The Tactics Tank, Episode One: Manchester United vs Fulham
If all you’ve been doing of late has been going to matches every weekend, it may have passed you by that there is now a single, unified way in which we should watch association football which is a bit like looking at an Excel spreadsheet made by somebody that has taken too many magic mushrooms. Never ones to miss out upon the opportunity to leap aboard a passing bandwagon, we sent our tactical guru Pete Brooksbank to Old Trafford to watch yesterday’s match between Manchester United and Fulham. Unfortunately, however, he got drunk on the train, fell asleep, woke up in Carlisle and wrote this, based on what he thinks he read about it all on Twitter, instead.
It was in a rare moment of sober clarity during a career curtailed by heavy drinking and excessive drug-taking that the erratic Bolivian coach Luis Revilla once observed: “Sometimes, the only way to win a football match is to not play a match at all.”
The words may have been snarled nearly twenty years ago from tobacco-ravaged lungs in the smoggy offices of Nacional Potosi, but they were to prove oddly prophetic, as that was exactly the strategy deployed by Fulham at Old Trafford yesterday afternoon during an ignominious 90 minutes of EPL soccer that will surely rank as perhaps David Moyes’ lowest game as a coach. The statistics tell one story – that of an utterly dominant home team – but watching the game itself afforded the average supporter an altogether different perspective of a familiar narrative. Of course, Fulham did not technically win the game. Rather, theirs was an emphatic psychological victory, with United’s beleaguered manager outwitted by tactics developed decades years ago in a bleak corner of Eastern Europe. That it should come to this.
Watching the Cottagers’ craven performance, fans of 1940s Hungarian football will no doubt have seen shades of the once-great Ferar KMSE, a fearsome side drilled in absolute withdrawal, a tactic dubbed at the time as the megadás. Megadás was originally a form of strategic capitulation developed by leading Hungarian sides who would play a kind of anti-football – call it, say, a non-game – leaving opponents so convinced of certain victory such that they would end up tripping over their own hubris and breaking their metaphorical hip shafts.
It was not a pretty tactic to watch. Hungary in the late 1940s was a bleak, economically-ravaged country where people were reduced to eating iron shavings, and football fans found scant escapism in the national league, which was dominated by sides like Ferar who would barely leave their own half for entire matches. Instead, games became akin to trench warfare, with progress measured in inches. Some cup ties were even decided via coin toss.
Despite its aesthetic limitations, René Meulensteen, evidently a student of the vintage Ferar KMSE side of 1947, deployed his version of the megadás so effectively it was a wonder that the team managed to make it onto the pitch from the dressing rooms in the first place. But make it they did, and a sullen Old Trafford was greeted by the sight of a visiting team comfortably entrenched within its own penalty area for long stretches. Occasionally they did venture forward, Steve Sidwell acting as Fulham’s hordár – shuttling the ball backwards and forwards and leftwards and rightwards with the mentality of a postman delivering things from a bag.
Indeed, it was from one such venture that Sidwell was to betray the entire ethos of the megadás by inadvertently scoring, which was to prove the biggest error they made all afternoon. Despite the subversive nature of the goal score, Fulham continued to retreat.
And while the best hordár can exist in blissful isolation from the rest of his team-mates, he must at some point devolve any offensive responsibilities to another player, most commonly the player taking on the role of the érvényesíteni. Of course, Fulham’s problem in this respect is that they lack a natural érvényesíteni, and Meulensteen’s inability – or point blank refusal – to acquire one in the January trade slot is something that will surely come back to haunt him like Vigo the Carpathian did to Janosz Poha.
This is not to say a side bereft of attacking intent cannot win without an érvényesíteni. This absence can be somewhat compensated for by the deployment of a talisman in the shape of Ferar KMSE’s Viktor Grunchen, the játékmester responsible for either doing the goals or setting up others to do the goals. Fulham’s játékmester on Sunday was undoubtedly Lewis Holtby, a late acquisition from the Tottenham Hotspurs, who already possess about a dozen játékmesters and could thus afford to lose one to a divisional rival. Holtby’s mesmerizing leg churn, combined with the kind of existential awareness so important in the role, was to make the crucial difference, as evidenced by his impressive heat spheres.
For Manchester United, the omens are not good. The attacking triumvirate of Rooney, Van Persie and Mata was left seeking chinks in Fulham’s armour that simply didn’t exist. Of the three, it will be Juan Mata’s futile plight that sticks in the craw of United’s commercial partners most of all. Subdued and isolated, Mata’s heat grid is sure to fill even the most positive of Manchester United fans with a sense of overwhelming dread and despair, showing, as it does, that Mata was effectively abandoned in a void the Czech soccer academic Jan Pruska once dubbed the osamělý - a kind of soccer purgatory, from where even the world’s greatest players are no longer able to assert any kind of influence over what happens on the field.
Cast away to the periphery, Mata’s non-effect was such that his heat grid is almost entirely vacant of heat. Moyes will no doubt be hoping for a grid filled with a violent explosion of luminescent brilliance on Wednesday night when he takes his side to Ashburton Grove. But on this evidence, United’s hapless boss may be wise to take Luis Revilla’s advice and not play Arsenal at all.
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