4-4-2 has been the default formation for Manchester United for a lifetime. The philosophy of playing with two wingers: one of them a dynamic and darting player with tendencies to drift inside and shoot; the other a more stable winger who offers width and unrivaled crossing ability dates back to the 1950s.
Tradition is great, it helps remind us of our origins and purpose, but when tradition gets in the way of progress it is time to ditch it and start a new tradition.
Against Fulham, Manchester United created a new Opta stats record: 81 crosses made in one match. Ironically, of the 81 crosses made, only 18 were successful. In other words, 63 were unsuccessful.
With Fulham playing with all 11 men behind the ball and possessing one of the tallest players in world football in center back Dan Burn, a crossing game was always going to be folly.
To add insult to injury, Dan Burn added this comment after the match:
"I’ve never headed that many balls since the Conference!"
"We knew that was going to happen and I was happy for them to play like that."
"I'm six foot seven so it helps when dealing with those sort of balls".
Perhaps it was a bit tongue in cheek but Burn does have a point, the tactics were unsophisticated and more to the point, a betrayal of the players Manchester United have at their disposal.
Against teams like Fulham who have no ambition to attack or give the opposition space to breathe, it is imperative you play between the lines and drag players out of position with intricate one-two passes. Teams like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and more closer to home, Arsenal and Manchester City routinely face teams who do not wish to open up against them and routinely put them to the sword with through balls that slice up the defence.
With Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata and Michael Carrick, United have the ability to mimic their rivals. Instead, what Moyes did was drop Januzaj to the bench (for the third match in a row since Mata's transfer), keep Mata wide on the right hand side and kept Carrick in a deep position. Essentially, this meant Rooney and van Persie were so far ahead of everyone else, they were engulfed by the deep Fulham line by the time the crosses came in.
From the get go, Moyes should have had his team line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The front four should have been allowed to rotate positions so that they could link up together, on the edge of the area and force the Fulham defenders to be drawn out of position. It should also be noted, that it was only when Januzaj came on did Manchester United look like a threat. It only took him 28 minutes to make the most dribbles in the match - 2.
Moyes's tactics were a throwback to his Everton days, an admission that he still does not trust his Manchester United players or he is just inherently a defensive minded manager.
Against Fulham he was more concerned with keeping shape than allowing the team to express themselves. The fact he did not make a change until the 62nd minute suggests that he is just cautious.
Further admission to that is his post match interview where he stated width was "in United's genes".
That may be true, but even Sir Alex Ferguson deviated from tradition when it suited the teams needs. In 1999 United often lined up in a diamond 4-4-2 formation in Europe in order to keep the midfield narrower, make United less susceptible through counter attacks piercing the middle (teams Europe rarely use wing play), and also to ensure United kept possession - something that is imperative in Europe.
As it turned out United won the Champions League and the modifications to the midfield helped out massively. Giggs, Scholes, Keane and Beckham had their best seasons in Europe yet; Giggs scored five goals, Scholes four goals and Keane score three. Meanwhile, Beckham had numerous assists enabling him to finish second behind Rivaldo in the World and European Footballer of the Year awards in 1999.
In 2003, after many strikers were found unsuitable to play next to Ruud van Nistelrooy, Sir Alex Ferguson switched from 4-4-2 to 4-4-1-1 and Scholes slotted in behind him. The result? van Nistelrooy and Scholes both had their highest scoring seasons for Manchester United. Furthermore, despite having no right to, the change prompted Manchester United come out of nowhere in mid-table to win the Premier League from an Arsenal side struggling with a series of injuries - a blemish on Arsenal's domination between 2001 and 2005.
Finally, from 2006 to his retirement in 2013, Ferguson sold van Nistelrooy, moved Giggs into the middle and dropped Scholes from an attacking midfielder back into a deep-lying playmaker as he switched between attacking teams in a 4-4-2 or going for pragmatism in a 4-3-3 formation. The change facilitated another spell of domination for United as Champions League glory and several Premier League titles followed.
The point I am making is that tradition is good, Ferguson understood that, but he never made it take precedent over what the team needed. If Moyes is ever to succeed, he needs to heed this and adapt to what United need.