“The arrivals of van Persie and Kagawa offer new tacticalAi??possibilities and have enhanced Manchester Unitedai??i??s ability to play aAi??possession-based game, but itai??i??s hard to shake off the thought that atAi??times the option they really need is a player to win the ball back.”

For as long as Manchester United have been successful under Sir Alex Ferguson, they have been renowned for their wing play. It was with Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs in tandem that United first started to winAi??silverware in the early nineties, and they were joined by Andriy Kanchelskis before David Beckham began to emerge as a slightly different type of wide man. More recently, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani,Ai??Luis Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have all continued theAi??tradition.

The arrival of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, though, and theAi??emergence of Tom Cleverley, has given Ferguson other options. FourAi??times this season -Ai??against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup and theAi??Premier League, and against CFR Cluj and Braga in the Champions LeagueAi??ai??i?? United have played a diamond. They have won all four games. “TeamsAi??will have to think if we are going to play two wide players or theAi??diamond because we have players capable of doing both things,ai???Ai??Ferguson said before the Braga match. ai???Players like Shinji Kagawa andAi??Tom Cleverley can play very well in the type of matches the diamondAi??offers. And of course in Nani, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, I’veAi??got really good wide players also. It is difficult ai??i?? we have had someAi??success playing with the diamond. The history of the club is always toAi??play with wide players, particularly at Old Trafford, so I have aAi??decision to make.”

It remains something of a mystery why United ended up with fourAi??centre-forwards, and a glut of technically gifted midfielders, but noAi??dynamic player at the back of the midfield. In May last year, whenAi??pressed on whether he would seek that sort of player in the summer,Ai??Ferguson was dismissive.

ai???If you look at the examples, [Cesc] Fabregas was one of the bestAi??midfield players in England for five years but heAi??wasn’t aAi??big lad andAi??wasn’t aAi??holding player,ai??? he said. ai???He was an attacking player. XaviAi??and [Andres] Iniesta are small players ai??i?? you canai??i??t call them holdingAi??players. I donai??i??t thinkAi??we’veAi??had a holding player sinceAi??I’veAi??beenAi??here.Ai??We’veAi??never had a holding player. We tried to get Roy Keane toAi??do that but he justAi??couldn’tAi??do it. He had to play a way that was hisAi??own way of playing, soAi??I’veAi??not had it for 25 years. Why should IAi??think about it now?ai???

Darren Fletcher - Manchester United Tactics

Darren Fletcher – Will he make a full recovery?

Itai??i??s a slightly disingenuous response. While United may not have had aAi??holder in the sense of a Claude Makelele, they have usually had aAi??dynamic player who could win the ball: the likes of Bryan Robson, PaulAi??Ince, Keane, Nicky Butt and Darren Fletcher. Now of course FletcherAi??may return after colitis but there are no guarantees he will ever beAi??the same player he was and so United are left with a host ofAi??ball-players but no ball-winner. That seems a significant shortcomingAi??ai??i?? even Barcelona have the option of Sergio Busquets or Alex Song inAi??midfield ai??i?? but what Ferguson is left with is a wealth of possibilitiesAi??going forward.

Even the four forward are all different types of player: Rooney, bullishly muscular, and capable of playing almost as a target-man asAi??well as off a main striker; van Persie, a superb finisher who can alsoAi??pull wide or drop deep to create space for others; Javier Hernandez,Ai??all explosive pace and, increasingly, powerful shoulders; and DannyAi??Welbeck, an intriguingly imaginative and cerebral player who canAi??operate on the left, cutting into the middle.

