Coming off the back of Manchester United’s draw with Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson must wonder about the cause of his side’s indifferent form. Few could argue that Bolton, Fulham or Everton are easy away games, but they are the sort of matches that a side with serious title ambitions probably has to win.
Even more worrying is the nature of United’s three Premier League draws this season. It is one thing to come away with a point in a tight 0-0 away from Old Trafford, but to concede seven goals in three away games is unacceptable, especially against teams not noted for their attacking prowess.
Reasons for these defensive lapses can be found in the form of Jonny Evans who, despite looking solid for most of the previous season, now appears daunted by his key role in the team. The Irishman’s performances of late have been undoubtedly below par with a string of errors offering chances up on a plate for the opposition. Most recently Evans allowed Zat Knight to score from a corner.
With Rio Ferdinand returning, however, many will hope that United’s defence will be stronger and can once again thrive through the key personalities of the England captain, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. Ferguson will hope that all three will start together for the first time this season when the team travels to Valencia for another key away tie this week.
Of greater concern, however, is the fact that defensive personnel are not purely to blame. For the first time in many seasons, Alex Ferguson has chosen to play an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation, even away from home. It could well be this tactical change which has resulted in so many goals being conceded.
Without three midfield players in the centre of the park, United’s opposition have been afforded more time and space with which to move forward. This season in particular, the problems of playing only two central midfielders have been prevalent, with Paul Scholes providing little to no defensive cover and Darren Fletcher attacking more than an out-and-out anchor man might.
In fact United is one of the few elite clubs to play without a traditional holding player. Taking a quick glance at Europe’s top clubs, it’s clear most invariably operate with three central midfielders, one at least of which is defensive minded:
- Real Madrid – Khedira, Alonso, Kaka/Özil
- Barcelona – Busquets/Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta
- Chelsea – Essien, Mikel/Ramires, Lampard
- Inter Milan – Cambiasso, Muntari, Sneijder
- Bayern Munich – Van Bommel, Schweinsteiger, Müller/Kroos
It is no coincidence that Europe’s elite has turned to the system, with games won and lost in midfield. The dominant formation at the World Cup included two defensive midfielders. It is also no coincidence that United’s best seasons of late have come when predominantly playing three in the middle of the park.
Even in United’s 2008 European Cup winning season as Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez often played together upfront, the pair’s tireless nature made up for the missing midfielder, with one tracking back on almost every occasion.
While a return to 4-3-3 – or 4-5-1 depending on your outlook – might be the answer for the current Old Trafford outfit it is no longer easy for Ferguson to play the formation given the personnel available. As noted earlier, Dimitar Berbatov cannot play alone up-front and in his current form it would be folly to drop him to the bench.
The other option, it seems, is to operate in a 4-3-3 formation with Rooney returning to the left of a front three that includes Berbatov and Nani.
Many fans recoil at the suggestion, dreading the waste of talent that comes with Rooney playing on the left. It doesn’t have to be the case and may liberate the former Everton player.
Rooney has been poor this season, looking lacklustre in possession and almost frightened to take on a shot such is the pressure piled on the 24-year-old. Moving Rooney wide may ease much of the pressure on him to score goals, allowing the striker to create but without the weight of providing another 35-goal season.
Alongside Nani, Rooney could provide enough support for Berbatov to play competently up-front, thus solving the old problem of the Bulgarian failing to spearhead United’s attack.
Besides, it is not uncommon for a talented forward to play wide. David Villa almost exclusively played on the left-side of a front three for Spain at the World Cup, as did Luis Suarez for Uruguay. Lionel Messi and, obviously, Cristiano Ronaldo have also shone in a wide position in club football.
The point being United’s only way of solving the current ‘defensive question’ is to return to three in midfield, pushing Rooney wide. It could even solve the ‘Rooney question’ too.
Fergie is very likely to pack the midfield against Valencia in such an important European away game. Those crying out for a change from a 4-4-2 formation that is reaping few defensive rewards, will agree.