The schizophrenic play of the United squad to this point in this season sees the pride of all Europe four points adrift of table-toppers Chelsea and on top of their Champions League group with two games played. United remains bereft of most of its centre backs and cannot settle on a preferred formation.
Yet there seems to be a few causes for guarded optimism. Robin van Persie has taken absolutely no time to settle in at Old Trafford. The Dutch wizard has seven goals in all competitions, including a tasty five goals in the Premier League. Not bad for an unnecessary signing. And on the evidence of their first two starts together, he and Wayne Rooney look to be quite the duo.
The return of United’s mercurial number ten has also added composure to United’s attacking play that was missing in the first few matches this season. To be fair to Shinji Kagawa, it is going to take more than a preseason with United and a few Premier League matches to reasonably expect the same displays we saw in Dortmund the past two years. On current evidence Rooney is better deployed in a role just behind the striker than Kagawa. Only Sir Alex knows how long that will last.
And in turn, this causes me to wonder which formation best utilises United’s bevy of attacking players while also not leaving the cupboard bare at the back. The 4-3-3 formation has seen the most unchecked success, having been utilised effectively against Newcastle twice, CFR Cluj in the Champions League, and for the last part of the 4-0 defeat of Wigan Athletic.
The keys to this formation succeeding are all in the hand of Sir Alex. For all of the talk of United’s midfield frailties, the sum is greater than its parts. Against Newcastle the talents of Tom Cleverley were on display for everyone to see and his delicious chip of the Newcastle keeper was merely the icing on the cake for a masterclass of a performance.
Cleverley’s ability to see the pass before he receives the ball and his aptitude for keeping possession against bigger and stronger midfielders is enough to believe that Sir Alex should switch to a 4-3-3 formation. The Olympian’s combination play with Carrick and Kagawa in midfield as well as linking up with Rooney was impressive and a peek at what we can expect in the future.
The formation’s effectiveness on Sunday has been given extended shelf-life considering the opposition United faced. Newcastle is no longer the easy three points they have been in the more recent past. The Toon have in Demba Ba and Papisse Cisse two of the most prolific and talented strikers in the Premier League. And the duo are supported by two central midfielders many teams wish they had in their elevens in Cheikh Tiote and Yohan Cabaye. Winning an end-to-end affair against a team with players of that calibre takes requisite talent and tactical nous.
United are typically able to play a more attacking style at home but I would argue that that is because it is in these matches the manager takes more risks by selecting more attack-minded players, usually yielding the attacking display we saw on Sunday.
The detractors of the 4-3-3 system argue that when United utilises this setup that the team lacks proper width. That the attack becomes too narrow and ineffective, especially against teams that will just park the bus rather than come at United.
First, in an ideal 4-3-3 the fullbacks provide the additional width. United has two-to-three players capable of providing outlets on the wing in Rafael, Alexander Buttner, and Patrice Evra.Both Buttner and Evra have played in more attacking positions (left wing and striker, respectively) before being converted into left backs. Rafael is one’s typical Brazilian fullback, a player who would much rather attack attack attack than do any defending, but out of necessity, plays in defensive position. All three are capable of getting up the pitch and providing another attacking threat, a statement backed by the fact that all three have scored goals this season in the Premier League.
Aside from having auxiliary wide options, the 4-3-3 is heavily dependent upon a pivote. While Sir Alex always maintains that he has never played with a holding midfielder and United supporters prefer to see Carrick not played in such a role, the fact remains that Carrick has played in that position for the better part of two seasons. And versus Newcastle, Carrick held the position capably. And in Cleverley and Kagawa Carrick had two players ready to run into space in front of him.
But perhaps the most crucial part of the 4-3-3 is a dynamic number ten. Kagawa was signed during the summer to provide another option in that position, but it has been a role for which Rooney has been prepared to play since he arrived at Old Trafford. Many have plotted, pondered, and pontificated on the metamorphosis of Wayne Rooney from a free-scoring predatorial striker into the more balanced forward he is in 2012. Most of the analysis of this transformation has borne a tinge of lament, wondering what happened to the young Rooney.
Put simply, a top class number ten player is the most crucial to any team’s success in the final third.This player is required to do more than being in the right place at the right time (which takes some talent and work in and of itself). The number ten has to not only be in the right place, he has to be in the right places at the right times. Not many players are capable of doing that. Rooney is. And for all of the talk of how van Persie makes Rooney more expendable, I would argue that van Persie if nothing else makes Rooney more essential to United’s success.
Of course, there are plenty of matches left to be played and the current sample size for the 4-3-3 formation is admittedly too small to claim any great significance beyond what has taken place thus far. But the victories against CFR Cluj and Newcastle last week prove that the formation with Rooney deployed in a false ten role has enabled United to attack with greater efficiency and productivity. And that is especially encouraging while we wait for most of our central defence to return to full health.