After two long seasons, Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson have switched their focus to what modern-day football requires: an emphasis on possession.
Newcastle United beat the Red Devils 3-0 last season in a horrendously one-sided game, but Fergie knew what was coming this year.
He changed his formation and tactics—significantly, I might add—to employ a midfield diamond in an attempt to control the game from the middle of the park.
Ferguson must have read my emails. Let's break it down.
The midfield diamond was of the narrow variant, built to control the middle of the park and create multiple options for the man on the ball. It's what Italy used in Euro 2012 to pass England to death during the quarterfinal.
Above: 2. Rafael, 5. Rio Ferdinand, 6. Jonny Evans, 3. Patrice Evra; 16. Michael Carrick, 23. Tom Cleverley, 26. Shinji Kagawa, 10. Wayne Rooney; 19. Danny Welbeck, 20. Robin van Persie
As the introduction states, United needed possession to beat the Magpies this time around. The reverse fixture last year saw Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye run all over the midfield in a dominant display.
The Newcastle duo completely overpowered the central pairing of Michael Carrick and Park Ji-Sung, so rather than go two vs. two in the middle, Fergie opted for the insurance of four.
The diamond wrapped itself around Tiote and Cabaye, leaving them two men to mark each. This was a monumental task, even for players as fit as these, and the Red Devils won the battle for the centre of the pitch immediately.
United achieved 78 percent possession in the opening 15 minutes of the game, and with the score at 2-0, it was pretty much over.
No need for an anchor
By playing a diamond, you remove the necessity for a midfield "destroyer"—a player like Etienne Capoue or Nigel Reo-Coker.
In a midfield three with one designated destroyer, you put the onus on one man to recover the ball while the other two create. Claude Makelele is the obvious example here.
In a diamond of four, no player needs to take on that sole responsibility, as you can press fervently as a group and harass the opposition into turning the ball over.
Take Cesare Prandelli's diamond as an example. Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio are both perfectly capable in the destroyer role, but they play ahead of Andrea Pirlo as shuttlers. They press as a unit and it works far more effectively than if just one of them were to do it.
Michael Carrick is not a destroyer. He's a very efficient deep-lying playmaker, rather like a Pirlo who doesn't play the 40-yard pass, who thrived on this lack of a "responsibility" to break up the play against Newcastle.
Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa represent two hardworking midfielders who will put in their shift, and Wayne Rooney is acclimating nicely toward the centre of the pitch.
No width? You must be joking
A common criticism of the narrow diamond is a certain lack of width. This is an acceptable criticism for a poorly executed diamond, but Serie A sides such as Milan and Internazionale, along with United here, have not succumbed to that problem.
There's two ways to bring width to a diamond—let the full-backs bomb on and ask a midfielder to cover, or shift the diamond horizontally to stretch the opposition.
The full-back option works if you've got a designated midfield destroyer who is quick and aggressive—someone like Esteban Cambiasso with Inter.
As we've discussed, Fergie has no such player at his disposal, so he opted to shift his diamond across the pitch and incorporate the relevant full-back when necessary.
As shown, the diamond still traps the midfield duo of Cabaye and Tiote, but more importantly, it also creates an overload on the right-hand side.
Kagawa and Rafael combine with the forward to make progress on the flank, but if it doesn't work, they can drop the ball back to Carrick and restart from the base of the diamond.
It was surprising to see Rooney "in the hole" and Kagawa in the shuttler's role. The Japanese international spent his entire Borussia Dortmund career in the free role behind Robert Lewandowski, so many would expect those two to swap positions.
Later on when Newcastle had dragged themselves back into the game, Kagawa was substituted and Rooney was moved back into a flat midfeld position alongside Cleverley. If Ferguson wants to try this again, he may well swap the two players from the start.
With Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Nani returning to fitness, it may be difficult for the manager to pull this off again without upsetting the trio of wide men.
Many Red Devils fans are currently smitten with this new-look United and want their team to move across to this formation full time, but this would involve Young being the backup to Kagawa in the hole, Valencia converting to a right-wingback and Nani (in all likelihood) being shipped out.
Fergie's diamond is good for a number of reasons.
It negates his lack of a compromising midfielder, provides high levels of possession and allows him to play Rooney, Cleverley, Kagawa and Robin van Persie in the same side without any hiccups.
The measure of control the Red Devils exercised at St. James Park (yes, we can call it that again!) early on was simply astounding, and it required Alan Pardew to completely alter his approach to the game.
The next test for this diamond is to come up against an efficient three-man midfield. It'll be interesting to see if a lack of width then becomes an option.
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