The importance of width in football at the highest level has been stated many times over; at times stretching the play to utilize the full length of the pitch has proven to be the sole solution to overcome the proverbial parked bus. Manchester United have time and again utilized the strengths of their fantastic array of wingers to deadly effect and that has been the secret of their prolonged success. 4-4-2 with two traditional wingers has worked like a charm for Sir Alex Ferguson for almost two decades.
Nevertheless, the 4-4-2 has often been tempered and fine tuned to bring the best out of the squad, for instance the 4-6-0 during the days of Ronaldo-Rooney-Tevez and recently the 4-4-1-1 that brought the best out of Wayne Rooney – Chicharito combo.
This season United began with a 4-2-3-1 like most teams in Europe but with wide players very much in the mix and integral to the manager’s plan. However with the injury to Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia coupled with Nani’s terrible run of form, Manchester United for the first time in ages look devoid of quality in wide areas.
Furthermore, the two man central midfield that United have used extensively under Ferguson, gets overrun nowadays with alarming regularity against the opposition’s three man midfield, especially when pitted against teams that press hard and don’t allow United players with time on the ball. As a consequence, the Red Devils find it hard to hog possession and inevitably lose control of the game.
As it stands right now, there aren’t any Roy Keanes who would drive the team with sheer tenacity and power of will. Paul Scholes despite being regularly brilliant at the ripe age of 37 is on his last legs; the Ginger Ninja needs protection and fresh legs around him to the dirty work. Ergo, the lack of a midfield general and enforcer has made it really strenuous to play the way United attempt to play.
Recently with the injury crisis to his wide players Ferguson has tried a narrow formation, something which he hasn’t been too keen to try in the past. The Scotsman has prided in his team playing with width and stretching the opposition to find gaps in their defense. But as they say ‘necessity is the motherhood of invention’, Sir Alex has blinked, perhaps momentarily.
Against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup, the Manchester United manager tried his version of the midfield diamond and for large stretches of the game, United looked in control. Once again in the midweek Champions League game against Cluj, Manchester United lined up in the midfield diamond and that perhaps indicated that the manager now had faith in the system by trying it in a tough away trip in Europe. Yet again, the manager’s faith was rewarded with Manchester United bossing possession stats and looking calmer than the shambles they were during that catastrophic first half display against Tottenham at Old Trafford.
Now a big dilemma awaits the United manager – to twist or stick.
How The Diamond Can Shine
Clearly the three big game attacking players at Ferguson’s disposal are Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa. Till now, United haven’t been able to field the trinity with any regularity whatsoever owing to injuries and bad form. The 4-1-2-1-2 allows Sir Alex to field his three most potent weapons at the same time in the three attacking positions up top. Each one of Kagawa, Rooney and RVP are capable of playing and interchanging and if the trio gets their chemistry right, pure magic awaits United fans.
Furthermore, with Carrick or Fletcher operating as the base of the diamond protecting the back four and the duo of Anderson – Cleverley on either side operating as the more mobile midfielders, the balance to the midfield looks much better and although the sample size of a mere two games is hardly enough, United look a more compact unit. The qualities of Anderson and Cleverley complement each other to the tee and this could be Manchester United’s best bet of fielding the two youngsters together.
Patrice Evra or Alexander Buttner from the left back position and the in-form Rafael as right back will provide the width and look to get forward at every opportunity. Rafael was heavily involved in the midweek Champions league game, bombing forward with regularity.
The Rough Edges
Invariably the narrow nature of the formation prohibits United from using their trump cards from seasons gone by – Wingers. Consequently this puts double pressure on full backs to provide width as well as defend against opposition wide players and overlapping full backs. Ergo the duo of Cleverley and Anderson must take up their share of defensive responsibilities and help out the full backs.
Most significantly and perhaps the basis that could rule out switching to the diamond would be the use of Paul Scholes and the difficulty in fielding United’s talisman in this rigid formation. Scholes, despite all his wizardry and breathtaking passing abilities, isn’t very mobile these days and hence cannot really operate as either of the two mobile midfielders. That leaves just one position in central midfield up for grabs – the base of the diamond.
Paul Scholes can play the holding role but definitely needs a Carrick alongside him protecting the United rearguard. Scholes’ now infamous tackling abilities aren’t a secret and it could be a disaster waiting to happen if the maestro is left alone to shield the back four.
Also Scholes’ primary attribute has often been his seamless ability to switch play and drop a 30 yard diagonal ball with consummate ease on the foot of the onrushing wingers. Now with no apparent threat from wide areas, Scholes would not be able to exploit his mastery in long balls to deadly effect, yet another reason for Fergie to possibly opt out.
There aren’t any fool proof formations or tactics and everything comes with its pros and cons. Survival, adaptation and evolution is the name of the game. Would Ferguson deviate from the tried and tested and possibly gamble with the fresh and exciting? Perhaps not. But one thing’s for sure: this certainly wasn’t the end of Manchester United’s version of the 4-1-2-1-2; the diamond will definitely sparkle sometime soon in the near future.