make any rash conclusions of course). You can get a general idea of the combination exercise in the latter part of this video , although mind the marketing crap.
And so here you have two contrasting approaches to attack in training. Moyes’ approach (take in isolation of course) segments the pitch to emphasize team spatial awareness and intelligent transitions in moving into the final third of the pitch. Ferguson’s approach is about individual finishing technique, accuracy of final balls, and accuracy and speed of shots on target. I should note here of course that these are only single exercises and probably don’t represent the full repertoire, so we should be careful in using these to draw definitive conclusions.
Still, what follows from this are entirely innocent questions I honestly don’t have the answer to, and may be entirely irrelevant, but I`m just going to ask anyway. Like for instance, is Moyes’ approach perhaps better suited to a side comprised of less individually creative players? Is it too formal, and could it limit the individual creative freedom of United’s attacking mids and strikers? Should Moyes’ stick to what worked for him at Everton, or should he work with Ryan Giggs and Phil Neville to help incorporate some of the methods that worked under Ferguson for so long? Has this already been a subject of conversation in the front office?
Most of the time, managers are brought in to improve the club. Because of this, there is arguably less pressure on the manager to adapt their approach to suit the team. Moyes by contrast has been brought on at United to keep it at the incredible level it has enjoyed for two decades under Ferguson. He more than most managers might value the advice of the previous managers and former players.
Even so, I think as a rule tactical observers in general might be wary of ascribing absolute, unchanging tactical preferences to managers throughout their career. Surely good managers change their approach to suit new circumstances and surroundings. David Moyes` future at Manchester United, and the club`s future for that matter, might depend on it.