Ferguson’s flexible front four hints at a return to the fluidity of 2008

August 7, 2011

Manchester United's starting line-up in the Community Shield win over Manchester City

Community Shield matches can often be rather mundane – this year’s was a cracker, with Manchester United coming back from 2-0 down at half time to defeat Manchester City 3-2.

With a raft of changes at half time, it would be easy to say that it was a genius transformation by Sir Alex Ferguson at half time. In truth, United were the more positive and creative side for the majority of the game, and even at half time, they would have been pleased with the performance, if not the result.

This fixture often sees exciting new signings making their debut – but, perhaps surprisingly, all of City’s XI were at the club last season, and Roberto Mancini played a similar shape to in 2010/11. United, on the other hand, appeared a completely different side from the one which lost to Barcelona on the same ground nine weeks earlier. They had a new goalkeeper – the talking point at half time – but their fluid front four were the main attraction.

In the fallout from the defeat to Barcelona, many were quick to point out the obvious differences between the sides, and suggest how United could use the transfer window to become more like Barcelona. There are elements of truth in that analysis – United must retain the ball better, for example, but if they attempt to copy Barcelona, they’ll never catch them up. Barcelona can draw upon the world’s best three players and a side that has been nurtured for years through their academy. If they are to be stopped, it is more likely that it will be a side outwitting them with a strategy of their own, rather than an imitation of their system. You probably can’t out-Barca Barca.

United have their own identity, and would be better off looking back to their previous European Cup victory in 2008, and the side of a year later, which competed well with Barcelona for the majority of the final (by the end it was a clear Barcelona victory, but nothing like the thrashing they dealt out this year). The main main feature of that side was flexibility and fluidity. Ferguson used Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez almost interchangeably.

That changed with the departure of Ronaldo and Tevez, and whilst their replacements – Antonio Valencia, Michael Owen, Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov (even if there was a crossover between Berbatov and Ronaldo/Tevez) – are all excellent players, they lack the versatility of their predecessors, and therefore United have been more boxy and slightly more predictable in the last couple of years. When they failed to win the league in 2009/10, ZM believed it was primarily due to a lack of attacking variation.

The signing of Ashley Young is significant, because he is able to play on either flank – or even behind a main striker, the position where his ex-manager Gerard Houllier believed he was at his best. In addition, Danny Welbeck is also capable of playing on the left, the right or the centre, something fellow loan returnee Tom Cleverley would also feel able to do, even if he is a very different type of player. The excellent – and decisive – performance of Nani was also good for United. Valencia’s astonishing return from injury last season pushed Nani out of the side, despite the fact the Portuguese winger had been excellent for the majority of the campaign - so good that he was voted United’s best player by his teammates.

Therefore, whilst the United 4-4-1-1 in the ‘big games’ towards the end of last season was set in stone in terms of selection – it was, well, set in stone in terms of positioning. Valencia was superb in some games – against Chelsea at home, for example – but when he played poorly, like in the Champions League final, he made United seem compartmentalised rather than cohesive.

The movement of United's front four

It was interesting to see, then, that Ferguson chose to use a 4-4-2ish system with much more flexibility. Young and Nani can both play either side – Young started on the left, Nani on the right – but both came inside quickly and linked up with the front players. The key was the positioning and movement of the front two. Neither stayed high up the pitch against the Manchester City centre-backs – Welbeck came deep, primarily to pick up Nigel de Jong, whilst Rooney played something of a false nine role. Therefore, United were roughly 4-4-2, and yet had no true strikers – instead, Rooney and Welbeck linked seamlessly with Nani and Young, whilst Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott struggled to cut out their passing. When those been drawn up the pitch, any of United’s front four could make runs in behind.

Granted, United only scored after the break, and it was after Cleverley had replaced Carrick. That only added to the clever movement in the attacking positions, though. Five United players were looking to move into a position between the lines, trying to find space in dangerous areas. The superb second goal was the most obvious result – it’s difficult to imagine United scoring a similar goal with the 4-4-1-1 from late last season – the side had a completely different feel.

It’s already been called a “Barcelona goal” across twitter, but that’s a slightly lazy comparison. It wasn’t overly Barcelonaesque. It was probably more similar to the type of goal Arsenal used to score in the mid 2000s – take Patrick Vieira’s against Liverpool, for example. That Arsenal side also used to play, effectively, a 4-4-2 with no set striker, and two wingers coming inside – and in addition to United’s own side of a couple of years later, is a better reference point.

The goal might mark the start of a new era in United’s attacking play. Talk of a new era might seem silly – there’s hardly been a revolution since May in terms of the playing squad. There have been subtle changes within an existing framework, however – and that sums up what United will try and do on the pitch, too. With versatile players and more fluidity, there are simply more attacking possibilities.

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