The evolution of Manchester United’s midfield

by Sam Peoples

Manchester United’s bread and butter under Sir Alex Ferguson has been 4-4-2. Those who have been watching United over the years  will associate the manager most strongly with the teams of the late 90s that play a classic 4-4-2 formation, with two strikers who spent all their time attacking.

But aside from the historic come-from-behind victory over Bayern Munich in 1999, Manchester United have found that winning in Europe with a 4-4-2 formation can be very difficult. While the formation offers powerful attacking options, with only two central midfielders, it becomes nearly impossible to prevent your opponent from creating chances. Even Roy Keane and Paul Scholes in their prime found it difficult to shut down the best midfields in Europe.

In recent years we’ve played a 4-2-3-1 that has become near omnipresent in global football, a formation that is essentially a 4-4-2 with one of the strikers dropping deep. Many would say the 4-2-3-1 is essentially a 4-4-2 but neither of those formations have brought United their best runs in Europe. It was our switch to the 4-3-3 that brought a dramatic change to our Champions League fortunes in 2007/8.

So why aren’t we playing it still? Instead, we’re seeing a formation that has been gaining popularity in Serie A – the 4-3-1-2, also known as a midfield diamond. This formation was used effectively by the Italian national team during Euro 2012, beating England and Germany on the way to the final, and getting the best out of Andrea Pirlo on the way.

So how have Manchester United gone from the 4-3-3 in Europe to a midfield diamond, also known as a 4-3-1-2?

2007-8

The three man central midfield has been a big part of United’s success in the Champions League from the 2007/8 season until 2009/10. Having watched United’s swashbuckling 4-4-2 face frustration in the face of continental tactics, Sir Alex Ferguson started using a three man midfield in a 4-3-3 formation. In 2007/8, Wayne Rooney was usually up front on these occasions with Ronaldo and Giggs on the wings, giving us plenty of attacking power while being able to lock down the central midfield. Though we played a 4-4-2 in the final against Chelsea, we never would have made it to that point without using a 4-3-3.

Towards the end of our 2008/9 European run, Sir Alex wanted to get Ronaldo further up the pitch and began starting him up front with Rooney on the left wing. While we did reach the final with this setup, Rooney was generally seen to have struggled playing on the wing,. He had trouble making his usual impact and offensive contribution in a position that tends to favour raw speed. We ended up losing in the final as neither Ronaldo nor Rooney had much influence against a classy Barcelona side.

2009-10

Afterwards, Ronaldo left for Spain and in the 2009/10 season we saw Rooney return to his usual place up front as United started playing a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ryan Giggs or Dimitar Berbatov were asked to played directly behind Rooney in  the #10 role. It’s a position that many attackers consider their favourite. Referred to as the “trequartista” in Italy and the “enganche” in Argentina, the role is to both orchestrate the attack and score goals – the ultimate position for the attacker who can do anything.

Yet while the 4-2-3-1 formation has a lot of flexibility, whoever plays “in the hole” becomes the man who must join the midfield on defence when facing a three man midfield. Berbatov isn’t the ideal player to help put pressure on the other team’s midfield and so in big games we went back to the 4-3-3 with Berbatov being left on the bench. Sir Alex never seemed to even consider playing Berbatov out wide and it was left to Nani and Valencia to help Rooney create the attacks. It worked pretty well, and if not for Rooney going out injured against Bayern Munich and a late goal by Arjen Robben, we would have won the tie and gone on to face Lyon and likely meet Inter in the final.

2010-11

With the arrival of Chicharito in the 2010/11 season, we saw Wayne Rooney deployed “in the hole” himself and his bombastic style was much better suited to the requisite defensive work than Berbatov, who was now alternating with the newly arrived Mexican international for the lead striker role. Berbatov led the team in goals and won the golden boot in the Premier League but for the big games, it was the speed and scoring efficiency of Chicharito that was preferred, all the way to the Champions League final.

Last year of course was a bit of a disaster in Europe. The 4-2-3-1 continued to help us create goals but we desperately missed the calming influence of Paul Scholes and his ability to control a game with his passing, whose comeback wouldn’t happen until after our elimination. But perhaps more destructive to our defensive form was the effect Darren Fletcher’s illness had on him and the constant rotation of the side.

Vidic wasn’t injured until the last group game with Basel, but it was only his second appearance in our six Champions League games that season due to rotation. We started five different back lines, five different strikers up front and had four different central midfield pairings in those six games.

2012-13

At the start of the 2012/13 season Rooney, who previously had been called on to play as a lone striker in a 4-3-3, was now more used to playing as a creator after two seasons playing “in the hole”. Add in the world-class Robin van Persie, who almost exclusively played up front for Arsenal, and you have some real questions about how to get the best out of your players and how to get your best players on the field together, while still being able to put three men in central midfield when needed.

One solution is to continue with the 4-2-3-1 and play van Persie up front and Rooney “in the hole”, but this means that Welbeck and Chicharito will have to either play on the wing or come off the bench. But in this case, Rooney would be asked to drop into midfield and help the defence. While he’s a good defender, it’s surely reasonable to look for ways to free him up to do more attacking.

Enter the midfield diamond – a narrow formation without winger that allows you to play two strikers as well as having another attacker “in the hole”, so Rooney can play in his new favorite position and we can still start Van Persie and Welbeck/Chicharito. In comparison to a 4-2-3-1, one winger has gone into midfield and the other into attack.

Wingers are great ways to attack a defence with width but with van Persie being first choice up front it leaves Rooney on the wing or in midfield. This is one of the last things Sir Alex wants to do and I believe a main reason he’s bringing out the 4-3-1-2 is so that Rooney can play centrally and Robin van Persie up front, whilst still having three central midfielders.

Most of the top teams attempt to flood the midfield and do little attacking down the wings, so the 4-3-1-2 formations weakness is something our opponents will be reluctant to try to take advantage of. And while Rooney does provide good midfield cover in the 4-2-3-1, the role doesn’t allow him to provide the same defensive cover as a third dedicated central midfielder. The 4-3-1-2 offers a fascinating balance of defensive solidity and attacking potential and is an interesting alternative, especially when your personnel are not ideally suited to a 4-3-3.

I think we’re going to see a fair bit more of the midfield diamond. It seems it was no coincidence that we used it in our first preseason game against AmaZulu in Durban, South Africa. We may even see Rooney and van Persie as the front two with Kagawa behind them, leaving Welbeck and Chicharito with a real contest on their hands to get into the first team in the biggest games.

It’s a testament to Sir Alex that’s he’s willing to use a formation so foreign to United supporters but I think it has the potential to allow United to play their best football.