Wayne Rooney’s injury at the tail end of last season rendered Manchester United’s attack became predictable, slow and lethargic. Sir Alex Ferguson first tried playing Dimitar Berbatov up front by himself – a strategy that failed miserably against Chelsea – and then partnered Federico Macheda with the Bulgarian only to discover the pair worked even less.
As United limped over the finish line with defeat to Chelsea and a draw against Blackburn, Ferguson’s side surrendered the title because the team possessed no plan B in attack. That might just be changing…
In Sunday’s Community Shield at Wembley Ferguson picked Rooney alongside Michael Owen in a traditional 4-4-2 formation, intending to attack Chelsea from the start. Although Rooney was better than throughout the World Cup in South Africa, the Scouser is clearly not yet 100 per cent match fit. Meanwhile, Owen looked out of position playing deeper than his striker partner.
In the second period Fergie opted to test out a new strike partnership in Berbatov and the Mexican revelation Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández, as he had done in Ireland last week. Immediately there seemed an understanding between the pair.
Berbatov’s deft flicks and touches were laid off right into the path of Chicharito, whose movement was excellent. Rooney asked John Terry some searching questions in the first half but that was nothing compared to the fits Chicharito had the Chelsea back line in. The Mexican timed his runs to perfection, got into good goal scoring positions and most impressively, he connected with United misfit Berbatov.
Playing alongside the youngster, Berbatov had at last a smile on his face, clearly enjoyed the football and looked more confident than he has in a long time. With Chicharito making runs beyond Berbatov and picking up the ball from the Bulgarian in advanced positions, the Mexican forced the Chelsea defenders deeper, leaving a hole in front of the back four in which the Bulgarian striker could operate.
More than once Berbatov found himself with the space required to work his magic, orchestrating United’s attacks and popping up with a very well taken goal in injury time.
The combination also helped create the space in the middle of the park United so often lacked last season. But this potentially dangerous partnership of Berbatov and Chicharito also brings back the perennial tactical question: 4-4-2 or 4-5-1?
Clearly, Rooney will start for United when fit and the former Evertonian was most effective last season playing the lone striker. So much so that it is doubtful whether Ferguson will make any significant switch away from this formation in the most important matches, especially away from home.
However the blossoming Berbatov – Chicharito combination gives Sir Alex a second potent attacking threat. Significantly, it means Fergie may not have to run Rooney into the ground as the Scot did last season, resulting in the injury at Bayern Munich and the far too rapid return to action.
In reality Ferguson will almost certainly switch between formations depending on United’s opponents as he did for much of last season. The difference is that United now offers more variation going forward.
Finally, United has the plan B that was clearly missing coming down the stretch last season.