Manchester United’s play last season was characterised by two things: a rigid 4-5-1 formation and Wayne Rooney’s unstoppable performances. Unstoppable, it seemed, until injuries at the tail-end of the season and then his lacklustre performances in South Africa. It leaves Sir Alex Ferguson facing a dilemma this summer.
The 4-5-1 formation relies heavily on Rooney’s goals, who worked for much of the season in tandem with Antonio Valencia and Nani on his way to an impressive 34 goals in all competitions. It seemed that when the Scouser was playing well good results followed suit. Fans will be worried, however, that Rooney may suffer a recurrence of the minor knocks which plagued the end of last season.
This concern is greatly magnified by United’s dependence on 4-5-1, a system which completely fails to accommodate Rooney’s back-up, Dimitar Berbatov. Sadly for Sir Alex, the Bulgarian striker can only play alongside another goalscorer as he did with former team-mates Robbie Keane and Oliver Neuville.
The reasonable solution, therefore, is for Ferguson to play 4-4-2 when Rooney is injured or rested, with Berbatov and Michael Owen or Javier Hernández up front in the Scouser’s absence
However, this reality brings another problem to the fore and that is the weakness of United’s central midfield. Whilst Michael Carrick, Anderson, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes can play in a three-man central midfield, as they do in Ferguson’s 4-5-1 system, each struggles in a 4-4-2. Either too immobile for the defensive role, or uninventive for an attacking position, each player has his weaknesses.
This was Ferguson’s dilemma last season – the Scot well understands that his players cannot cope in a 4-4-2 system in the toughest games and, in Rooney’s absence, the Scot tried to deploy Berbatov as a lone striker. It was a decision that clearly did not pay off in those crunch games towards the end of the season.
For the coming campaign, therefore, United’s manager must either pray that Rooney stays fit all season, or he needs to bring in players to strengthen United’s squad.
One option is for Ferguson to bring in a striker capable of playing alone up front in Rooney’s absence. Wolfsburg’s Edin Dzeko, for example, would suit the role perfectly. The defining problem with this strategy is obvious though as, even if money is available, it is almost impossible to buy a striker good enough for this role who is happy to play second fiddle to Rooney.
The second, and safest, option is for United to invest in a midfielder or two capable of playing in a 4-4-2, with either defensive or attacking prowess suitable to commanding a central role with a man less.
On the attacking side, players such as James Milner, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, the latter two who excelled with Germany in South Africa, fit the bill. While Müller looks set to stay at Bayern Munich and Milner is on his way to Manchester City, Özil is readily available. The 21-year-old’s contract runs out at the end of the season and the player would surely welcome a step up from Werder Bremen.
Another potential signing is Jack Rodwell, a solid defensive midfielder with a wealth of potential and who could also fill in for Rio Ferdinand at the back if needed in an emergency. The Evertonian’s price may still be within reach.
Perhaps Ferguson’s final option is to learn a lesson from the Wolrd Cup where Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico each played with three genuine strikers in a 4-3-3 formation. It recalls memories of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Rooney in their pomp.
Uruguay used Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez, all of whom are out-and-out centre-forwards for their clubs. Similarly, Argentina played with Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Tevez leading the line.
Should United invest in a striker such as Suarez, could Ferguson pull off a similar formation, with three from Rooney, Suarez, Hernandez, Nani, Berbatov and Owen leading the line? It’s a option that offers Ferguson more flexibility and the security of a three man midfield.
Of the three choices presented here, the first is probably impossible and the third is a risk, but Ferguson’s second option is certainly possible. One thing is certain, United cannot rely on Rooney as the team did last season. The risk of injury and loss of form is just too great.
Ferguson claims money is available despite the Glazers’ financial mess – he should use it to bring in one more signing before the season starts in August!