This has been an interesting season for Manchester United from a tactical point of view.
Sir Alex Ferguson has experimented with two different formations at different times this season.
First, there is the classic 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 United formation with rampaging wingers and full-backs. Second, there was the wingless diamond formation with two strikers and Wayne Rooney in a withdrawn role.
In a revealing press conference last week, Sir Alex talked about his tactical choices (quote via manutd.com):
The diamond is seen as a little revolutionary because it goes against our history. But the level of the game in England and Europe is so high now that making yourself unpredictable is a strength.
Teams will now have to think about whether we will play with two wide players or in the diamond because we have the players who are capable of doing both things.
Tactics in Recent Games
The last week has given a fascinating insight into the Manchester United manager's thinking.
In the game against Braga last week, United started with a diamond. The formation, though, gave Braga the freedom of the wings, especially on the left flank.
Soon, the Red Devils found themselves two goals down and went into the halftime break with a one-goal deficit.
Ferguson's response to going behind was to switch back to the classic 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1. In the new formation, Rooney moved to the right and Nani slotted into the right winger's role.
The switch to 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 worked for the Red Devils as they won the game 3-2.
Against Chelsea, Ferguson gave the strongest indication yet of what he thinks is his strongest lineup.
United lined up in an unbalanced 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 with Rooney sitting relatively deep behind Robin van Persie. The formation gave United width and pace in their lineup.
This lineup and their ability to attack with pace down the wings was instrumental in the early 2-0 lead for the Red Devils.
For the League Cup game in midweek, Sir Alex continued with the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1, as United lost the game 5-4 with a second-string team.
Reasons for Adopting the Diamond
Sir Alex Ferguson made the switch to the diamond in response to how Tottenham exposed United's deep lying midfielders with their pace and movement.
The diamond gave United the choice of coping with such a gameplan by packing the midfield with bodies. Especially in Europe, where a lot of attacks are through the middle, the diamond allowed United to build from a stable base.
In some sense, Ferguson's tactics were reactionary.
Last season, his response to the derby demolition by City was to slow down the tempo to get control of the game. This season, it was all about control once again with the deployment of the diamond.
The main difference between the last season and the current one is the versatility of all players available to Sir Alex.
The list of midfielders and forwards who can play in multiple positions includes Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa, Ashley Young, Nani, Anderson, Tom Cleverley and Ryan Giggs.
As a result, the diamond became a viable option this season.
The element of uncertainty in United's formation also took opponents by surprise. Never was this element of surprise more apparent than the game against Newcastle, which United won 3-0.
To summarize, Sir Alex has one simple reason for choosing the diamond formation: control.
This is the same as the reason behind Barcelona's tiki-taka. The team that retains control of the game is the one that goes on to win the match most of the time.
Ferguson has looked at his players and realized that the diamond formation provides him a good solution to retain control, especially in matches where United could be overrun by the opposition's pace and power. In such games, the attacking threat sacrificed by having no wingers would be offset by the control United could gain.
After all, United still have players in the lineup who can create chances through the middle.
So when will we see the Diamond Next?
Of these fixtures, only the Galatasaray fixture stands out as a game where United would benefit from the diamond. Being an away game, a solid defensive base would be at the forefront of Sir Alex's mind, and that might just convince him to go with the wingless formation.
Looking back to the match against the Turks at Old Trafford, United were time and again opened up by the pace of Galatasaray's midfielders. Most of the attacks by the Turkish team came through the centre, and the relatively slow midfield of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes failed to provide any cover to the defence.
The other interesting game in this sequence is the one at home against Arsenal.
The Gunners are usually a very good team in possession. However, United's recent winning record against them has largely been based on counter-attacking football played at pace. The presence of two wingers on either side of the pitch will surely be an integral part of the United game plan in this match.
For all other games, attacking through the wings will constitute a major avenue of attack for Manchester United.
So, it will be very surprising if Sir Alex reverts to the diamond for any of them.
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