Manchester United breathed a huge sigh of relief on Saturday evening after picking up a much-undeserved three points against Arsenal.
Sir Alex Ferguson lined his team up – somewhat surprisingly – in last season’s 4-3-3 formation, with Wayne Rooney spearheading a trident of Antonio Valencia and Luis Nani on the wings. The formation worked inasmuch as it prevented Arsenal’s movement in possession and saw that United’s men kept the majority of the ball for the first half. But the static play of Messrs Valencia and Nani, plus an ineffective first 45 from Ryan Giggs were all worrying signs that the team selection did not match the formation. Last season Nani showed the difficulty he had meeting the contribution his position in a forward three demanded, whilst Valencia is still adjusting to life at Old Trafford. The Ecuadorian’s sluggish start to his Red Devils career is nothing if not expected, but his inability to outwit Gael Clichy will leave doubts in Fergie’s mind as to the winger’s current big game capacity. Valencia was outpaced and outwitted by the French left-back – failing to offer any alternative contribution to the game outside losing possession and finding blind allies to charge down.
The lack of movement offered from Nani and Valencia gave the impression of a United side playing away from home – or one reduced to 10 men – forced to sit back in possession and unable to push forward with the ball. However, Giggs was able to offer a great deal more after the break, no doubt with some strong words ringing in his ears, having been given a freer role to attack. The Welshman provided first the pass that resulted in the penalty and then the cross from a free-kick that Abou Diaby kindly headed in for the match winner.
Arsenal very much handed United victory and Ferguson will know he has his work cut out for that fourth successive title. There are huge concerns going into the international break that need to be addressed come mid-September, with crunch clashes with Tottenham and Manchester City to contend with. The toying with the formation and line-up in the first four games highlights a new tactical uncertainty at Old Trafford which has not been seen for some four years.
If Nani and Valencia are to remain the manager’s first-choice wingers then the 4-3-3 is no longer a viable formation to break teams down. The beauty of Cristiano Ronaldo’s game came to fruition in the development of a forward three that allowed for a freedom of movement perfected by himself, Carlos Tevez and Rooney. The three of them were able to not only cover the ground, but offer a genuine threat to the goal from outside the penalty area. Part of the reason Rooney was shunted out to the wing for the past three years (aside from the over-documented tracking back) was his ability to deliver assists and shots on goal from various positions. Saturday’s game showed his ineffectiveness without the support of like-minded footballers. Nani and Valencia did not come close to offering anything more than inconsistent bursts of pace down the lines.
To aid Rooney’s hunt for goals, the most viable formation looks to be the 4-4-2. The tactic has shown its strengths going forward – providing chances in and around the penalty area for Rooney, Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov, whilst also relieving pressure from the inexperienced shoulders of Nani and Valencia. However, the dilemma facing Sir Alex – and perhaps the reason we saw the return of the 4-3-3 on Saturday evening – is the middle of the park is left exposed. With just two central midfield positions in the 4-4-2 it is up to the manager to select the best ‘all-rounders’ available – ones who can offer the defensive cover, support in attack and range of passing.
The weight of expectancy of the team now rests very much on the shoulders of the two most likely to fill those positions – Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher. Both have impressed in recent seasons as mainstays in the United midfield, but the change in formation and that loss of a third man in the middle will bring new levels of pressure on their roles. Are they up for the challenge? Carrick’s form so far this season has been pedestrian, whilst his inability to figure in the national set-up for so long could be down to the four-man midfield England often lines up with. Fletcher will never offer the creativity going forward that others can, but his legs and defensive cover will see him picked ahead of Anderson, Giggs and Paul Scholes. Giggs may indeed be pushed out to the wing again should Nani and Valencia continue to put in shifts like those witnessed against Arsenal, whilst Scholes relies on being the third man of the 4-3-3 midfield in order to offer his range of passing to a fluid triumvirate in front of him without the defensive responsibility.
The movement and energy that a midfield partnership in a four-man midfield will demand of the players may tempt Fergie to dip into the market before Tuesday evening. Regardless of how well his players adapt to the tactical and technical demands of the 4-4-2, the rigours of playing with one less man in the middle could take its toll on his men, with Giggs and Scholes most vulnerable.
Manchester United Club Focus
Welcome to Manchester, Michael – July 29
Goals from midfield the order of the day – August 5
Respect the consistency – August 12
Injury plague piles pressure on forwards – August 18
Usual slow starters living up to their reputation but is there cause for concern? – August 22
Enter the Champions – August 25
Anderson and Vidic pledge their allegiance – August 28
Win fails to hide Rooney’s need for a wingman – September 1