Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has traditionally enjoyed making most of the wide areas of the pitch by utilizing his wingers as a key source of chances created. This generally has occurred in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish shape during his 25+ years at the club (the legendary gaffer has claimed in the past that he's never deployed his side in a 4-4-2 shape). He's also used a more structurally sound 4-3-3 shape at times -- particularly for difficult contests in Europe or for formidable domestic foes -- and sometimes this has resulted in the use of wingers and sometimes it hasn't. This pretty much sums up the tactical systems he's used while at United. Therefore, it was a surprise last midweek when he deployed his side without the use of wingers and in a midfield diamond versus Newcastle United in a
Carling Capital One Cup clash.
There was nothing atypical about the use of the three deepest central-midfielders -- Darren Fletcher sat in front of the back four in a holding role while Anderson and Tom Cleverley were slightly more advanced in box-to-box sort of roles. Usually, at least in English football, there is no use of a No.10 when a midfield is structured like this because two wide forwards typically flank a center-forward. Ferguson's design, though, versus Newcastle, was to use Wayne Rooney as a No.10 at the tip of a midfield diamond in a playmaker's role. In addition, Danny Welbeck was buzzing around in the space between the lines seemingly in a free role in attack. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was the clear lead striker and he was tasked to stretch the attacking space in a vertical sense.
Diagram 1: United's starting XI versus Newcastle
If all goes well, this midfield diamond system gains a side control of the center of the park. At the base, the holding-player provides stability to the team's shape and at the tip, the No.10 links the transition from midfield to attack. The weaknesses though are somewhat obvious -- a possible lack of width in attack and the vulnerability against sides that have full-backs or wing-backs that are dangerous when they surge forward. The attacking width is hugely dependent on your own full-backs getting forward and the general hope is that your holding-player is mobile enough to break up counterattacks when these full-backs are high up the pitch. Because a midfield diamond offers no natural foils to the opposition's full-backs or wing-backs, the hope here is that those free players are not dangerous when they get forward to attack. Fortunately for United, neither of Newcastle's full-backs proved to be much of a threat when left with space to exploit.
As previously mentioned, Chicharito's role was to stay high so that he could create space underneath for Rooney and Welbeck between the lines. However, the front three were quite fluid and interchangeable. Chicharito's link-up play was impressive in this Newcastle tie as he continually dropped deep a few yards in order to link play. Welbeck's movement was very good -- as is typical for him -- and he often looked to dart in diagonally from a slightly initial wide left position and into the space that Chicharito was vacating. Rooney's movement was good as well and all of this interchanging brought some variety and unpredictability to United's attack. Width was often provided on the right side by Marnick Vermijl and the debutant whipped in several dangerous crosses.
Just as they did together at last season's beginning, Cleverley and Anderson excelled in central-midfield when United were in possession. Together they provided energy, drive, and the ball was quickly circulated. United were a bit vulnerable with them as a midfield duo last season because they often weren't compact enough with the center-backs. Therefore, United were too prone to being attacked in the space between their midfield and defense lines. Fletcher in a holding-role though provided stability to the team's shape and freed Cleverley and Ando from the need to be close enough to the center-backs.
Against Romanian side CFR Cluj on Tuesday, Fergie once again deployed his team in a similar midfield diamond shape. The back four was completely changed as the current first-choice back four of Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and Rafael were selected. The midfield diamond was the same as versus Newcastle but there was a subtle change -- rather than play in pure box-to-box roles, Cleverley and Anderson both were positioned slightly wider in shuttling roles. Anderson, in particular, was often seen popping out wide to the right in the middle third of the pitch. These shuttling roles are the more traditional roles for the two midfielders who are not either the holding-player or the No.10 in a midfield diamond system.
Rooney played slightly deeper this time in the No.10 role as he picked up the ball from the center-backs at times. Robin van Persie played deeper than Chicharito -- the Mexican international was once again tasked to staying high up the pitch and on the shoulder of the last defender -- and he was initially positioned more central than Welbeck was versus Newcastle. Welbeck tended to drift inside from a slightly initial wide position while van Persie tended to drift out wide from an initial central position. In fact, van Persie attempted more crosses from out wide in open play than any other United player.
Diagram 2: United's starting XI versus CFR Cluj
Once again, United established control in this tie. Fletcher shielded the back four well and his 131 passes attempted at a 91% success rate showed how responsible he was in possession. These weren't all simple passes either as he incredibly had a 100% success rate on the 23 long balls he attempted. Cleverley was impressive as he constantly made himself available all over the pitch to receive. There's no fuss with the England international either as he typically releases the ball just as quickly as he angles himself into pockets of space to receive in. Rooney's industry was tremendous as well and as the old adage goes, he nearly touched nearly every blade of grass on the pitch in search of the ball. This looked like the 2011 version of Wayne Rooney and that version is a world-class player.
Chicharito wasn't nearly as good in this match as he was versus Newcastle -- at least on the ball. However, Fergie perhaps selected him again because the threat of his pace and his high positioning creates more space underneath for the two players tasked to play in behind him -- van Persie and in an even deeper role, Rooney. In recent seasons, van Persie has played as a pure No.9 for both Arsenal and for United in the early stages of his career there. Versus Cluj though, he played slightly deeper and he continually dropped deep to receive and he also moved out wide into open spaces near the flanks. He did well to recognize when to make runs though through the channels as well and in between the center-backs when Chicharito vacated the space high up the pitch. His intelligent run for his superb second goal -- coming from an absolute beauty of a ball played over the top of the defense from Rooney -- is an example of that.
Going forward, it'll be interesting to see how much and in what circumstances that Fergie decides to use this midfield diamond system. Two of United's three natural wingers, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, were unavailable versus Cluj and Nani had been heavily used in recent weeks. The lack of available wingers may have factored heavily into Fergie's recent use of a midfield diamond. United played good football though in this unfamiliar system and they had complete control versus Newcastle and Cluj. No matter what system was going to used though in those matches, United were always likely to be the proactive side. Can United play in this midfield system effectively versus better competition and if need be, in a reactive and counterattacking style? In theory, playing a counterattacking style in this shape might work because the fluidity and interchanging of the front three offer hope that there might be enough variation in attack to fight off being predictable. Also, there's the mouth-watering possibility of Rooney and Shinji Kagawa playing in behind van Perise and this writer is certainly curious about that scenario. Will the midfield diamond replace the 4-3-3 as United's 'big game' system when structure in shape and control in midfield is deemed necessary?