Manchester United's employment of a diamond in games against Cluj and Newcastle United gave rise to a lot of speculation regarding the pros and cons of the formation. Many column inches (some virtual, some not) have been spent in determining if the formation indicated a long-term shift in the tactical thinking of Sir Alex Ferguson and his managerial staff.
It is likely though that Sir Alex Ferguson will only bring out the diamond formation in games where he feels the need to protect the midfield. It appears highly unlikely that we will see the reappearance of the diamond in the next game at home against Stoke City.
Here are a few reasons to support this prediction.
Stoke do not pose a threat to the Manchester United midfield
Ever since their promotion to the top-flight four and a half years ago, Stoke City have played their own abrasive, physical and long-ball based brand of football. This season, the formation has experienced a slight tweak with Steven N'Zonzi and Glenn Whelan playing in the centre of the park.
The truth is that neither Adam nor Whelan have the mobility to trouble the Manchester United midfield and defense. While it is true that Adam can find a pass, he doesn't necessarily have what it takes to take on and beat a marker. N'Zonzi is probably the only player in the midfield lineup who could do so, but he has lately been starting from a pretty deep position which limits his ability to affect moves in the attacking third of the pitch.
As a result, the United team will mostly be faced with a team that plays in front of the midfield and the likely midfield of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes should be able to exert their dominance in the center of the pitch without fear of being overrun. Consequently, there is no need to employ the diamond to shore up the midfield at the expense of creativity on the wings.
Manchester United need to nullify the Stoke wingers
A major area of Stoke City's offensive game is the contribution of their wingers Jon Walters and Michael Kightly. Kightly especially, has been quite effective for Stoke since his transfer from Wolves in the summer. Stoke average nearly 22 crosses per game, which is an impressive number considering that they average only 40% of the possession in all games they play.
Thus, a large part of Manchester United's defensive effort would involve ensuring the ineffectiveness of the Stoke wingers. This becomes especially important considering the form of the Manchester United fullbacks, in particular, Patrice Evra.
Playing the diamond would reduce cover for the fullbacks as there would now be no speedy winger tracking back to help out the fullback. In combination with the point about the Stoke midfield, it is clear that playing a diamond would be akin to solving a problem that won't exist in this game.
Which formation will Manchester United play against Stoke City?
The Manchester United team picks itself, and it doesn't suit a 4-1-2-1-2 (or the diamond)
The back four pick themselves with the defensive line of Rafael da Silva, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra likely to play. Keeping in mind the international exertions of Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley, Ferguson will probably go for a Carrick/Scholes or a Scholes/Anderson midfield. The wing positions will probably be occupied by Nani and Shinji Kagawa. Wayne Rooney will most likely start in the hole behind Robin van Persie.
The natural shape of such a lineup would be a normal 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 (depending on the way you look at formations). Playing a diamond would mean dropping Kagawa alongside the two central midfielders. This move limits the Japanese international from affecting the play further up the pitch. In addition, the diamond won't allow the game to be stretched to the touchline, something that would be a major part of the United tactics towards winning the match.
In summary, it seems unlikely that Sir Alex Ferguson will continue his experiments with the diamond formation against Stoke. United will want a big and easy win to start a spell of some tricky-looking fixtures. Playing a conventional 4-4-1-1 would ensure that there are multiple lines of attack open for United during the game. Hence, expect the 4-4-1-1 to make a return at kickoff on Saturday.
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