Sir Alex Ferguson is set to revert to a traditional 4-4-2 formation after the manager’s flirtation with a highly flexible 4-3-3 during the Cristiano Ronaldo era. In a move that plays to the squad’s strengths, Ferguson is set to deploy two through the middle and two out wide during this year’s campaign. While it’s a system that has become unfashionable in the modern day, the real question is: when it comes to the crunch of a tough away fixture, will Fergie stick to his guns and play two up front?
One of the most significant knock-on effects of the summer player departures – and additions – is to leave a squad heavy in numbers on the wing but without the goal return of Ronaldo. United’s wingers Ji-Sung Park, Antonio Valencia, Nani, Zoran Tošić and Gabriel Obertan scored a grand total of 15 goals last season, compared to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 26.
Moreover, United’s squad – minus Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez – is heavy on strikers who are best deployed through the centre, not in the channels. Dimitar Berbatov will start the season leading the line, after Ferguson admitted that the Bulgarian was used far too deep last season. Similarly Michael Owen no longer works the channels, concentrating on playing off the shoulder of the last defender. Fourth choice striker Federico Macheda looks to be a classic number nine – technically gifted and strong with his back to goal but unlikely to succeed as a wide player in a three man frontline.
The exception to that rule is Wayne Rooney, who spent much of last season to the left of a three man attack. But after a summer of breaking ranks to demand a central role, Ferguson would be more than a little remiss to deploy the Scouser on the wing once more.
“The manager has said he will play me through the middle, so I’m happy about that. That’s what I wanted,” said Rooney prior to the Community Shield. “He may change his mind and whatever he says goes, but I hope he will play me there for most of the season.”
Rooney’s hopes remain to be seen. The manager has rarely used two forwards – especially in Europe – in recent seasons.
While the 4-3-3 system was developed to maximise the impact of Ronaldo, coming in off the right, it also gave the team additional manpower in the centre of the park. The risk in switching to two central players is that it will leave United – without a true defensive midfielder – lightweight and outnumbered against most European teams.
United countered Chelsea’s narrow diamond in the Community Shield by tucking Park inside and leaving Nani to attack the Londoner’s right back Branislav Ivanović in tandem with Patrice Evra. Indeed, Park may continue to play a pivotal role in midfield, especially away from home or in Europe where the risk of being over-run in midfield is greatest. As such United may only deploy both Nani and Valencia against middle ranking Premier League clubs where the Reds can expect to dominate possession.
Ferguson’s tendency to play one through the middle – deploying Ronaldo alone up-front in both semis and the final of the Champions League last season – has been the default tactic in the biggest games for several seasons. Liverpool away on October 25th will be the first real test of the new formation.