Manchester United: How Best to Use RVP, Rooney, Kagawa, Welbeck and Chicharito

Terry CarrollContributor IIISeptember 26, 2012

Manchester United: How Best to Use RVP, Rooney, Kagawa, Welbeck and Chicharito

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    Any team in the Premier League would take one of Rooney, Welbeck and Chicharito. And yet when Manchester United played Fulham, they all started on the bench.

    Of course, Sir Alex wants to bed in Robin Van Persie and Kagawa as a combination and not just because they cost £36 million between them.

    Rooney and Van Persie are the highest paid players at Old Trafford and arguably the most potent combination. Surely they will start all the big matches together once Rooney is fit?

    The manager has oozed delight at having the same striking set-up as he had in the Treble winning year of 1999, when he had four top strikers in Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer.

    iThe current equivalents are Van Persie, Rooney, Welbeck and Chicharito. But, he's also got Kagawa, who is the nearest equivalent to how Paul Scholes played way back then.

    Behind them, queuing up for a chance are Macheda, Henriquez, King, Keane (when fit) and even Nick Powell, who Crewe used as a striker or No. 10 last season.

    Of course, this is the sort of headache Brendan Rodgers or Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo or Arsene Wenger would love to have. Let alone fourteen of the other fifteen Premier League managers, who would settle for just one of the first five.

    And this highlights both the different economic states and the tactical approaches of United's nearest competitors. Only City are in a similar position with Aguero, Tevez, Dzeko and Balotelli.

    Mancini can get away with benching two of these world class strikers through iron discipline that has taken two seasons and a collective belief to achieve.

    Sir Alex has iron discipline of course, but he also has as much trust and respect from all his players as any manager in world football.

    So he relishes the challenge of having 80 players to pick from for his first team, but he still has to come up with the winning combinations.

    He is fastidious and meticulous in his detail, and so is the first team coach, Rene Meulensteen.

    While the Dutchman has had a huge influence on coaching methods right through the Academy to the first team, he is the pre-eminent devotee of Will Coerver, known as the "Albert Einstein of Football".

    Meulensteen rejoined United in 2007 and was appointed to his present position after the departure of Carlos Queiroz in July 2008. Since then, United have won eight major trophies.

    The three key effects that he has had, have been: the transfer of attacking skills to defenders and vice-versa; the greater pace and fluid interchange of United as an attacking force; and the multi-skilling of every young player coming through, which is now bearing fruit.

    The players are enthusiastically supportive of these changes and their two masters of implementation. Time and time again you will hear United players, young and old, saying there is no better place to be than Old Trafford.

    Of the five discussed here, the one to have benefited most is Danny Welbeck, who has worked with Meulensteen since he was ten. Will Keane has had a similar experience. Rene has also been credited with making Cristiano Ronaldo a world class player.

    Okay, so Pogba, Morrison and Fryers couldn't see that, but they are all impatient young men, apparently greedy for the rewards of the game before they have proved themselves worthy.

    You won't see any of the five attacking players who are the subject of this article wanting to leave anytime soon. Even Wayne Rooney, about whom there has been much speculation, stated very clearly recently that he would like to play for United for another ten years.

    And take Berbatov and Owen. It was very clear that neither of them wanted to leave. Owen was dispensable because of his injury record, especially with Welbeck ready to star and Macheda, Keane, King, and no doubt Henriquez, champing at the bit.

    Berbatov simply wanted first team action, which he wasn't going to get much of as he clearly ranked fifth in the new pecking order, just ahead of Owen.

    So, assuming that all five of the new attacking force are here for the duration, prepared to take their turn, how does Sir Alex utilise them best?

Squad Rotation or Tinkering?

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    Now this guy really was The Tinkerman. Who can be the first to name him in the Comments below?

    He turned out to be a pretty good coach and has done really well in Italy. He and Ferguson also have mutual respect.

    Sir Alex is no longer accused of tinkering, even though he rotates his squad more than anyone else in the Premier League. The media have worked out now why he does it.

    First, he knows you need a big squad to win the major trophies (so does David Moyes, but he can't afford one). Ferguson has said for many years that a prime objective is for United to finish stronger than anyone else in the second half of the season.

    He also likes to try out all possible combinations among his stronger players so the rotation becomes "chicken and egg." 

