One of the trademarks of all the great Sir Alex Ferguson sides during his 26-year reign at the helm of the Old Trafford club has been wing play, whether it be Kanchelskis and Sharpe, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham or even Luis Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo there has always been an element of width to a title winning Manchester United side.
A fortnight ago following a damaging 3-2 defeat at home to Tottenham Hotspur and a less than outstanding performance against CFR Cluj in the European Cup, Sir Alex decided to experiment with his team selection for the away fixture against high flying Newcastle United by not selecting any wingers.
He instead played a bold and rather narrow 4-2-3-1 formation very similar to the one used by Sweden’s Erik Hamren and a considerable number of other coaches at this past summer’s European Championships held in Poland and Ukraine.
With the summer signing of Shinji Kagawa giving United a completely refreshing option of being able to utilise the ‘false nine’ position it was often speculated at times whether United would have to sacrifice their trademark wing play in order to accommodate all the attacking flair possessed by the squad into the first team, but up until the Newcastle United match last weekend this had not been the case with Sir Alex sticking with Nani and Valencia despite the waning form of the Portuguese international.
The signings of Kagawa and Robin Van Persie have undoubtedly given the experienced Scot a difficult conundrum to contend with every single match day with each attacking player playing well and benefitting the team when given the opportunity to play, the injury to Wayne Rooney allowed Sir Alex to focus on Robin Van Persie in the lone forward role with Kagawa playing just behind him with either Nani or Ashley Young playing on the left hand side with the always reliable Antonio Valencia taking up the attacking position on the right hand side of the midfield.
This 4-4-1-1 formation seemed to be working well for United with last season’s Premier League runners up putting three goals past a buoyant Southampton side as well as three and four past Fulham and Wigan Athletic respectively, but since the return of Wayne Rooney to the first team fold there has been an issue of just where and how to fit Rooney into the team.
Rooney was left on the bench for Manchester United’s unexpected 3-2 defeat at home to Spurs with the England international being brought on in the second half which seemingly changed United’s fortunes with the Reds playing arguably their most impressive attacking football of the season against a defence of Caulker, Vertonghen, Walker and Gallas.
This second half performance was a result of United using a similar 4-4-1-1 formation or even a varied 4-4-2 with Wayne Rooney partnering Robin Van Persie up front with Rooney given the freedom to occasionally drop deeper into the position Kagawa occupied in the first half, Kagawa then moved out wide on the left into the wingers position in place of the substituted Ryan Giggs whilst Nani stayed on the right hand side.
The second half performance was, in terms of going forward, vintage Manchester United with Scholes distributing the ball to both the wide and central areas which made it possible for United to hit Spurs with a barrage of varied attacks coming through both the middle and the two wide areas.
Rooney was ultra-effective in his role just behind Van Persie carving out a number of passes for Nani and Kagawa on either wing and this made it a tough second half for Vertonghen and Walker who were constantly under pressure, if only the defence had been given more protection by the midfield pairing of Carrick and Scholes in both halves of the match then United would have more than likely turned the game around to win.
This raises a further point about playing Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes together, both are excellent passers of the football however with Scholes at thirty seven years of age and Michael Carrick at thirty one they do not make a superbly mobile midfield pairing and against teams that utilise pace and quick movement of the football such as Spurs under Andre Villas-Boas and Harry Redknapp before him , it may well not be a bad idea to put either Anderson or Tom Cleverley in the midfield to help either Carrick or Scholes in terms of tracking back and giving the midfield a boost of energy.
Heading into the Newcastle match however Sir Alex Ferguson needed to accommodate Wayne Rooney into the starting line-up and with the injury that Antonio Valencia picked up on international duty still troubling the Ecuadorian and the indifferent and at times downright infuriating performances of Nani, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to sacrifice width in order to accommodate all of his available attacking prowess into the starting line-up with Rooney, Van Persie, Welbeck and Kagawa all being included in the starting eleven.
