Wembley is only two days away and Sir Alex Ferguson has plenty to ponder not just with regards to the players that are going to be involved in the starting line-up, but also the formation that he is going to deploy. With the emergence of Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney finding form playing ‘in the hole’ rather than as an out and out striker, 4-4-1-1 has become United’s preferred formation, as opposed to the 4-3-3 that was frequently adopted for big matches in the past few years.
However, the new formation has some drawbacks which may, as Messi told reporters the previous week, ‘play into Barcelona’s hands’.
The pros and cons of United’s 4-4-1-1 formation can be seen in Manchester United’s two big league clashes in the last month. Against Arsenal, they used Nani and Park in wide positions with Anderson and Carrick in the middle. Arsenal played a 4-2-3-1 formation with two fairly advanced central midfielders in Wilshere and Ramsey, both of whom, along with Song, dominated the area and put United’s midfield under immense pressure as a result of which Park and Nani kept dropping deeper to help out. This, in turn, meant that Sagna and Clichy were allowed to advance into the opposition half without much pressure. Also, Song did a wonderful job of marking Rooney out of the game which meant that there was no link between the midfield and the lone striker and counter-attacks were broken down easily.
As seen above, most of Nani’s tackles came around the half-way line on the right hand side, before he was moved to the left. As opposed to this, Chelsea played with a more defensive minded full-back in Ivanovic and Antonio Valencia had a fantastic game, which ensured that Cole had few opportunities to get forward. United’s wingers pressed fairly high up in the Chelsea half which pinned the opposition back.
Most of Valencia’s tackles were made well into the Chelsea half.
The problem for Sir Alex, however, is that the Barcelona match will almost certainly be more similar to the Arsenal game – a United defeat – rather than the Chelsea home game – a United triumph. We can expect the Catalans to enjoy possession for long periods of time and both full backs bombing down the wing. United will find it hard to turn the tide once Barcelona settle into their rhythm.
Fluidity is an advantage
An important feature of the current 4-4-1-1 formation has been the team’s fluidity, particularly down the left hand side. Park starts as the left midfield but has clear instructions to come in-field to make up the numbers, especially against clubs that are playing with three central midfielders.
This provides Evra plenty of space to make his trademark runs down the left wing; although, it has to be said that his crossing has not been great this season. Additionally, Ryan Giggs – a natural left winger of course playing in the left central midfield role – frequently finds himself in plenty of space wide on the left side as the opposition full-back is usually tracking Park’s in-field run.
Barcelona’s biggest weakness is their lack of pace at the heart of their defense with neither Puyol nor Pique being the quickest of players. Hence, playing Hernandez off the shoulder of the last defender may make them susceptible to the ball played over the top.
On top of that, it has been frequently pointed out that the space left behind the marauding full backs is rarely exploited by opposition attacks. Playing Rooney as the ‘trequartista’ gives United the best chance of doing so since the player loves to move out wide and none of the centre-backs would be keen to leave their position and track his run.
Sir Alex finds himself in unfamiliar territory. His team are not the favorites going into the match and he has a tough choice on his hands – match Barcelona’s 4-3-3 and hope to catch them out on the counter or go with the more adventurous 4-4-1-1 to try and utilize his own strengths but run the risk of getting overrun in midfield.
The Scot surprised everyone in 2008 with a bold 4-4-2 formation and the decision paid rich dividends as United stormed into an early lead. The outcome of the game on Saturday may finally boil down to the temperament and the ability of the players but it will certainly provide an intriguing tactical battle.
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