    There is the small matter of injuries to wrestle with, as the defensive problems of last season and now this season again have shown.

    Finally, he is adamant about giving young players a chance and no manager at the top clubs does this more than Ferguson. 

    He has traditionally used the League and FA Cups as the conduit for introducing young talent and this has been largely successful in the past, although Crystal Palace last year and Coventry five years ago were reality checks.

    It should be remembered that he includes some of these up and coming players in his European squads as well, and is not averse to actually playing them once the Group stage is sewn up.

    It's interesting to compare this approach with, for example, Kenny Dalglish, who should have given Raheem Sterling a chance much earlier as this season has shown. Also, Kevin Keegan actually abolished Newcastle's Academy while he was manager to save money. Daft.

    Last night showed the folly of that, because some Newcastle Academy produced players were in the squad. Andy Carroll's £35 million fee probably funded their Academy for five years!

    So, rotation is the name of the game. RVP, Kagawa, Rooney, Welbeck and Hernandez know that and trust the manager. But younger players also know they will get their shot if they are patient and good enough. That wasn't enough for Pogba and Fryers, however.

Tactical Considerations

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    Shinji Kagawa will be looking over his shoulder now that Rooney is likely to return fully fit.

    Although it might seem harsh on the Japanese wizard if he is rested on Saturday, it means nothing. Rooney needs match time; United need goals and a result. Rooney is a strong player all over the park.

    In any case, the Kagawa/Van Persie partnership has been proved to work. They will play together again and get plenty of goals between them before the season is over.

    Traditionally United have played 4-4-2, unlike more and more of the Premier League clubs who play through the middle, together with set-pieces.

    There is now a need for much greater tactical flexibility, however. 4-4-2 will no longer work in Europe except against weak teams who can be overrun. The Galatasaray match showed there are no easy games in Europe.

    The Wigan match last season also raised a question about whether it can be used against a side playing 4-5-1.

    It looks for the time being as if Sir Alex and Meulensteen want greater flexibility than that, regardless of formation. While Carrick stays fairly fixed in the holding midfield role, the rest can be seen all over the opposition half and even further back at times.

    That's why it's superfluous to keep on insisting that Kagawa is the "trequartista" and not a central midfield. He may not have played the latter role at Dortmund, but he's perfectly capable of playing it at United if needed.

    One of the cornerstones of Meulensteen's philosophy is to equip players to play anywhere within reason. Would Tommy Docherty or Ron Atkinson have had Valencia at right back, Carrick at centre back, or Berbatov as a creative midfielder, for example?

    My big regret about the ongoing problems with central defence is that it will be some time before Sir Alex tries my own preferred formation in Europe or in the EPL for that matter, which is 3-5-1.

    To play that, you need skillful and mobile centre backs. Vidic or Ferdinand would be the pivot and the likes of Smalling, Jones, Evans, or even Evra/Buttner the other two at the back.

    He's got two ready-made wide players when he needs them, in addition to Buttner, who could play the wide left of the middle five. These wide players have to be highly mobile and able to attack or defend with equal ability. The two candidates are Rafael and Fabio.

Possible Formations

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    Rooney and Welbeck hold the key because of their willingness to play wherever the Boss tells them. Both can play behind a striker, up front themselves or on the wing. The latter affords the opportunity to play three strikers.


    In this, United's most traditional formation, Rooney, Van Persie, Welbeck and Hernandez can all play in the top two. Probably after Saturday's match, the final combination will have been tried with Rooney and Van Persie. All the others have been used in the past.

    Rooney also offers an additional possibility which we may see increasingly in the future. While Powell and Cleverley have been mooted as possible successors to Paul Scholes, Rooney is to me the obvious candidate, especially as he gets older.

    So although Ferguson's preferred choice is a holding midfield of Carrick (or alternately Fletcher if he recovers his fitness), he can perm anyone from Scholes, Cleverley, Anderson and even Rooney, Powell or Kagawa in the other position, depending on circumstances.

    There is no reason why, needing a result, he wouldn't be prepared to play all five of the players in this article, plus Carrick, if he needed a result. He's been prepared to have four strikers on the pitch at once in the past.


