So it was surprisingly that Sir Alex Ferguson declared that United might ditch their traditional 4-4-2 to adopt a “diamond” formation, with a player sitting as shield in front of the back four, one playing in the hole between the two strikers, with the remaining two midfielders deployed more centrally rather than “hugging” the touchlines.
Sir Alex hinted that the decision would allow United to make the most out of Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley’s abilities, modern generation midfielders who enjoy having the ball at their feet as much as roaming around the pitch without it.
While other managers have previously thinkered with their formations to maximise one of their players’ potential (look no further than Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho), for United it would constitute a monumental change for the classic 4-4-2 is as commonly associated with the Old Trafford outfit as the stadium itself.
“If it turns out we play the diamond consistently, it would be revolutionary because it is going against our history, but the level of the game in England and Europe now is so high that making yourself unpredictable is going to be a strength.
“Teams will have to think if we are going to use two out wide or the diamond, because we have players capable of doing both things,” said Sir Alex.
For all his qualities Ferguson has often had his tactical expertise criticised. Too many times, claim his detractors,he’s failed to tactically read a game, too often – particularly in recent years – he’s selected puzzling line-ups, refusing to deploy some players in their favourite positions to sacrifice them to the altar of tactical rigidity.
As his club stormed its way through the past two decades by almost never diverting from their 4-4-2 formation (bar a serious flirt with 4-5-1 in the 2009-10 season), Sir Alex’s main concern was to find players that would fit the system rather a system to fit a particular player, hence the decision to replace Kanchelskis with Beckham, Ronaldo with Valencia and so on.
With central midfield being the only area of the pitch were Sir Alex has been unable (or unwilling, according to a growing section of United fans) to find a replacement and with European football evolving more and more towards a “total football” in which, as Spain demonstrated at the European Championships in the summer, not even strikers can consider themselves untouchable, it’s time for United to follow the trend.
In football, parting with a tradition is often considered to be an error, but in this case, hanging on to the past would simply be a cardinal sin.
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