So close, yet so far. A phrase which almost perfectly, in just five words, sums up the 2011/12 season for Manchester United. The campaign opened with several successive displays of stunning attacking football, with the Reds making light of a supposedly tough start to earn impressive wins over Tottenham Hotspur (3-0) and Arsenal (8-2) in the opening three matches of their season. However, an injury to Tom Cleverley against Bolton at the Reebok Stadium- which appeared insignificant when the match ended 5-0 to United- was the start of a tumultuous few months, with disappointing performances (while largely managing to scrape results) becoming almost the norm.
While domestically appearing to suffice, United’s 4-4-2 formation looked outdated at the top level of European football, with the club making hard work of a supposedly easy Champions League group stage, from which the club, finalists the previous season, exited in disgrace. Even domestically there were issues against teams such as Blackburn- 3-2 victors at Old Trafford when Sir Alex forced players such as Park and Rafael into midfield due to a stubborn refusal to move away from 4-4-2- and main rivals Manchester City- who infamously ripped United apart in the Old Trafford derby.
This, combined with the personnel at United’s disposal and the signs from the end of 2011/12, have led me to think about the possibility that United could implement a Barcelona-style 4-3-3 formation in 2012/13, an idea that I will attempt to explain here.
A Barcelona-style 4-3-3?
So, could United implement a Barcelona-style 4-3-3 formation next season? Before I explore this idea further, I should make two things clear:
1. By “Barcelona-style” I mean the shape of the team, I do not mean the possession-based tactics that Barcelona employ.
2. I am assuming that the United squad when the season begins will be composed of the players at the club currently. In short, I am assuming that there will be no more signings, however unlikely that may seem, because this piece of writing would be fifty-six pages long if I were to explore every possible transfer into the club and how they may fit into the idea I am presenting.
I believe that United not only could but, in fact, should employ a 4-3-3 formation next season. Although, of course, this is merely speculation at the moment, I could see United lining up in the formation- and with the personnel- shown below:
In this team, Michael Carrick would sit deep, shielding the back four of Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand and Rafael. When David De Gea has the ball, Ferdinand and Vidic will split, as shown by the two arrows, providing a gap between the two centre-backs that would allow Carrick to drop back and receive a short pass from the goalkeeper. This was a feature of United’s play during 2011/12, with both Scholes and Carrick alternating in dropping deep to receive the ball from De Gea. Carrick would, in the team shown above, be employed in the “Busquets” position from the Barcelona 4-3-3.
Further forward in midfield, in the positions occupied in Barcelona’s team by Iniesta and Xavi, would be Tom Cleverley and new arrival Shinji Kagawa. Rather than holding possession in the style of their Barcelona counterparts, these bright and inventive footballers would launch United attacks in a style built around rapid, pacey attacking play. Both Cleverley and Kagawa are capable of lightning, one touch football; rather than keeping the ball, the aim would be rapid counter-attacks. When United do not have the ball, Kagawa and Cleverley would press the ball high up the pitch, with Rooney dropping in to create an extra man and place real pressure on the opposition’s midfield and defence high up the pitch. This is a style more reminiscent of the United of last August/September than the patient, sit back and watch approach of later in the season. In this formation Rooney and Kagawa could, potentially, interchange.
Rooney, Valencia and Young/Nani is a front three also built around pace and rapid counter-attacks. Rooney’s tendency to drop deep when played as a lone frontman could be seen as a positive rather than a problem; in doing so, Rooney would place increased pressure on the opponent’s midfield and leave the centre-backs who were detailed to mark him with no option but to be dragged out of position by the problems Rooney will inevitably pose. The width- a United trademark under Ferguson- would come not only from the wingers but from the two attacking full-backs. However, it could be argued that both Evra and Rafael may have to curb their attacking instincts to an extent.
This 4-3-3 also provides options for tactical flexibility; Cleverley could drop deeper alongside Carrick in a 4-2-3-1, while there is also potential for a 4-4-1-1 and even a 4-1-2-1-2, with United’s options from the bench- Scholes and Giggs for example- providing the option of a 4-5-1.
For the reasons presented and explored above, I believe that United’s best option in 2012/13 could be to employ a 4-3-3 formation which would provide both exciting attacking options and a solid defence, with the potential for tactical flexibility.
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Credit it to http://this11.com/boards/editor for the graphic.