Old dog, new tricks - United's shift in formation

Posted by Mark Payne

Stu Forster/Getty ImagesWayne Rooney: Tip of the diamond

"It's a wonderful challenge," said a heartbroken Sir Alex Ferguson. "This club doesn't shy away from a challenge". The bowels of Wembley were a sombre place as Barcelona had just dismembered the English champions on their own turf. United had a good opening ten minutes, but were thoroughly outclassed for the rest of the 2011 Champions League final. Fergie cut a lonely figure that night, sitting immobile on the bench, unsure of what to do.

The manager was badly hurt by the two Champions League losses to Barcelona. Not only were United beaten, they were unable to impose themselves in either the 2009 or the 2011 match. Most people in the game believe that the great man would have retired had either game been won. Instead, the new challenge, to match the Catalans, has galvanised him even further.

Much has been made of the new midfield diamond United have employed over the past month. First against Cluj, United lined up without an established winger. Then again at Newcastle, a similar line up destroyed last season's most improved club.

Manchester United have historically been synonymous with rasping wing play. Bobby Charlton's best position was wide right; George Best held the scoring record for a winger at 33 goals until it was broken in 2008.

Even during the relatively barren 1970s and 80s, joy was brought to the United faithful by the by-line crosses of Gordon Hill and Steve Coppell. They then made way for the tricky Jesper Olsen.

A roll call of the wingers Alex Ferguson has had on the books reads like a list of United legends. Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Lee Sharpe, Andrei Kanchelskis and a young man by the name of Ronaldo.

It simply goes against the DNA of the club to play tight and narrow. So why is it happening now? Because Manchester United are also in the business of winning, and in 2012 our tactics need to be up-to-date.

After that night at Wembley, instead of planning his retirement, Fergie went back to the drawing board and started to plot Barcelona's dethroning. United have traditionally had a front player who can hold the ball up. Men like Mark Hughes, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Dimitar Berbatov.

The Bulgarian was left out that night at Wembley and his Old Trafford career was in decline from that moment. Since then, recruitment has focused on players who are comfortable with playing the ball first time and at speed. Crucially, it has also seen us sign several youngsters whose position on the pitch has not yet been finalised.

In the summer of 2011, we signed Phil Jones and Ashley Young, both of whom played in several positions last season. This summer we have brought in Nick Powell and Shinji Kagawa. Flexible players who can move around the centre of the park.

Tactical reimagining is nothing new at United, but it tends to be kept quiet. This may be to throw rivals off the scent; it could also be because the fans are rather set in their ways.

Carlos Quieroz, our former first team coach, still has a mixed reputation at the club after his tinkering with the formation. In 2005, he was so unpopular that the fans regularly chanted "Four, four, two" in protest. Three years later, and it was the Portuguese who masterminded our roaming front six that conquered in Moscow.

If you had told a United fan two months ago that we would be playing without wingers the blood would have drained from their face. Now, it seems the sensible option. Nobody can argue with the fact that giving Wayne Rooney license to run all over the place is a brilliant idea. The personnel we have on the books are all capable of drifting out wide, if needs be, from their new positions in the diamond.

It would be an overenthusiastic fan that saw a victory against Cluj as proof that we were a match for Barcelona. Nonetheless, those who have bemoaned United's form in midfield this season now have cause for optimism. Nearly 18 months after that final at Wembley, Fergie is still learning. And he still wants to win.

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