The intriguing thing is that Ferguson has used the diamond againstAi??Newcastle twice. Newcastleai??i??s 4-4-2 is relatively narrow and Fergusonai??i??sAi??thinking presumably was that a diamond gave him bodies in the middleAi??to combat that lack of width and prevent United being bullied ai??i?? asAi??they were to an extent in losing at St Jamesai??i?? last season. Equally,Ai??using Rooney at the point of the diamond has two advantages. Firstly,Ai??against a 4-4-2, he can play between the opponentai??i??s defensive andAi??midfield lines, finding space from which to create. But it also givesAi??him the freedom to adjust his position according to the game; ifAi??United are bossing possession, he can drift around as an auxiliaryAi??forward; if not, he can come deep and add muscle to the midfield.

Unitedai??i??s other base formation is the 4-2-3-1, but again adjustments inAi??personnel and Rooneyai??i??s positioning can change its character. In theAi??league win at Chelsea, for instance, Valencia was deployed on oneAi??flank and Young on the other ai??i??Ai??hardworkingAi??wide-man who could occupyAi??Chelseaai??i??s full-backs, preventing them getting forward and looking toAi??exploit Chelseaai??i??s tendency to be exposed in those areas. The dangerAi??was that that left United light in the centre, with Michael CarrickAi??and Tom Cleverley facing ai??i?? albeit with the help of Unitedai??i??s full-backsAi??ai??i?? the might of the Mazacar trio plus Mikel John Obi and Ramires.Ai??Rooney, though, dropping deep, played at times almost as a box-to-boxAi??midfielder, winning ball while still getting forward to support vanAi??Persie, whose movement and willingness to drop deep helped createAi??space for Valencia and Young when United did have the ball.

That still leaves questions over why Kagawa was signed: A?18m was aAi??decent price for a highly talented player, but he does seem toAi??replicate what United already have offering cover in aAi??numberAi??of areas.Ai??It may be, in fact, that his key role is to put pressure on Rooney, toAi??hammer home the fact that he is not indispensable.

And for all the options available, the squad looks unbalanced. UnitedAi??have been vulnerable in midfield in a number of games this season, andAi??were overrun in patches by Everton, Fulham and Tottenham. TheAi??frequency with which theyai??i??ve conceded the first goal, while itAi??provides an echo of the Treble-winning season of 1998-99, must also beAi??a concern. The arrivals of van Persie and Kagawa offer new tacticalAi??possibilities and have enhanced Unitedai??i??s ability to play aAi??possession-based game, but itai??i??s hard to shake off the thought that atAi??times the option they really need is a player to win the ball back.

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  • ChrisW

    United’s “base formation” is 4-4-1-1, has been for years. You’ll notice how well it worked against Chelsea and Arsenal.

    Experimenting with 4-2-3-1 is responsible for both of our defeats this season. Kagawa is a very talented player but it’s not clear why we signed him. Apart from the fact he was cheap (I don’t know where you got the figure of £18m from, reports at the time quoted £13-15m. Why is it standard practice in the media to add 20% on to all United transfer fees?)

  • lobotics

    Kagawa and RvP are basically specialists in the two positions Rooney plays. So it seems unlikely for all three to play regularly, unless Kagawa is shunted into a midfield shuttling position, which is a bit of a waste. I was really excited by his signing but the RvP signing seemed to displace Fergie’s plans for, presumably, Kagawa playing behind Rooney, and now it seems like he won’t get the chances and important role he should have at this stage of his career. A real pity, and I hate to say this, but perhaps it would have been better for him to stay at Dortmund.

    • The author clearly drove home the point when he said “It may be, in fact, that his key role is to put pressure on Rooney, to hammer home the fact that he is not indispensable.”.

      As simple as competition for places and SAF has been doing that for years plus injury concerns might well be a factor. Kagawa is still young and i don’t think he expected or was promised the same role at Dortmund. He still needs time and by the time he is ready , Rooney will be a master tactician and will be deployed in mid-field. Millions saved!!

  • Stephen

    Did you watch the game v Everton? We were not overrun in midfield at all. Everton played a long ball all night to Fellaini, who played off the striker – not in midfield as such, and it caused us huge problems.

    The other games, we were overrun at times in the centre but it’s incorrect to use the Everton game as an example.