Wayne Rooney Beware: Ferguson Will Still Use You Out Wide on the Big Stage
Should the hints be believed that Sir Alex really plans to restore Wayne Rooney to a central striking role throughout next season?
In the summer of 2008, during the club's tour of South Africa, Ferguson admitted that he had "misused" Rooney. No such mistake would be made in the campaign that followed, he indicated.
We now know better. Rooney did play centrally but when meaningful fixtures arrived, there was Wazza ploughing a lone furrow down the left flank.
During this most recent close season, during the tour of Asia, the manager was at it again, suggesting that Rooney might be played more centrally to reproduce the form and goals the player had delivered on England duty.
Rooney read the signs and was delighted.
"We haven't spoken about it but I am sure that is where I will play," Rooney said last month. "Everyone knows it is my best position and, hopefully, that is where I will be. It is less work, you get more chances and, as a forward, that is what you want."
Logic suggests however, that Rooney could be thwarted again, certainly in the bigger matches United will play.
Consider the evidence.
Sir Alex's run of success these past three years has been founded upon a fluid system which crystallised into a 4-3-3 team shape. That allowed the defensively illiterate Ronaldo a free role to focus on attack.
Concentrate he did, plundering 100 goals in three seasons, an astonishing strike rate for a winger.
As Ronaldo rose to greatness, so the team was shaped to extract maximum bounty from the peerless Portuguese. Three grafters in midfield and two energetic and disciplined forwards minded to track back, provided the platform upon which European success and league triumphs were built.
That winning formula has now been mothballed. Sir Alex plans to compensate for the loss of Ronaldo with a back-to-the-future tactical formation which could be the first blunder that dooms the club's chase for a fourth successive league triumph and a "three-peat" European final.
By signing the orthodox winger Antonio Valencia from Wigan, Ferguson indicates that he sees goals coming from greater width and pace and crosses from the right flank. As ex-United legend Steve Bruce suggested, Valencia is more a Kanchelskis than a Beckham or a Ronaldo.
Accordingly, United are expected to throw off the shackles of the "European style 4-3-3" in favour of a more direct 4-4-2. So far, so good for Rooney.
With the ex-Everton star a certain starter and likely to be partnered by either Berbatov or Owen, the onus is on two from Anderson, Fletcher, Gibson, Park or Nani to prove they merit selection in the midfield quartet alongside Carrick and Valencia.
The manager offered another hostage to fortune when he considered the role of Dimitar Berbatov in the forthcoming season.
"We know exactly how to use him now—further up the pitch, playing as a centre-forward," Ferguson confessed.
"He will improve and I think he will have a terrific season."
At a cost of more than £30 million, the manager has every incentive to deploy his Bulgarian hitman in his favoured role, so as to maximise the return on United's investment and blunt questions about the Fergie's judgement. That could be bad news for Wazza.
In general, a side's pattern of play is confirmed against the best opposition, refined against middleweights and imposed with ruthless execution against the also-rans of league football.
Chopping and changing styles of play may be a nod to professional sophistication but it is also a recipe for confusion. United tried having a domestic system and an altered European shape for years and were consistently cut to ribbons by cuter continentals whilst running riot at home. Fergie learned the lesson well and ensured United played the same in the Premiership and in Europe. The results vindicated his conviction.
Thus, it is scarcely conceivable that United will attempt to negotiate the later rounds of the Champions League or even domestic encounters against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal by conceding men in the middle before a ball is even kicked.
This is more bad news for Wazza.
Of course, if fit, he will play in the big matches but it will be a huge surprise if Rooney is picked alongside either Berbatov, Owen or Macheda to form a striking duo.
There will be those who scoff at the notion that 4-4-2 is a cursed blueprint for European success or big fish Premiership occasions. They will point to 1999 and the glorious sight of Cole and Yorke in their pomp as prima facie evidence in favour of an expansive formation.
There is no doubt that a midfield of Giggs, Keane, Scholes, and Beckham could function effectively in 2009 just as it did in 1999.
However, as detractors easily point out, that was then and this is now. For a start, Sir Alex can not call on a player with the power and gifts of Roy Keane, who did so much to make the Treble system work.
There is a growing acceptance of the tactical naivety of 4-4-2. The better European sides have long ago wedded their fortunes to 4-3-3. Most of their players have known little else since developing their skills in youth team tournaments.
Certainly, the best of Spain and Italy will relish facing a United team organised on the basis of a game plan dusted-off from the late Spring of 1999. A tactical approach in tune with English, crowd-pleasing instincts but out of step with modern continental trends, could end in tears for Ferguson and lead to regression after the great progress of the past three years.
On the home front, Chelsea are expected to line up with a midfield diamond of four experienced and highly gifted players but could easily switch to a tried and tested midfield trio with Drogba flanked by Malouda and perhaps, the newcomer Sturridge.
Arsenal have tremendous midfield strengths too and could play the now liberated Bendtner alone up front behind a highly competent quintuplet.
The more conservative Liverpool have been successful playing Gerrard in the hole behind a lone striker.
Who knows what Mark Hughes first XI will look like at City?
It would be no surprise if the 4-4-2-formatted United romp past the bottom 10 teams with guns blazing. Equally, it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that United, shorn of Ronaldo's stardust, might struggle to put away the more tactically aware sides who concentrate for the entirety of the match on swamping the midfield area.
This danger has surely occured to Sir Alex. Why then is he still giving signal after signal that he is planning Rooney plus one up front?
The media spin may be designed to comfort his star striker, the man who has blossomed in a central role under England's Fabio Capello and carries the hopes of the nation and the fourth estate in World Cup year.
It may be also be a means to reassure Berbatov that his purchase was not an unnecessary extravagance by Ferguson, a purchase made without a developed understanding of how the talented but moderately paced forward could be fitted into a fluid United team system and shape.
The press briefings, reinforced by the pre-season team selections, could also provide the extra motivation needed by Michael Owen to prove that a Toon disaster can become the talk of Old Trafford for all the right reasons.
However, come next February, today's headlines could make for bitter reading in the Rooney household. If United face serious opposition in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, will Sir Alex really concede the middle ground so as to carry greater menace up front?
Ferguson's enduring hunger for success suggests that Rooney's versatility will be used against him. The England international is likely to be sacrificed again, shunted far from his favoured central role to the left in the interests of the team.
After all, United have declared their shopping over this transfer window, so there will be no last minute reinforcements. Moreover, the ends justify the means.
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