The minefield that is Manchester United's midfield has been the subject of full-page spreads, radio phone-ins and talks down pubs across the globe. Journalists, fans and bloggers have, amongst a plethora of subjects, spouted over the lack of a tackler, the prolonged employment of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes as well as the seemingly unfathomable use of Michael Carrick.
Some have even argued that United do not even have a midfield, such has been the ease that the ball has arrived at an opposition forward. So apologies in advance for yet another piece but this one could be definitive as it seems that a solution has at last been unearthed. Or at least stumbled upon.
There are various reasons as to why the diamond system may have been brought in. For one, it finds room for Wayne Rooney in the same line-up as Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie. Perhaps more importantly, its deployment could be seen as a reaction to the porous defending during the defeat against Tottenham Hotspur.
Simply put, it is a system built to keep the ball thus mimicking the tica-taca style of the Spanish national team and Barcelona. Or maybe it was introduced to stifle certain opposition. Whatever the reasoning, United's impressive form has coincided with the recent introduction of the system. Fewer questions are now being asked of the summer transfer policy as it seems the personnel was there all along, they just needed to be deployed a little differently.
While many were distracted by Rooney's involvement in midfield, the diamond was first used against FC Cluj and worked well. With little reason to tinker with a successful formula, the system was again boldly used against Newcastle in what was easily United's best performance of the season and certainly Rooney's. It has been written elsewhere that the system seemingly brings out the best in Rooney but the same could be argued for those who fill in alongside him too.
One of the main criticisms of Michael Carrick is that he is not Roy Keane, largely that is not his fault as box-to-box midfielders are a dying breed anyway. Where Carrick flourishes is receiving the ball in deep midfield and smartly offloading to more attacking players in space. Carrick is also not the sort of player to go in for bone-crunching slide tackles so his classy interceptions carry more weight closer to his own penalty area. He acts as both a shield and a quick-thinking starter of attacks thus necessitating his presence towards the base of the diamond.
The true beauty of the system lies in its flexibility and interchangeability. For that you need intelligent ball-playing midfielders like Carrick and the increasingly impressive Tom Cleverley. Wigan Athletic manager, Roberto Martinez, has praised his tactical nous to the extent of suggesting he could be one of few English midfielders who are more suited to the possession-based Dutch and Spanish ways of playing:
"He [Tom Cleverley] can play in many positions and he is happy to be in one-v-one situations offensively and defensively, that's where he's got real variation. "Sometimes it can be a negative to be able to play in a number of positions. Some players are a jack of all trades but not special in any of them.
"Tom is special in what he does, while understanding other roles within the team just as well. But if you were to ask him what is his best position, I would say central midfield. And I think Manchester United always saw him as that – even while he was here." Roberto Martinez
For Sir Alex Ferguson, the system addresses the issue of controlling the middle of the pitch while still maintaining an attacking mindset. Indeed, its use in the game against Newcastle could be seen as a direct response to the same fixture last season where Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye bossed midfield. This time the pair were generally ineffective in a first half United took charge of. While statistics do not tell the whole story, 78% ball possession in the opening 15 minutes was crucial as early dominance was converted into eight shots.
“The diamond closes off the midfield. The only problem is when the ball goes out wide, how far your midfield gets separated. If you try to keep it tight in the centre of the field, then the opposition have to go wide.
"Okay, we took a gamble today because Newcastle are so big up front and they're good crossers of the ball. But the football we played from the central midfield positions through Cleverley, Kagawa, Rooney and Carrick was terrific," Sir Alex said after the game against Newcastle.
These are early days yet the deployment of the diamond formation could be the answer to some of the more probing questions asked of United's midfield. Utilising intelligent players in a system built to retain the ball and move it quickly plays to United's strengths both offensively and defensively. Now, there must be other things to discuss.