“The arrivals of van Persie and Kagawa offer new tactical possibilities and have enhanced Manchester United’s ability to play a possession-based game, but it’s hard to shake off the thought that at 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 win 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, Luis Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have all continued the tradition.
The arrival of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, though, and the emergence of Tom Cleverley, has given Ferguson other options. Four times this season – against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup and the Premier League, and against CFR Cluj and Braga in the Champions League – United have played a diamond. They have won all four games. “Teams will have to think if we are going to play two wide players or the diamond because we have players capable of doing both things,” Ferguson said before the Braga match. “Players like Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley can play very well in the type of matches the diamond offers. And of course in Nani, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, I’ve got really good wide players also. It is difficult – we have had some success playing with the diamond. The history of the club is always to play with wide players, particularly at Old Trafford, so I have a decision to make.”
It remains something of a mystery why United ended up with four centre-forwards, and a glut of technically gifted midfielders, but no dynamic player at the back of the midfield. In May last year, when pressed on whether he would seek that sort of player in the summer, Ferguson was dismissive.
“If you look at the examples, [Cesc] Fabregas was one of the best midfield players in England for five years but he wasn’t a big lad and wasn’t a holding player,” he said. “He was an attacking player. Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta are small players – you can’t call them holding players. I don’t think we’ve had a holding player since I’ve been here. We’ve never had a holding player. We tried to get Roy Keane to do that but he just couldn’t do it. He had to play a way that was his own way of playing, so I’ve not had it for 25 years. Why should I think about it now?”
It’s a slightly disingenuous response. While United may not have had a holder in the sense of a Claude Makelele, they have usually had a dynamic player who could win the ball: the likes of Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Keane, Nicky Butt and Darren Fletcher. Now of course Fletcher may return after colitis but there are no guarantees he will ever be the same player he was and so United are left with a host of ball-players but no ball-winner. That seems a significant shortcoming – even Barcelona have the option of Sergio Busquets or Alex Song in midfield – but what Ferguson is left with is a wealth of possibilities going forward.
Even the four forward are all different types of player: Rooney, bullishly muscular, and capable of playing almost as a target-man as well as off a main striker; van Persie, a superb finisher who can also pull wide or drop deep to create space for others; Javier Hernandez, all explosive pace and, increasingly, powerful shoulders; and Danny Welbeck, an intriguingly imaginative and cerebral player who can operate on the left, cutting into the middle.
The intriguing thing is that Ferguson has used the diamond against Newcastle twice. Newcastle’s 4-4-2 is relatively narrow and Ferguson’s thinking presumably was that a diamond gave him bodies in the middle to combat that lack of width and prevent United being bullied – as they were to an extent in losing at St James’ last season. Equally, using Rooney at the point of the diamond has two advantages. Firstly, against a 4-4-2, he can play between the opponent’s defensive and midfield lines, finding space from which to create. But it also gives him the freedom to adjust his position according to the game; if United are bossing possession, he can drift around as an auxiliary forward; if not, he can come deep and add muscle to the midfield.
United’s other base formation is the 4-2-3-1, but again adjustments in personnel and Rooney’s positioning can change its character. In the league win at Chelsea, for instance, Valencia was deployed on one flank and Young on the other – hardworking wide-man who could occupy Chelsea’s full-backs, preventing them getting forward and looking to exploit Chelsea’s tendency to be exposed in those areas. The danger was that that left United light in the centre, with Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley facing – albeit with the help of United’s full-backs – the might of the Mazacar trio plus Mikel John Obi and Ramires. Rooney, though, dropping deep, played at times almost as a box-to-box midfielder, winning ball while still getting forward to support van Persie, whose movement and willingness to drop deep helped create space for Valencia and Young when United did have the ball.
That still leaves questions over why Kagawa was signed: £18m was a decent price for a highly talented player, but he does seem to replicate what United already have offering cover in a number of areas. 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.
And for all the options available, the squad looks unbalanced. United have been vulnerable in midfield in a number of games this season, and were overrun in patches by Everton, Fulham and Tottenham. The frequency with which they’ve conceded the first goal, while it provides an echo of the Treble-winning season of 1998-99, must also be a concern. The arrivals of van Persie and Kagawa offer new tactical possibilities and have enhanced United’s ability to play a possession-based game, but it’s hard to shake off the thought that at times the option they really need is a player to win the ball back.