It’s not often that Sir Alex Ferguson absorbs too much in the way of stinging criticism, but he was recently offered a harsh review of his current tactical foray at Manchester United.
Calling in ahead of United’s fixture against Chelsea last Thursday, an 80-year-old woman known only as ‘Margaret from Rochdale’ went on the attack during a phone-in on their resident television channel, MUTV.
The target of her fury? Fergie’s resurrection of the diamond formation within the Manchester United midfield. Despite the set-up bearing fruit for the Red Devil’s in the 3-0 win away to Newcastle United last month, Margaret was seemingly fed up of the formation’s defensive downsides.
Dubbing the formation ‘stupid’, she said:
“It isn’t entertaining when you’re 80 years old to watch goals going in from the other side. I don’t like it. It’s going to give me a heart attack and I’m 80. You wouldn’t like to give me a heart attack, would you?”
It was a lovely little anecdote at a time when the game is probably in need of a little comic relief. But beneath the novelty of the comments, Margaret did indeed touch upon a point that is both topical and highly relevant within Old Trafford at the moment.
Whether or not Ferguson was paying too much attention to MUTV last Thursday – he has in fact since jovially admitted to hearing her views – he did inadvertently heed to her demands to at least temporarily shelve the diamond, for the trip to Chelsea. Manchester United reverted back to a more traditional 4-4-1-1 at Stamford Bridge last Sunday, which despite the somewhat controversial nature of the game, paid dividends in a 3-2 victory.
It seemed like a slightly dampening bit of tactical acumen, given the excitable talk that surrounded the set-up in recent weeks. Fans have been waxing lyrical about the prospect of squeezing Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley into the same line up. Fergie himself suggested that should the side continue to wheel out regularly, it would be ‘revolutionary’ with it going against how they traditionally play.
And in its box office exhibition against Newcastle United, it served to work an absolute treat. After a somewhat sketchy baptism in the 2-1 away to Cluj in the Champions League, the diamond came back with a bang, where it absolutely scorched Alan Pardew’s men for the opening 20 or so minutes of the first half.
Michael Carrick anchored the diamond, with Cleverley up to his left, Kagawa further forward to his right, and the mercurial Rooney as the spearhead. The deployment of four technicians so compactly consigned Newcastle’s pressing game to the chasing of shadow’s and Rooney in particular, was superb.
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The visit of Stoke City to Old Trafford saw Fergie tinker with a 4-2-3-1 set-up that, despite their now customary lethargic start, ended up producing a 4-2 win. But the Champions League tie against Braga, gave the United crowd a chance to see the heralded formation in action. A failure it most certainly wasn’t, but it represented neither an overwhelming success or dependable future blueprint.
Ferguson’s side were 2-1 down at half time and despite some really quite quicksilver exchanges between the trio of Hernandez, Van Persie and Rooney, they were left bypassed at times in midfield. A twist of Shinji Kagawa’s knee saw Nani came on and the results were palpable. United looked both more fluent and comfortable in a more traditional 4-4-2.
Sir Alex Ferguson makes a very good point in that although you need width, you don’t necessarily need wingers to provide it. If the diamond is played with the fluidity and dynamism that Fergie will crave, than part of his mercurial attack can peel off and offer it, with say, a Wayne Rooney rushing in to fill the space.
But it’s very easy to let the potential attacking aesthetics, cloud the feasibility that the system offers for the rest of the team. Yes, Rooney as the spearhead of a diamond, has an almost infinite amount of potential. Acres of column inches have been afforded to his ‘natural gifts’ and how much of a domineering influence he could exert from that position.
Yet what about the rest of the team? Do Manchester United really have a set of full-backs in Rafael and the astute, yet fading Patrice Evra, to consistently provide the needed natural width, while responsibly covering the constant threat of attack down the flanks themselves?
It’s all very well neutralising Jonas Gutierrez, but when United come up against wingers with real race to burn and an ability to do damage, it could cause them problems. A seemingly permanent defensive injury crisis hasn’t helped matters, but they continue to look suspect at the back. A narrow focus of play would ensure their full-backs must stand up to the added pressure.
And furthermore, the ever-grumbling debate about the merits of Manchester United’s engine room, offers some intriguing debate. The holding man in the diamond must be able to create as well as negate. It’s all very well having a holy attacking trinity in front of you, but without a strong influence at the base, life’s going to be very difficult.
Do Michael Carrick or Darren Fletcher bestow the all round game to make a claim for a permanent fixture there? Paul Scholes would look very good in a deep-lying play maker capacity. At 37, it might not be great future planning.
Either way, the diamond does offer a fantastic alternate outlet for Manchester United. Having tactical variety in both this league and in Europe is a superb commodity and the diamond offers an intriguing alternative for Fergie. But for the time being, it should remain just that.
Is the diamond formation a tangible solution at Old Trafford? Or are there any players in particular you feel could add to the set-up? Tell me on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and bat us all your views.