I'm writing this because I've been thinking about it for a little while and I feel that I keep see people misdiagnosing what we are trying to do and why it's not working. (Also because I'm a bit bored whilst a bit ill). This isn't necessarily an attempt to defend what we are trying to do or whether it's the best approach to take (although I do think there is merit) but more an attempt at explaining the tactical intent and why we aren't meeting that intent or at least not consistently. It's worth noting there is an amount of variation in what we have tried to do but I'll try to cover the gist of it and where and why it's varied a little.
The primary goal of what Rooney is trying to tactically work towards is aiming to create a chasm of space in midfield in front of the opposition defence for the 3 attacking midfielders (Lawrence particularly) to exploit, with the secondary goal of if that doesn't work having an overload out wide. We do this by working the ball out from the back and having players drift from their starting positions into space we manufacture in turn creating more space where we want it. With that in mind we can look at the player's roles.
GK, CBs - Not much to really explain here and they aren't doing anything fancy. The important bit is that we expect the ball to move around between them a lot and so need to be comfortable on the ball and able to shift possession quickly and accurately. Also the centre backs may be called upon to cover the space wide that the full backs vacate so in an ideal world are positional aware and quick.
Fullbacks - Almost used as wing backs the idea is that when we are building possession they push very high and wide. This is to achieve a couple things; provide width, give an out-ball for CBs and GK or a switch ball for a midfielder and push the opposition wide players back and out of the way contributing to space opening up where you'd typically see the fullback. There has been a minor variant on this with one of the full backs playing high but narrow acting as a pseudo-midfielder with the attacking player in front of them providing the width.
DMs - With the space vacated by the full back the DM on the side possession is moving towards can freely move into that pocket of space hopefully dragging their opposite number out of position and if they aren't tracked they will have time and space to pick a pass. The idea is goes quickly into them and the quickly on either into the 10 or to a wide player on their side. By doing this it contributes to trying to moving the opposition around, get them out of position and ideally out of those central areas which brings me on to the next group.
AMs - This whole tactical system is designed to give these players a platform to play, with the movement of the fullbacks and the DMs the AMs should find it a lot easier (if the ball has been moved quickly) to find time and space in the centre of the park where they can turn and hurt the opposing team. My belief is that there is three nominal roles the left sided player operates as a wideish playmaker, the right sided player operates as the most direct of the three looking to run at the opposition or in behind and the central player is to be somewhat in between both whilst also being the primary target for most of the build up, possession and I suspect the player wanted to be on the ultimate end of the move. You'll notice that there is a big emphasis on getting the 10 on the ball as much as possible. Typically the wider players are inverted so they are more comfortable coming narrow.
CF - Unlike a lot of tactical set ups, the striker isn't here primarily as the focus of things and more as almost a decoy. The idea is they consistently make runs beyond dragging the opposition back and have them back peddling when an AM breaks into the space in front of them. The importance once again is all about disrupting how the opposition set up in order to create space.
Ideally in the build up you'd expect us to look like this (assuming an attack on the right)
And if you look at in that regard I believe you can start to see how we expect to create passing triangles in order to work possession. It then shifts to something closer to this further up the pitch (again assuming an attack on the right)
(Diagrams aren't perfect but I hope they get the point across)
Whilst the above is the intent we often see it breakdown well before the final third giving the impression that we aren't going anywhere and it's partly we see some players end up consistently coming very deep. What's basically happening is to an extent we aren't able to execute what we are trying to do tactically and forever recycling the initial phase of it. The problem is rife throughout the team and there are a lot of players out there who are clearly unsuited to doing what is asked causing severe breaks in the tactical cohesion.
Roos is actually perfect for the role in terms of his attributes. Whilst he may have his moments; at this level his distribution is excellent and he is fast off his line if somebody breaks beyond the defence.
Admittedly this feels a touch unfair to criticise and in fairness they've made about as a good a fist of it as can be expected but fundamentally we need CBs much more comfortable on the ball the Davies and Stearman if we want to build out from the back.
Jagielka coming in will help this mind and if we can pick up Mengi as well we will be golden.
Forsyth just isn't really quick enough anymore to properly stretch the pitch and then return to position, Buchanan returning will improve this but I think we need start seriously considering bumping Williams up to second choice.
Byrne whilst he has made mistakes is probably ok in the role with a couple caveats; ideally we'd have someone a little faster and more capable of drilling the ball into the box (as opposed to Byrne's floaters). Ebosele would fix some of the issues but is a little rawer in possession than Byrne.
Also whilst Byrne is fine with the primary role, he is clearly supremely uncomfortable playing as an inverted full back as we saw against Peterborough.
Bird tactically and positionally completely gets what he should be doing and whilst it might look odd is following the plan set out for him to a T. The ball comes into and back out from him quickly and reliably. The only minor problem is because of the position he is taking up the quick forwards pass is typically on his wrong foot and he'd be far better off if he was playing on the left half of the pitch.
Shinnie however is arguably one of the biggest issues in the current set up and blatantly unsuited for it. Tactical he looks unsure of his role and the number of times that one of the following happens when he gets the ball is significant; the momentum of the move is killed dead because he takes too many touches, he gives up possession or he passes in a such a way that the next player does. As much as he is liked if Rooney wants to tactically make work what he's trying to do, Shinnie has to come out of the side.
The system has been built with Lawrence playing at 10 in mind and whilst he hasn't perhaps pulled up any trees he does seem to tactically understand what his role and what he should be doing at a given time. Need a bit more creatively from him and I think we will see that once other things click into place.
Morrison somewhat similar to Lawrence I feel was firmly in the coaching team's mind when thinking on how they want to play this season and does his role well
The problem position is the RAM slot. The plan very clearly was to get Aluko in here. Jozwiak and Ebosele have started here but neither are really right for both being right footed and given that Byrne behind them can't play the compensatory role. The player very clearly most suited to it is Sibley but it's just a question of whether Rooney gets over his hangups with him as he looked like a clear fit when he came on versus Peterborough.
This is also where there has been a bit of a problem. I really like CKR but this system needs someone energetic and spinning in behind to open up the space and keep the opposition honest and it's just not his game. It wasn't surprising to me that the game seemed to change when he got injured and Stretton came on because suddenly spaces started to appear.
I'm relatively convinced Baldock was being brought in with this in mind and was going to be earmarked as first choice. Personally however I think Stretton looks a better fit and I suspect is more likely to be clinical when it comes to chance creation.
Whilst it might not look great now with perhaps a couple signings/players returning to fitness it could quickly click into place, it's just down to Rooney and Co to realise why it's not working and fix it. For example a theoretical line up along the lines of the following would likely execute the plan set out pretty well