“They’ve won without playing particularly well.” How many times have you heard that said about Manchester United in recent seasons? Well, times are changing
After a string of below-par performances from United this season, including losses to Everton and Tottenham as well as being 2-1 down to Southampton prior to being rescued by two late Robin Van Persie goals, Sir Alex Ferguson has experimented with a new-look diamond 4-4-2 shape in recent matches. So far, so good for Ferguson’s men, with an impressive 2-1 league cup win over Newcastle and a Champions League victory over Cluj with the same score line followed by a superb 3-0 league victory over Newcastle. In between the first Newcastle game and the Cluj game, the Red Devils played against Tottenham, starting with their standard 4-4-1-1 shape. They lost that game 3-2, with Tottenham bypassing United’s midfield duo of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick with ease.
As seen in the diagram above, the new shape involves one midfielder sitting deeper than the rest, two wider central players, and one player at the tip of the diamond.
The only player to play at the tip of the diamond so far has been Wayne Rooney, who seemingly is loving the freedom afforded to him by new shape. Despite not scoring in the three games United have played it in so far this season, Rooney’s performances have been wonderful in all three, with him demonstrating his passing range, movement and defensive capabilities too. The performances are a huge improvement from the player who looked lost at times prior to his early-season injury.
Another player who seems to be benefiting from the new shape is young England international Tom Cleverley. In the 4-4-1-1 system, Cleverley lacked the positional discipline to play in a deeper central role or the technical brilliance and goal threat to be the playmaker behind the striker. In the diamond shape, the extra bodies in midfield mean he can afford to stray from his position out to the flank as he likes to, and with three attacking players ahead of him there is less onus on him to find the net (even though he did so, with a large degree of fortune, against Newcastle).
The main benefit of playing with the diamond is the extra players in midfield. This has allowed United to play some excellent football in possession and has also made the centre of their midfield more difficult to bypass. In the 3-0 away league win against Newcastle this season, with the diamond formation, United recorded 54% possession – 5% higher than the 49% they recorded in the same fixture last season, which United lost 3-0. It was even higher in the first half of this season’s game, before United sat back with a 2-0 lead. United also recorded 14 shots on goal, compared to the mere 6 in the 3-0 loss. Last season, Newcastle pressed United high up with their 4-4-2, and knew that if the ball was moved into midfield, their duo of Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye could easily overpower United’s duo of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs. This season, when Newcastle pressed them high up, United simply passed their way around them with the 4v2 situation in midfield. Newcastle had to respond by switching to their 4-3-3 shape to compete, but by then the damage was done and Manchester United were able to sit back without ever looking too troubled.
There was one area of weakness, however. It is the weakness that is typical of the diamond midfield shape. Ferguson’s men began to look exposed on the flanks against Newcastle, with no wingers covering the full backs. Ferguson responded to this by bringing on Antonio Valencia for Shinji Kagawa and playing more of a 4-5-1 shape, with Danny Welbeck moving over to the left to offer protection for Patrice Evra. It remains to be seen whether this weakness will stop Ferguson from using this shape as the regular system, but so far the pros certainly seem to out-weigh the cons for United.
So where has the idea for this system come from?
It’s possible that the diamond shape that Italy used in Euro 2012, where they were only stopped by Spain in the final and put in dominant performances over the likes of England and Germany, may have influenced Ferguson. Shortly after the tournament, in a pre-season fixture against Amazulu, he tried out the shape. On the day, the team didn’t play so well, with the likes of Federico Macheda playing in a weakened side. Nevertheless, it was a sign that Ferguson was thinking about an alternative system to his 4-4-1-1.
It’s also highly possible that Ferguson had this system in mind when he made the Summer signings of Robin Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, which left many questioning how they could fit in one side with the likes of Wayne Rooney. The diamond formation allows all three to play together along with a further striker. However, that leaves question marks over the future of the likes of Nani and Ashley Young, who have only ever played for United in traditional wide roles. Young has played for England and former club Aston Villa centrally, behind a striker, but it’s a position that Ferguson has never played Young in, suggesting he doesn’t see him as able to perform in that role for United.
It will certainly be an interesting season for United fans if this system sticks. After a disappointing previous season, which saw them eliminated from the Champions League in the group stage, humiliated by Athletic Bilbao in the Uefa Cup and beaten 6-0 by arch-rivals Manchester City, many of the fans were desperate for some sort of change. Now, they are looking at a side that seems to be playing fluent, exciting, attacking football for the first time in a couple of seasons, has a midfield that seems much harder for opponents to break through, and has their star player at his brilliant best
It is often suggested that Sir Alex Ferguson is lacking in tactical knowledge, but once again he is demonstrating his ability to adapt to changes in the football world in order to build yet another great team, packed with young talent and attacking flair.
2012/2013 Pickem Winner
Congratulations to RedDevilDazzy who clinched the winners spot of our pickem predictions game, it was close!!