Just over a year ago. Manchester United were flying to the top of the Premier League table with their high tempo and fluid attack -- the front four of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Nani, and Ashley Young were mesmerizing and interchangeable while Tom Cleverley and Anderson were eager to surge forward as well for late-arriving runs into the box from their central-midfield roles. This resulted in goals. This resulted in a famous 8-2 victory over Arsenal. And also, this eventually resulted in the infamous 1-6 defeat by Manchester City at Old Trafford.
Prior to that City match, United were unbeaten and they seemed rejuvenated. There were warning signs though -- despite topping the table and having the best goal differential in England, why had United allowed the joint most shots on their goal by early October? The most basic answer is that United's attacking prowess and willingness to get forward in numbers had unbalanced their shape and the result was a vulnerability in defense -- particularly during transitions when possession was lost. Sir Alex Ferguson's reaction from that debilitating defeat by City -- both tangible and psychological -- was to essentially close up shop and tighten it up in the back. In four of the next five league games, United were able to grind out uneventful 1-0 victories -- the other game was merely a 1-1 draw.
Eventually, as the long season wore on, United found their wings again -- at least domestically -- and they resumed having a go at their Premier League foes. As most are aware, the Red Devils accumulated a respectful 89 points and despite this being level with City, they lost the title on goal differential. Perhaps this is why Ferguson made the surprise acquisition of world-class striker Robin van Persie from rival Arsenal in the summer, along with the astute one of Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa, because as he has pointed out, he does not intend to lose another title on goal differential. The problem with this, though, is that the gaffer did not address the other end of goal differential -- preventing goals.
Even when United gained their swagger back last season, especially after Paul Scholes returned in January, they were clearly vulnerable still versus sides that overwhelmed them physically and with technical ability. In particular, Ferguson's side was embarrassed by Newcastle's Yohan Cabaye and Chiek Tiote dominating the midfield with combined physicality and technique and even more impressively, they were chasing shadows in their two-legged Europa League tie with Athletic Bilbao when Marcelo Bielsa's side overwhelmed with pace and incredible movement.
Ferguson's lads certainly know how to go forward and when they humble themselves to the extreme, they can often grind out an unimpressive 1-0 victory. It's the former, though, that's in the manager's and the club's DNA and because of this, it's alarming that a proper balance cannot be found to prevent the leaks that have been damning the defense. The gaffer's last great team, roughly in the time from 2006-09, had found that balance in 'big games' -- in a 4-3-3, the back seven players provided structural stability while the front three players offered enough versatility between them to offer adequate variability in attack -- particularly on the counter. The result was a UEFA Champions League title in 2008 and arguably Ferguson's greatest team.
Football evolves fast, as do tactics, and perhaps inspired by his last great team, Ferguson has seemingly introduced a new midfield diamond system as of late in order to shore up obvious vulnerabilities in his midfield. This system certainly has it's merits due to the sheer number of players congesting the center of the park and this is especially important because United lack a player here with a dominating physical presence -- whether that be through energy, mobility, or strength. This system, though, is quite vulnerable against teams that can play with width and Braga's attacking prowess on the flanks this past midweek exposed that. Ferguson humbly adjusted by half-time and changed to his more familiar 4-4-1-1 system.
As the manager pointed out this past week, it probably is good to introduce another tactical system such as this diamond because it does indeed offer up a bit of unpredictability when opposing managers scout United. Ferguson is doing well to adapt, as he expertly has done throughout his grand and unprecedented career, but he's yet to find a balance in his current side that forces other elite sides -- or even just very good ones -- to adapt to United. His side can surge forward with aplomb, but they're now open in transition when possession is lost. They can park the bus when humbly needed (the Barcelona UCL semi-final tie in 2008), but this clearly is not what Ferguson wants to do because it results in a limp attack (or an epic Scholes goal!). Where does this current United side go from here?
Well, there are encouraging signs now with our attack. Despite a lack of consistent width in the diamond -- because the system is heavily dependent on the full-backs providing it -- the interchanging and unpredictable movements between the likes of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, and Danny Welbeck have been productive and hugely encouraging. In fact, it's somewhat reminiscent of the fluid front three in 2008 of Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Carlos Tevez. The current trio is better supplemented in attack when Antonio Valencia or Nani can join them upfront by stretching the opposition's defense by staying near the flank to provide genuine width. This additional attacker adding width, though, only compounds some of the vulnerabilities in behind the front four by leaving one less player in behind for cover.
When possession is lost, there is acres of space behind the attackers when the opposition transitions. When the diamond isn't used, United rarely play with a true a holding-midfielder that can break up transitions. This problem is compounded by Ferguson not having a midfielder mobile or combative enough at the moment that can provide heroic cover nor does he deploy center-backs that are mobile enough in unison. Rio Ferdinand is a former world-class defender and he's still a fine one due to his positional awareness and organizational skills. However, he sits so deep now -- due to a decline in pace -- that United's shape is not nearly compact enough when possession is lost. This results in the back four -- assuming the marauding full-backs haven't been caught out -- and the deep-lying central-midfielders having to defend in space. This is also results in United making Stoke City's Michael Kightly -- a very mediocre player -- looking like a world-class Kaka in his heyday at Milan while making a solo penetrative run towards goal. So perhaps simply, not being compact enough is the issue. The reason for this is numerous though and complicated.
Going forward, how can United clean up their defensive frailties? Well, having the center-backs step up a few yards, whether it be Rio or anyone else, can certainly solidify the shape. But then again, you have Rio -- and even Nemanja Vidic when he comes back again -- being forced to be tested on the turn and that isn't their strength. You also don't have a mobile enough midfielder that can break up counterattacks to cover in the space in front of the center-backs if they drop a few yards deeper. The attack is obviously fruitful now but how much do you pull back while seeking balance? These are the basic questions. The answers aren't easy. Can Manchester United find a proper balance going forward? Answering this balance question will determine this season and the final chapter(s) of Ferguson's career.