It was almost a statement of intent from Sir Alex following a tough week in the press after the Spurs and Cluj performances, and this led to there being a sense of “We're going to go to Newcastle and hit them with everything we’ve got” and to a certain degree in the first fifteen minutes of the first half this was exactly what happened.
Cleverley and Carrick were the two deep midfielder players with Cleverley moving forward as the game progressed and it was Kagawa, Welbeck and Rooney whomade up the attacking midfield three situated just behind Robin Van Persie.
United dominated the early proceedings and were 2-0 up after just fifteen minutes of play after two goals from consecutive corners from Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra, the attacking play that forced these corners was truly impressive and at this point there was a growing sense that the 4-2-3-1 could be the way forward for United and then things just seemed to slow down.
United never really kept up the attacking intensity of the opening twenty minutes and as such presented Newcastle with several opportunities to get back into the game, the chances fell to Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba with David De Gea having to make a wondrous save off the line with the Newcastle players believing the ball to have crossed the line fully.
Yes Newcastle are one of the top teams in the Premier League and yes they were at home but realistically from a Manchester United perspective this should never have happened, once you take a commanding 2-0 lead in a match you should endeavour to increase the aforementioned lead or at least keep up the intensity with which you have been previously going forward.
The disappointment of the second half despite Tom Cleverley’s excellent strike to finish the game off was significant, maybe it is just the way I have been brought up to watch Manchester United, with the heavy focus on attacking play with width but I genuinely do feel there is no real substitute for width and pace on the wings regardless of how good your centre forwards are.
The day after United’s triumph at St James’ Park, attending an under eighteens football match only further reinforced my view regarding the importance of wingers. Upon hearing the team selection prior to kick off I found out that the home side’s usual left winger was being moved to play in the number ten role and I thought to myself he is a bit tall to play there and I was unsure as to whether or not he would have the nimbleness of foot to succeed in playing just behind the lone striker.
I was proved right with the team struggling with this formation change in the first half with the winger in the number ten role struggling to get into the game or even get a hold of the ball and the player who had replaced him on the left wing struggled in that position having not played there many times before, and thus causing all moves that began on the left hand side to break down with the left winger not being in the right position to support the player in possession of the football.
This led to a disjointed performance from the home side who found themselves 2-0 down going into the break.
For the second half this changed and the winger who had been playing in the number ten role reverted to his usual position on the left hand side and this changed the game, the flow of the football played by his side was much better and there was now an avenue to get the ball into on the left hand side unlike in the first half, this was something their opponents found difficult to contend with and the influence of the left wingers play combined with the centre forward now being able to get on the ball and be part of the game, the team who had looked so abject in the first half pulled the game back level.
At a time when most European sides are tinkering with their playing styles and formations in order to match the high standards set by Barcelona under the stewardship of Pep Guardiola it is important not to distance yourself from the ideals that have made you successful.
There is absolutely no problem with Manchester United abandoning width and utilising their full attacking firepower but not in every game, it must only be done in a certain type of game, be that away from home in the European Cup or in a domestic cup to be tested but with the Premier League now crammed with attacking firepower in most of the top teams it is incredibly important to be attacking and able to score a significant number of goals.
Just look at last season where the Premier League title was decided on goal difference, you cannot sacrifice attacking play for stability or even safety in the Premier League as in the long run it is simply unsustainable.
The performance against Newcastle was by no means poor, the result gained was perfect and scoring three goals without conceding away from home is fantastic however I just feel it could have been better.
If your wingers are on form they will cause any defence problems as we have seen in the past twenty six years with Manchester United and whilst it is necessary to adapt to the ever-changing word of modern football, of course it is, it is equally as important to stick to what has made you successful and for Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson that is wing play of the highest order, and thus I feel it is incredibly important that United utilise their wingers this season if they are to give themselves the greatest chance of success in the Premier League.
image: © Paolo Camera