Comparing Tam McManus and Rafael van der Vaart; How Effective is the Rhinos’ 4-4-1-1?

I have been a Tottenham Hotspur fan for a number of years, now.  My beloved Spurs have found pretty remarkable success playing in a 4-4-1-1 formation.  While the team stuttered a bit through the 2010-2011 season, this past English Premier League season saw Tottenham go on a run of only one loss in 19 league games, dropping only 11 points out of 57 possible.  This was due in large part to the production of Rafael van der Vaart, who scored 6 goals in a 5 game stretch in the fall.  Van der Vaart excels when he plays in the hole behind a lone striker and in front of the two central midfielders.  But because of his role, in order for van der Vaart to succeed, the team needs certain players in those positions around him.  Without a target center forward in front of him and the combination of a deep playmaker and ball winner behind him, van der Vaart would not be free to play his game; popping up in space outside the 18 yard box to take precision shots or making the late arriving runs into the area.

During the offseason, on February 6, 2012 to be exact, the Rochester Rhinos announced that they had signed Scottish veteran attacker.  Bringing nearly 15 years of professional experience from the Scottish Premier League and Major League Soccer, McManus was a very exciting acquisition for the team of my youth.  While I initially pictured McManus as a poacher in the mold of Doug Miller, when the team began lining up a 4-4-1-1 during preseason I realized the Scotsman would be much more like a Rafa van der Vaart.

Both players operate as the link between midfield and striker, while filling the exact role of neither.  They both brought a high level of experience to the teams they joined (van der Vaart did have those years at Real Madrid).  And as the Dutchman has proven for Tottenham in the last two years, I believe they are both more than just a cog in the machine going forward.  McManus had the opportunity to be the focal point of the Rhinos attack in 2012.

Rafa plays best in a 4-4-1-1 with a tall center forward in front of him like Peter Crouch or Emmanuel Adebayor.  So far this season, Tam has lined up behind Graciano Brito and Andrew Hoxie.

Van der Vaart is the player who pressures opposition defense when they have the ball and because of this hurrying around the field, he is often subbed with 20 or 30 minutes to play.

Perhaps once Isaac Kissi is fully fit, Tam will fill that role as well.  But right now the Rhinos don’t have a super sub in the likeness of Jermain Defoe to bring on.  If Kissi does prove to be that player to pair with a center forward late in games, then the team won’t need McManus and will instead rely on the interplay between the two strikers while the wingers attack more cautiously and the center midfielders sit back and provide service as well.

McManus describes himself (at least on his Twitter profile) as a natural number 10.  http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk lists the Scotsman’s primary position as center forward, and secondary as attacking midfield.  For the Colorado Rapids, McManus played both as a  center forward up top and a second striker in the hole in a 4-4-1-1 under Fernando Clavijo as well as a partnered striker up top in a 3-4-1-2.  When the Rapids hired Gary Smith, McManus played 6 times up top in a 4-4-2 and once as a center forward in a 4-4-1-1.

McManus is 5’7″, right-footed, and has the experience at various levels to make intelligent runs in and around the box while also possessing an incisive pass to put his teammates through.

Rafael van der Vaart is a 5’9″ left-footed attacking midfielder who also operates most effectively as a second striker.  In the 2002-2003 Champions League campaign, van der Vaart played as a left-sided attacking midfielder in a 4-3-2-1, a withdrawn striker in a 4-4-2, a central midfielder in a 4-3-1-2 and a 4-4-2.  In the 2003-2004 CL season he played across the midfield in a 4-4-2.  In the 2004-2005 season he played across midfield in a 4-4-2, but also in the hole in a 3-4-1-2.  At Hamburg he was mostly played as an advanced central midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, but also worked in the hole in a 4-3-1-2.  Under Manuel Pellegrini at Real Madrid, van der Vaart largely operated from the hole behind two strikers in a 4-3-1-2.  Throughout his career, despite the ability to effectively play across the midfield, his most natural position is either as an advanced central midfielder or as a trequarista playing in behind a forward (or pair of forwards).  This is the position that the Dutchman thrives in at Tottenham Hotspur.  Playing behind Crouch in a 4-4-1-1 for much of the season, van der Vaart ended to 2010-2011 campaign with 8 assists and 7 goals.

This past season, van der Vaart tallied 7 assists and 9 goals, while picking up 2 man of the match awards.  He has started in his favored attacking midfield position on 15 of 24 occasions, Tottenham only lost two matches all season in which Rafa was playing his natural role (the horribly officiated game away to Stoke and another poorly called game at the City of Manchester Stadium).

