If you cast your mind back ten, fifteen or even twenty years, there is a good chance you can recall United’s first choice line-up. Our team was so firmly established back then Twitter would have been a mass of people struggling to know what to talk about. 140 characters would have seemed an ocean of whiteness. There was no debate, no discussion. United’s starting eleven was so set in stone that even Alan Shearer could have appeared prepared and knowledgeable on a Saturday night. Well, possibly.
The expansion of the game – with the widening of European competition and the vast increase of cash swilling into clubs’ coffers – has increasingly driven football to become a squad game. It matters now who the reserve left-back is. Two strikers are not enough. We need a bunch of them. Wingers? Keep them coming. United, in particular, need seventeen centre halves just to make sure we have two fit ones we can shove onto the field of play.
Squads have ballooned, yet for some teams it remains a straight-forward task to identify a starting eleven. But United? No chance. Opinions remain polarised and passionate, and Saturday’s insipid defeat to Norwich only strengthened those feelings.
Whilst we should avoid the knee-jerk reactions of the most ardent fans, the performance on Saturday evening should not be discounted as a one-off. With an increasing frequency over the last few seasons, we struggle to dominate in the middle of the pitch. Statistics will paint a different picture – we have had the lion’s share of possession in each of our three league defeats this season – but we lack solidity and strength, and often allow runners to break from midfield. The defence bears the brunt of the criticism for our goals against column but they rarely receive the protection they should.
Perhaps in January we will buy a dominant midfield force. But we have pinned our hopes on that before.
This is not necessarily a direct response to the display against Norwich but equally I hope Sir Alex doesn’t dismiss it as a blip. That kind of performance has a history extending back well beyond this season. I saw blame being apportioned everywhere on Saturday night. Sir Alex, Giggs, Valencia, Ferdinand. Someone probably blamed Nani for not playing. To varying degrees, each may hold some truth (apart from Nani), and Sir Alex’s insistence of viewing Ryan Giggs as a ninety-minute central midfielder is a continued concern.
However, considering the players at our disposal, I feel we need to switch our focus elsewhere. The key is to tweak our formation. Sometimes it feels like sacrilege shunning a straight 4-4-2 or even 4-4-1-1 for United, as it has been the bedrock for so much of our recent success. The notion, though, that we can compete with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund – to name just three – with this set-up no longer holds sway, and there is a pressing need to fine-tune if we want to climb back to the European summit, in addition to regaining ‘our trophy’.
The virtue of out-and-out wing-play cannot be denied – and I certainly think we should employ the tactic at certain times – but it does leave us exposed centrally. This can be negated by two powerful midfielders, which, whisper it, we don’t really have. Sir Alex is obviously aware of this, highlighted by his habit of pulling a 4-5-1 out of his party bag for certain games, but as United rarely play it and often lack the suitable players to execute it, we tend to look slow and stagnated. Think back to our performance at the Etihad last season. Poor old Ji Sung Park.
This season we have introduced a diamond and it has potential, but I am proposing a more fluid 4-2-3-1 formation, with a slight change of personnel. Perhaps oddly, the defence has mostly played well individually this season – highlighted by Rafeal’s excellent displays, Evans’s continued improvement and Evra’s pleasing return to form – but collectively they need to improve. With the return of Smalling, and with comebacks from Jones and Vidic not far away, there is reason for optimism.
Ah, United’s midfield. The crux of this article, and the subject of so much gnashing of teeth that dentists in Manchester drive Ferraris. We have accumulated a sizeable group of midfielders but without any startling quality, the sort that makes you sit back and relax about a game, knowing we will cruise to a comfortable win. Sadly, the days of Roy Keane patrolling the Old Trafford pitch are long gone. He now spends his time walking his dogs and scowling at Adrian Chiles.
Carrick is a very good midfielder. Though he should play with greater urgency at times, he is calm and controlled, can tackle, and plays with an intelligence he is rarely credited for. Scholes, for all his enduring quality, is now better suited to a substitute’s role, primed to exploit burgeoning spaces and tiring bodies later in the game. Fletcher is still inching towards his combative best, and, as Saturday demonstrated, expecting stellar performances from Giggs these days is fanciful at best. Nick Powell shows promise but is a long way off from being first choice.
Which leaves Cleverley and Anderson. The latter has everything needed of a modern midfielder – fast, strong, excellent in possession, and can tackle (let’s not mention shooting) – and could be the driving force we require. Unfortunately his Satnav is occasionally switched off, and while his football can leave fans breathless, that tends to include him. Cleverley, meanwhile, is tenacious and efficient, takes the ball smartly on the half-turn, and promises greater consistency. I could be convinced by Carrick’s inclusion, but prompted by the desire to see faster, more dynamic play through the middle, I’m leaning towards Anderson and Cleverley as the ‘2’ in this formation, with the hope they can re-create the vibrant partnership they struck up last season.
Let’s whip up the pitch. RVP up top. No argument.
The three behind him. It tends to feel like a formation Made In Chelsea these days, which a fair few European teams would rightly contest, but the way their trio of Hazard, Oscar and Mata interchange does provide a useful blueprint. Those three players rarely hug the wings or stay central but roam freely, going wide when necessary and adding numbers in the middle when they can. It requires work, communication and intelligence. This could easily be replicated (I want to say surpassed) with Kagawa, Rooney and Young. All three can operate both out wide and centrally with aplomb, and, vitally, all can finish. Plus all three demonstrate a good work-rate and will help the midfield when necessary. I feel it is vital we find a way to incorporate Kagawa and Rooney in areas of the pitch they can do the most damage and, with work, this has huge potential.
A quick word on Nani, who has moments of brilliance but his consistency from two years ago has drained away to the point where he frustrates more than he thrills. If he can tilt the balance back the other way, he should replace Young. Valencia (on form) is a fine winger but lacks the flexibility and movement to drift in the way this role demands. And he provides an excellent plan B against weary full-backs.
Hernandez and Welbeck are terrific players to spring from the bench, with Scholes and Carrick leading the midfielders itching to get onto the pitch.
We have played well at times this season but I believe this formation and line-up would tighten us up through the middle, while preventing the pedestrian and predictable play we occasionally produce. But you won’t agree. How could you? This is football. This is United. No-one ever agrees.