Tactics Board: Fletcher flounders in new role

Posted by Richard Jolly


Darren Fletcher's finest football for Manchester United came as a box-to-box midfielder. Since he suffered from the bowel condition ulcerative colitis, he has reinvented himself as a holding player. On his first start at Old Trafford since 2012, he was a like-for-like replacement for the rested Michael Carrick.

The statistics show that, like the Englishman, the Scot focuses on getting the ball and giving it to a teammate as soon as possible. He had 91 touches, and 83 of them were passes, highlighting how virtually every piece of distribution was a first-time pass. The most significant and perceptive of these instigated the move that led to Javier Hernandez's goal. There was one notable difference between the usual starter and the stand-in, however: Whereas Carrick averages only 5.7 long balls per game, Fletcher attempted 13. While 10 of them found a teammate, it is a reason why his pass completion rate -- 83 percent -- was a little low for an anchorman. Yet the figures also show that Fletcher's days of making a direct contribution in the final third are at an end: He had no shots, for instance. That increases the importance of the other central midfielder delivering, or creating, goals or offering the dynamism Fletcher now lacks, which brings a focus on Tom Cleverley.

The real problem with Fletcher's performance came not with him in midfield, but in defence. He was their third right-back of the day, shifted there after Rio Ferdinand was injured and Chris Smalling became a centre-back and then the substitute Fabio da Silva was sent off. A comparatively slow player can be camouflaged in the centre of midfield but isolated and exposed on the flanks, and so it was when Wayne Routledge sprinted past Fletcher to deliver the cross for Wilfried Bony's winner. Fletcher was occasionally used as an ersatz right-back in emergencies in his younger days, but he was more athletic then.


This was the old Jose Mourinho and the new Mourinho in the space of the same match. The balance between solidity and style in the Chelsea team depends on the decision whether to select two or three flair players. Mourinho's title-winning sides at Stamford Bridge were notable for the use of two of Arjen Robben, Damien Duff, Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips behind a solitary striker. Then they played 4-3-3. Now it is 4-2-3-1, but at Pride Park Mourinho began with Ramires on the right of the creative trio, an industrious player in a position where he often selects more inventive operators.

The key moment came in the 55th minute when Mourinho moved Ramires back and brought on Eden Hazard to provide a third skilful player. Chelsea opened up a previously tight game and it was from the No. 10 position that Hazard set up Oscar for the second goal. The third stylist, Willian, had taken the free kick that led to John Obi Mikel's opener.

The instructive element about Mourinho's team selection is that he often sacrifices an attack-minded player away from home. It was a feature of the win at West Ham and the draw at Arsenal. It was more of a surprise, however, when he started with a seemingly cautious side against Championship opposition.


Theo Walcott has long insisted he prefers to play as a central striker. If injuries compelled Arsene Wenger to turn his right winger into the leader of the line, it was a successful gambit. It also added another dimension to the Arsenal attack. The regular centre-forward, Olivier Giroud, and his normal deputy, Nicklas Bendtner, are both target men, charged with holding the ball up and bringing their phalanx of attacking midfielders into play. Walcott, decidedly quicker than either, has the pace to run in behind the opposition defence.

Inadvertently, that led to Arsenal's opening goal. His decoy run into the penalty area occupied two defenders, giving Serge Gnabry the room to pick out the scorer Santi Cazorla. Walcott's style of play suited Arsenal in particular against Spurs. Because Tim Sherwood is playing 4-4-2, Tottenham have one fewer central midfielder. Because Walcott takes defences towards his own goal, he stretches the play and that, in turn, frees up more space in the midfield where Arsenal had an extra player.

Because Walcott is focused on getting into goalscoring positions, rather than coming deep to collect the ball, he is never going to be in possession as much as more technical teammates. He had 32 touches, but they included eight shots. That shows how direct he is as a striker. It is more than double Giroud's average of 3.5 per Premier League game this season.


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