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The Debate on United’s First Eleven

It was interesting to hear Fergie make comparisons recently to the Treble-winning squad. He particularly alluded to having a pool of strikers who he could rotate through the season, drawing parallels with the Yorke, Cole, Solskjaer and Sheringham quartet. However, whilst the strength in depth of our squad is at least equal to the Treble boys (and probably superior), there is one major difference that makes other comparisons irrelevant:

We have no idea what our best team is.

Simple as that. And to me, that makes us vulnerable. When the going gets tough, it helps to have habits to fall back on, to know how your teammates and going to react and where they will position themselves, to have the belief that comes from having got through this before together. If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose that valuable ingredient. In 1999, there was no doubt at all what our best eleven was:

Schmeichel – Irwin, Stam, Johnsen, Neville – Giggs, Scholes, Keane, Beckham – Yorke, Cole.

No question in anyone’s mind. So to rotate a couple of players here and there was useful and practical. They fitted into the side amongst the core of 8 or 9 players from the first team – Blomqvist, Butt, Solskjaer, Sheringham, Phil Neville, Henning Berg and others all played strong supporting roles in this context.

Even last season, nine of the eleven names on the teamsheet were set in stone:

EVDS – Evra, Rio, Vidic, Brown – ??????, Carrick, ??????, Ronaldo – Rooney, Tevez

You could have had a debate about Anderson, Scholes or Hargreaves to play alongside Carrick, and between Giggs, Nani and Park for the left wing slot, but the rest was clear-cut.

Now this season. I would say, based on performances so far and assuming a fully fit squad, I think there are five names, six at most, who definitely form part of our best team:

?????? – Evra, Rio, Vidic, ??????- ??????, Carrick, ??????, Ronaldo – ??????, (Berbatov)

And that doesn’t even take into account that we don’t know our best formation – do we play 4-4-2, 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-2-2-1?

Why don’t we know?

So why is it such a mess? Well, the most recurring theme is the transition to the next generation. Across the team, there are players who are just a bit too old to be play their best all the time, and there are players who will be good but haven’t matured fully yet. Complicating matters even further, in most positions there is a solid but unspectacular third player.

GK: EVDS (fading legend); Kuczszak (solid middle-man); Foster (future superstar)
RB: Neville; Brown; Rafael
CM: Scholes; Hargreaves/Fletcher; Anderson
LM: Giggs; Park; Nani

The striker issue is different, and we’ll come onto that. But for these four positions, there is a tough balance to strike between experience, competence and potential. Filling the gaps with EVDS, Neville, Scholes and Giggs would leave you concerned about the energy levels of your team, particularly in the last third of the game. Use TK, Brown, Fletcher and Park, and you will get solid performances but rarely a match-winning performance. Opt for Foster, Rafael, Anderson and Nani and the thrills of watching young talent blossom will be tempered by heart-attacks as they make mistakes and learn some tough lessons in the heat of battle.

On the strikers, things have been stirred up the purchase of someone who is not comparable to anyone else in the squad. When Berba is fit and firing, he must surely play – and equally, there can surely only be space for one of Tevez and Rooney. Here the variables are different. Berba is the sort of player who will run hot and cold more emphatically than Rooney or Tevez, because he contributes little when he is not scoring or contributing to goals – how will Fergie react to a cold spell? Which of Rooney and Tevez will play best with him, or will it be the case that each partnership offers a subtly different skill set? Is there a way of accomodating all three in a different formation? The are questions to which nobody, not even Fergie, has the answer, so we must wait and see.

Outside factors

I can’t finish this article without playing this game. So what should our best team be? Assuming a fully fit and reasonably on form squad, what is our best team? Hmmm?

First things first – did you immediately start putting together a line-up in your head? Or did you mentally ask “what is the match”? If you’re in the latter group, you seem to be in line with Fergie’s current thinking, that a game away at Chelski requires a totally different team to a game at home to Bolton.

I’m not sure about this approach. I would prefer to play our best side, and say “here you go, do your worst, because we know this team is good enough to beat anyone”. It’s a slightly simplistic view, though, when you have a squad at your disposal that offers all sorts of shades of grey rather than forcing you to pick black or white.

Indeed, as the CL final showed, a creative team selection can really gain the initiative, and tailoring the complexion of your line-up to the occasion appears to be logical. But then, would you care to recall the away leg of the Barca semi? No, me neither – it can be taken too far.

Who would you pick?

For the sake of argument, I’m going to give you four line-ups. First, what I regard to be the best team we can select, assuming I had to pick a team for a game without knowing who the opposition were or where it was to be played. Second, home to a big four or major European team, assuming I accepted the principle of adjusting my team to suit the occasion. Third, away to a big team. And fourth, against lesser PL opposition.

Best team (blindfold)

EVDS – Evra, Vidic, Rio, Brown – Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Ronaldo – Rooney, Berbatov

EVDS just gets the nod over Foster for his experience, but a few impressive performances from Foster would change my mind fast. Neville looks too sluggish, Rafael to weak defensively. Nani gives us the attacking flavour that I think we should approach every game with. Anderson and Carrick have all the attributes between them to be a sensational partnership. Rooney links more naturally with Berba at present.

Home to a “big” team

EVDS – Evra, Vidic, Rio, Brown – Park, Hargreaves, Carrick, Ronaldo – Rooney, Berbatov

Park shores up one wing, making up for the fact that Ronaldo won’t track back – the central midfielders only have to cover one errant winger. Equally, Evra provides extra impetus behind Park going forward, whilst Park provides more cover for Evra’s over-enthusiasm going the other way. Hargreaves gives more mature and secure bite to our midfield, where Anderson can be a bit of a gamble.

Away to a “big” team

EVDS – Evra, Vidic, Rio, Brown – Hargreaves, Carrick, Anderson – Ronaldo, Rooney – Berbatov

Three in central midfield ensures we get a foothold in the game, with Anderson having licence to bomb on if the foothold turns into a more sustained advantage. Ronaldo and Rooney are more flexible, looking to start raids wherever there is space.

Lesser team

Foster – Evra, Vidic, Rio, Rafael – Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Ronaldo – Rooney Berbatov

Gives Foster and Rafael valuable experience. Rafael’s and Nani’s attacking prowess is more relevant against the large number of teams that set up with ten men behind the ball.

Obviously many of you will have alternative opinions, but that’s what the comments are for. Should we be adjusting for who are opposition are and where we are playing? And how would your four line-ups look?

Ed: Penguin, the author of this article, also blogs here.