Squad equilibrium: youthful vibrance balanced with mature understanding
It would be open to ridicule to propose that any current Manchester United starting XI could be compared to the celebrated first-choice teams of 1994, 2008 and particularly 1999.
But there may well be some mileage in the suggestion that Sir Alex has constructed his greatest squad ever—in terms of depth, balance and most importantly, tactical flexibility.
Despite some exceptions, there is not as much individual quality in the current crop of players.
As illustrated in Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Terry Carroll’s recent article, a selected XI from today’s United squad would probably pale in comparison to the first-choice XI that won the treble in 1999.
But collectively, real dimension exists throughout.
There may not be as many 9/10 players, but there are far more 8/10 players that can come in at any given time. As a result, rotation naturally becomes a safer and more effective prospect.
Exactly what Sir Alex’s present first-choice starting lineup would be is highly debatable. It could be fairly argued that there isn’t one at all.
It is skillful squad rotation that is pivotal to securing multiple successes this season.
The balance of existing quality and potential quality in the squad offers an equilibrium that has been unmatched in the past. This ying-yang harmony equips for the here and now while simultaneously preparing for the future.
Key players can be confidently rested so they remain fresh, both physically and mentally, for the growing challenges ahead.
The ingredients of Sir Alex’s squad are more complex than ever before: young players are carefully being phased in and senior players are respectably being phased out. All players have a part to play and are more tactically adaptable than ever before.
They have to be in order to fit in with what could be considered a whole new philosophy.
The Super Squad
It can be argued that Sir Alex’s latest creation is still in transition—perhaps one or two more players are yet to be added. But essentially today’s side does not differ significantly from the double-winning team of 2008.
The only massive difference in the intermittent years was the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, but this season that has been remedied with the signing of Robin van Persie, despite them being very different players.
Another contrast is the sheer might of the roster of players now available to Sir Alex.
The options at the manager’s disposal are abundant. The collection of players is more versatile than ever before and strategic formations are often so fluid that they have become as difficult to predict as Sir Alex’s starting XI.
In stark contrast to the reliance on a straightforward 4-4-2 in 1999, players can now be deployed effectively in a multitude of formations and they can be adjusted (even within the same game) more seamlessly than ever before.
Its chameleon-like nature is being used as a weapon in itself.
Any tactical conundrum posed by the opposition can now be exploited and/or nullified by the deft decisions that Sir Alex makes—it could be 4-4-2, 4-1-2-1-2, 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1: The list goes on.
Inside forwards have returned to vogue in the narrow version of the most frequently utilized tactical set up this season (the 4-2-3-1)—Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa have all been deployed as such.
The formation can also be effective when stretched wide by employing United’s flankers: Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani.
The 4-2-3-1 and the diamond managed to solidify the middle of the park via tactical aplomb rather than the signature of an enforcer—silencing critics of a United midfield that many felt was the Achilles' Heel.
The lack of obvious shape was also criticized early in the season. A number of disjointed performances clearly lacked the fluency of vintage United sides and on many occasions players seemed unsure of their precise role within the team.
Not once this season has the same starting XI been retained in two consecutive games and 21 players have been utilized in the past three matches.
However, slowly but surely, fans, pundits and even the players themselves are beginning to realize and appreciate the value of how Sir Alex has gone about his business this season.
Of course, positive results will always eventually convince even the staunchest of doubters, but we could well be witnessing squad rotation taken to a whole new level.
It remains to be seen if this side can beat the very best football teams in Europe, but the advent of the “Super Squad” may yet turn out to be the story of the season.
Do you agree that Sir Alex has taken the squad game to a whole new level this season? Give me your thoughts below or hit me up on Twitter @jonathanbeever.