    With this formation, you would expect only one of the five to play, probably Van Persie, but possibly with Rooney or Welbeck on the left of the front three. We may see this on Saturday if Valencia is ruled out, with a possible line-up of:

    Rooney, Van Persie, Nani

    Anderson, Carrick, Cleverley


    This is the formation that is best suited to Scholes playing alongside Carrick. It could also be Cleverley or Anderson instead of Scholes.

    Van Persie or Rooney would be at the top with Nani, Kagawa or Rooney and Valencia behind him. Welbeck or Young could play wide left, as could Rooney.

    4-3-2-1 or 4-1-2-3

    Sir Alex has never really favoured Terry Venables' so-called "Xmas Tree" formation or its reverse.

    4-3-2-1 could be used against the likes of Barcelona, for example. You would need wide players who can defend, flanking Carrick.

    The nearest example was when Ferguson played nine defenders against Arsenal in the FA Cup and thrashed them. Rafael was excellent.

    So, Rafael, Valencia, Young and Fabio when he returns would do. Alternately, if you want to keep it narrow, Cleverley and Anderson could flank Carrick. Meanwhile, up front you could have any two of Kagawa, Rooney and Welbeck behind Van Persie or Chicharito.

    With 4-1-2-3, Carrick or Fletcher would be the holding player, rather like Lothar Matthaus for Bayern Munich, with say Cleverley and Anderson in front of him and Rooney, Van Persie or Chicharito and Welbeck up top. Kagawa in the middle two would make it even more aggressive.

    The thing is that United's tradition is built on wide players, now enhanced to produce fast, technical and fluid interchange between the front five. So it is in some senses superfluous to talk of tactical formations.

    While Sir Alex is manager you can bet on four at the back, even if two of them are either wing backs or attackers who can defend, like Valencia.

    He is also insistent on a holding rather than defensive midfield. Carrick is his first pick for now, with Fletcher in reserve. There is every hope that Tunnicliffe or Phil Jones could develop into that role. Both have great engines and while there will never be another Roy Keane, they can go "box to box".

    Although Sir Alex loves his wingers, he loves his strikers more. Look how many there are on the books!

    With Rene Meulensteen's philosophy of "blue-printing" players, you can already see that "wingers" can defend.

    But goalscorers can defend also. Rooney can tackle and intercept although he has curbed his wilder excesses. Van Persie shows he can slide tackle if needs be (he's obviously been watching Scholes, judging by Saturday's carded effort!)

    Welbeck is highly competent at winning the ball back. Meanwhile Kagawa and Chicharito are improving in their ability and willingness to harry and track back.

    The game has never been more about holding possession and winning it back as soon as possible. United will have to improve in their "flooding" of the man with the ball, which Wigan are competent at and Rodgers introduced at Swansea and now Liverpool.

    We've come a long way

    Once upon a time, the formation was 2-3-5, with two full backs, three half backs and five forwards, of whom two were "inside forwards". Sir Alf Ramsey changed all that and world football with it by inventing 4-4-2 and wing backs.

    Once upon a time, European teams could be knocked over by the pace and physical aggression of the English game. Now everybody's doing it.

    And once upon a time, strikers stayed up field waiting for the rest to lump the ball up to them. Thank God those days have gone. Barcelona don't even have strikers and you can't say that hasn't worked.

    But things go in cycles. Once, Brazil and then Holland played "total football". Sir Alex is trying to play his own version with fluid interchange at pace, whatever your attacking role.

    Meulensteen is giving him the tools by producing a conveyor belt of young players comfortable with playing wherever they are asked or find themselves.

    Will Coerver's belief was that players like Pele and Maradona could be "blue-printed" and even the best players re-engineered to be even better, as his disciple Meulensteen showed with the young Cristiano Ronaldo.

    Sir Alex has signed players ready to take on these new philosophies and that is the main reason why none of Rooney, Welbeck, Kagawa or Chicharito need worry about getting their chances.

    Van Persie is one of the best goalscorers in the world, so he will play more games than most and usually up top. Despite fans wondering what he is doing out there, even he characteristically drifts to either flank, from where he starts his runs, wins the ball or makes a killer pass.

    The game has changed and will keep changing, but United will always play attacking football. To do that with modern formations, even strikers need to be able to do everything, including clearing the ball off their own goal-line...