Perhaps the biggest concern for tomorrow's match -- from a Manchester United fan's perspective at least -- is whether Sir Alex Ferguson's midfield will be overrun by Newcastle United's. This was the key factor for the Magpies last January when they completely overran the Red Devils in the center of the park on their way to an impressive 3-0 victory at Sports Direct Arena. Will the gaffer make any adjustments for tomorrow's match? Will he perhaps steer away from his typical 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system and instead deploy his side in a midfield diamond -- a system he's used twice in recent weeks? There's a poll at the bottom of this post so that you can vote for your preference. Feel free to elaborate why as well in the comments section. Here's a brief discussion of both systems.
This has always been the preferred shape for Fergie (he claims that he's never deployed United in a 4-4-2) and he typically only goes away from it when he feels the need for another midfielder in order to compete better in the center of the park. In this system, the two sources of chances created typically come from the wingers out wide or through the middle from the secondary striker or No.10. In behind these players are two relatively deep central-midfielders.
With the injury to Ashley Young, and with Antonio Valencia appearing to be a doubt, Nani is Fergie's only option out wide in regards to his choices for natural wingers. The Portuguese is a fantastic player on his day but his form has been erratic as of late. If Valencia is out, that likely would mean Nani on the right flank and either Danny Welbeck or Shinji Kagawa drifting inside from an initial wide left position. The positive to this possibility is that Nani would establish some width from the right flank while Welbeck or Kagawa would likely seek quick combination play through the middle.
If any central-midfield duo combination of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, and Tom Cleverley is deployed, there is the risk they would be overrun by counterparts Yohan Cabaye and Chiek Tiote. The trio of mentioned United midfielders are all fine players but there isn't enough physical presence in the center of the park between them when there's a challenging midfield counterpart. Darren Fletcher, prior to his recent problems with his chronic bowel condition, used to offer protection as an energetic box-to-box midfielder. However, he's unlikely to start after featuring this past midweek in Romania versus CFR Cluj as he continually looks to gain fitness. In addition, he's been featured in a pure holding-role as of late rather than in a box-to-box one. Anderson is a possibility and even though he's impressive with Cleverley as a duo when United have possession, their willingness to get forward often leaves their back four exposed.
4-3-1-2 midfield diamond
United have done well recently in a shape that is very unfamiliar to them -- a narrow 4-3-1-2/4-3-2-1ish one. Fletcher has done well in a holding role with his astute positioning and tidy distribution while Wayne Rooney has excelled as a No.10 in connecting the midfield and attack. In between them, Cleverley and Anderson have brought energy and drive to the center of the park and collectively, United have controlled the two matches that they've recently been deployed in this shape. A caveat though is that this has occurred against lesser sides -- very few first-choice Newcastle players were selected in the recent Capital One Cup clash and Cluj will likely be the easiest opponent United face in Europe this season.
The two biggest concerns in this system for United is their relative unfamiliarity with it and the dependency on their full-backs to offer proper width. If the full-backs aren't getting forward enough, then the attack becomes narrow and predictable and it's quite easy for opponents to stop attacks by staying narrow themselves and compact in shape. If the full-backs do surge forward, there's always the danger of them being caught out while the opposition quickly counterattack behind them when they win possession. A third possible danger -- and perhaps to a lesser extent in this match because Newcastle's full-backs aren't significant threats going forward -- is offering acres of space for the opposition's full-backs to get forward into.
Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) has been the lead striker when United play in this shape and two players generally buzz underneath him in the space between the lines. It's an interesting possibility to see how Robin van Persie would do in this role with Rooney and Kagawa playing underneath him. The trio might offer enough intelligent movement and technical ability to interchange so that there's enough variation in attack -- this would be key to being unpredictable in attack.
There are certainly pros and cons to each possible system. The 4-4-1-1 offers familiarity and proper width but it leaves the possibility that United's two central-midfielders would be overrun again by their Newcastle counterparts. The midfield diamond brings more structure in shape but unfamiliarity and a possible stagnant attack is a concern. Which system do you prefer for Sunday's match?