With Crouch’s drop in form after the start of the 2009-2010 season, van der Vaart failed to be as effective and the team struggled for goals.  Rochester Rhinos find themselves in a similar situation at the halfway point of the 2012 season.  The two center forwards who have paired with McManus up top, Graciano Brito and Andrew Hoxie have both been ineffective.  The return of front runner Isaac Kissi (6’2″) to full fitness could provide the spark to Rochester’s strike force much like the Crouch-vdV connection in fall 2009 and the few games when Adebayor was plugged in during this past Spurs season.

Having two solid but specialized midfielders playing behind him has also been largely responsible for allowing van der Vaart to excel in his own role.  Luka Modric is a deep lying playmaker in the mold of the classic Italian regista, this means he likes to sit back and set up his teammates with incredible pin-point passes.  Scott Parker is a ball winning defensive midfielder who works as hard as anyone in the game and is never shy to put his body in the line to win a tackle or block a shot.  To put it bluntly, when Spurs are up for the match, Parker wins the ball and Modric pulls the strings going forward.  This allows Tottenham’s four attacking players, Gareth Bale on the left and Aaron Lennon on the right in addition to van der Vaart tucked in behind Adebayor, to focus on their movements going forward.

My friends and I have noted several times that the way Drew Cost drops deep to receive the ball from Rochester’s defense and then turns to spread the ball out forward is very reminiscent of Luka Modric on a smaller scale.  Cost even looks a bit like the Croatian midfield maestro on a grainy stream or through pouring rain at Sahlen’s Stadium.  However the Rhinos don’t have a player who fills the role of Scott Parker.  Instead Rochester has Tyler Rosenlund, a good attacking central midfielder.  Rosenlund was a Canadian youth international and got a few games in MLS for Toronto FC.  In 2011, he was named team MVP by the fans.  Clearly Rosenlund isn’t a poor player but he doesn’t fit into the squad with McManus in the lineup.  When the team played a 4-5-1 last season with a hard tackling anchor-man guarding the space in front of the back four and Alfonso Motagalvan playing smart balls in, Rosenlund was freed to get forward whenever possible.  However, similar to the traditional problems of the English national team in recent tournaments, the Rhinos now have two players who like to occupy the same space on the field.

Rosenlund likes to get forward from the midfield.  McManus likes to drop deep from a forward position.  This creates a situation where the two players get in each other’s way and the opposition defense can very easily mark the both of them.  In England’s set up, Rooney likes to drop back to receive the ball while both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard both like to step up from midfield and each one of them loves to have the ball at his foot.  The same thing happens where the space is congested and opposition can mark these players out of the game and then England can’t figure out why they can’t attack through the middle.

The congestion going forward through the center of the field means that Rochester is constantly looking to play the ball out wide.  Luckily the team has very capable wingers in Danny Earls and J.C. Banks.  However, the team has been unable to convert the service into much on the score sheet.  It is the job of the center forward to get on the end of crosses into the box.  This has not happened.  This then forces Myers to invert the wingers and tell Earls and Banks to cut in on their favored foot.  But then this, in turn, increases the congestion around the top of the box.

Tottenham Hotspur’s wingers, left-footed Gareth Bale and right-footed Aaron Lennon, have also been known to switch sides during a game.  If the right back on the opposition has studied up on how Gareth Bale times his runs and how he likes to get by his mark, then the two wingers will switch so Bale can run at a different defender.  In addition, Aaron Lennon has a couple highlight reel goals on his right foot after cutting in from the left side.  When this happens, however, both Scott Parker and Luka Modric hold back outside the area to allow the space for the wide men to cut inside.  The Rhinos have not figured that part out so far this season.

Tyler Rosenlund is not a bad player, but he doesn’t fit in this system.  If the team wants to stick with McManus (his workrate and experience should make this a no brainer), then Rosenlund needs to get dropped to the bench.  When the game drags on in the second half, Rosenlund would be a great sub for McManus to turn the shape a bit more defensive with three central midfielders.  Unfortunately, the team has not yet found a player who can take over the defensive responsibilities of a Scott Parker in the center of the field.  Myers has tried to play Traynor and Zaher in the center of the field at different times this season.  For whatever reasons those experiments didn’t work at the time.

With Kissi back up top and the wingers still producing, swapping Rosenlund for a ball winning midfielder would free up both Cost to focus on passing the ball around and open up the space that McManus needs to operate most effectively.  With one addition to the team (or a position modification for a current player), Rochester Rhinos can easily stop their 0-3-4 skid and become the championship quality team that the city still expects from their soccer club.

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