Are Wingers or the Diamond Best for Manchester United's Future?

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Are Wingers or the Diamond Best for Manchester United's Future?
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Nani Valencia

It doesn't seem likely that Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson ditched the diamond for wingers against Chelsea because of an 80-year-old granny. 

Watching the programme live, she did nevertheless have something of a point. It wasn't just the diamond against Braga that led to United being two goals down within minutes; it was the daft decision to play Michael Carrick at centre-back when Keane and Wootton were both fit.

Sir Alex has shown himself to be more open to tactical flexibility than ever before. As he said earlier this month in his Press Conference, reported the next day:

“If it turns out we play the diamond it would be revolutionary because it is going against our history.”

Now everyone knows that he is the past master of bluff. He certainly played a diamond formation against Newcastle that was highly successful, producing a 3-0 win. He then tried it against Braga, but had to revert after conceding two goals.

The granny was half right, but the diamond is not directly the cause of losing the goals. Alan Pardew's Newcastle seemed stumped as they were overrun by United's possession. No doubt their manager had meticulously prepared for a 4-3-3.

But as we have been saying for a couple of years now, Sir Alex may notionally have a set-up that looks like a specific formation, and United's tradition is certainly in wide players and counter-attacking football.

The truth is that the players he's bought and trained have been prepared for an infinitely fluid, interchanging, fast, technical game among the attacking players.

It is interesting to look at what other managers are doing. At least four seem to be captivated by their own version of Barcelona's "tiki-taka" football. The trouble is that they don't have the Spanish side's group of players, who have mostly grown up playing that style and know each other's play inside out.

Pep Guardiola had a system which looked like 3-1-6 with no central striker. He bought a couple of strikers and tried to get them to play the system. Ibrahimovich didn't fit. Villa converted well before his long-term injury. In addition, Alexis Sanchez has fit in well, as has Cesc Fabregas, of course.

Tito Vilanova has pretty much stuck by this tradition. Recent wobbles have been mainly down to having Puyol, and especially Pique, injured.

And Sir Alex has certainly stuck with out-and-out attacking football, even if the system doesn't always resemble a 4-4-2. He has bought players like Young, Kagawa and Van Persie who are very comfortable playing a number of roles. In Wayne Rooney they also have "Mr Versatility."

At the other end of the East Lancs Road, Brendan Rodgers is being rather more rigid and currently blaming his lack of resources. However, his big mistake may have been not fancying Andy Carroll, as Liverpool have only one striker.

It can't be much fun watching your side being overrun by the team you've just left, playing pretty much the same football Rodgers is trying to instill.

It may work, or it may not. It didn't for Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea. Roberto Di Matteo has brought his own style to the players his owner has bought this summer. It works extremely well. Chelsea play 4-2-3-1, which gives Mata, Hazard and Oscar the freedom of the park.

The truth is you need to be able to play a mix of styles. Sometimes you need an out-and-out striker or two, and sometimes you don't. United have in the past had as many as four strikers on the pitch to try and get a result. 

Meanwhile, Roberto Mancini's Manchester City are struggling more than last year, apparently because he wants to play three at the back, like Barcelona and a growing number of Serie A clubs. But when he desperately needed a goal against Ajax, he ended up with four strikers on the pitch, too.

There have certainly been plenty of times when Sir Alex could have used a 3-5-1 formation, especially in the Champions' League. Against Cluj for example, he simply didn't need two centre-backs, because there was nobody to play against.

Maybe that's why he popped Michael Carrick into the back four against Braga, but it nearly backfired.

So the key point is that you cannot easily nail down Sir Alex's formation in the future. Okay, it may set up as 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or the infamous 4-3-1-2 (or diamond), but his multi-skilled players have been coached to roam free in attack, while being utterly disciplined in formation in defence.

With players of pace and technical skill, who have also had defensive skills grafted on, this will surely produce the next era of United success, no? 

And then, no doubt, along will come Pep Guardiola to mess it up again. But at least the players will have the technical skill and flexibility to do whatever he decides.

So let's briefly look at the merits of these two formations.

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