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What can Argentina teach Manchester United?

Another round of World Cup Qualifiers means that club football takes a back seat and we get a chance to watch international teams and the different tactics they use. Now, on Friday, October 12th, there was a World Cup Qualifier in South America that every Manchester United fan should have taken note of, even though there wasn’t a single United player on the pitch. The game in question was Argentina’s 3-0 win over Uruguay.

This was an important World Cup Qualifier between 2 national teams in the top 8 of the FIFA rankings, but there was one aspect of this game that should be noted by Red Devil fans, as it may be a look into the future this season. This should have been a close game, but Argentina was able to dominant the 2011 Copa America champions through their use of a lopsided 4-4-2 Diamond formation. This is a formation that most Manchester United fans have become familiar with in the past few weeks, but Argentina played the formation different in several ways that the Red Devils should take note of. Before looking at Argentina’s approach, first we’ll look at Manchester United’s.

Manchester United vs Newcastle United
Starting Formations

Manchester United’s 4-4-2 Diamond-

In 3 of the last 4 games, Sir Alex Ferguson has switched to a 4-4-2 diamond to correct problems in the central midfield. Early this season, United has struggled in the middle of the pitch against physical midfielders. Everton, Fulham, and Tottenham showed this weakness in three different games, 2 of which were losses.

The shift to a diamond allows the Red Devils to pack the central midfield and deny that space to the opposition. Fergie has played Michael Carrick as the deepest midfield, operating as both a defensive midfielder and a deep lying playmaker. He would play 2 central midfielders, like Tom Cleverley, Anderson, or Shinji Kagawa, ahead of Michael Carrick in a shuttling role, with one assigned to the left side of the pitch and the other to the right side. They essentially play as box to box midfielders with offensive and defensive responsibilities. At the point of the midfield diamond is Wayne Rooney, operating as an advanced playmaker (trequartista) who is responsible for creating scoring opportunities for the 2 strikers ahead of him, whom Fergie opted to start Robin Van Persie alongside either Danny Welbeck or Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez.

This formation has worked for the Red Devils and one of the big reasons why is Wayne Rooney. He is playing a trequartista role, operating between the opponent’s midfield and defensive line, and he has done very well in creating chances for his teammates, but his key contribution has been his willingness to drop deep into the midfield. This is happening on both sides of the ball. Offensively, he’ll drop into the midfield to get on the ball and link-up with his teammates as they move up the pitch while defensively he’s dropping goal side of the opponent’s deepest midfielder. These moves are important as they ensure that United isn’t overmatched in the central midfield, as the Red Devils have 4 players in this area. Offensively, this means that there is always an unmarked player in the midfield as an available passing outlet, while defensively; they are able to close down the opponent quickly with the extra player in middle of the pitch. Additionally, having Wayne Rooney in the central midfield helps as United have repeatedly had trouble dealing with large, physical central midfielders and Wayne Rooney is able to mark these players and not get dominated.

Now, every formation has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of the 4-4-2 Diamond that Fergie has deployed are fairly obvious. It allows the Red Devils to control the middle of the pitch, with 4 players operating in this zone. In addition, it allows Fergie to get at least 2 of his strikers on the pitch, while still having a playmaker who operates behind the lead strikers to link the midfield with the strikers.

Unfortunately, there are several disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage is the lack of width going forward. You are dependent upon your fullbacks getting forward to stretch the defense, and with Patrice Evra’s recent defensive woes, it is unwise to ask him to get forward even more. Fergie has tried to address this by having the 2 shuttling midfielders drift out to the touchline at times, but it’s not a constant threat. Defensively, Newcastle exploited this lack of width, as they were able to play the ball out wide and get up the pitch bypassing the central midfield.

Manchester United has played well in this formation, addressing an area their opponent’s had exploited repeatedly in the early fixtures this season but there are still problems.

Argentina vs Uruguay
Starting Formations

Argentina’s 4-4-2 Diamond-

This should have been a close game, but Argentina’s formation and some ill-fitting pieces in the Uruguayan National team made this a clear Argentinian win. Argentina has a team that has several top quality players in it, such as Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano, but the team they faced in Uruguay had star players of their own. A game between these two teams should have never ended with such a lopsided score and performance, but Argentina’s setup took advantage of their strengths and capitalized on Uruguay’s weaknesses.

Argentina lined up in a lopsided 4-4-2 diamond, a formation that some would call a 4-3-1-2. In front of the back four sat Javier Mascherano, sitting as the deep holding midfielder in much the same role he does for his club side, Barcelona. On the right side was Fernando Gago, who normally sits as one of two deep midfielders in Valencia’s 4-2-3-1. His job was to assist defensively, but also play in a box to box role and provide some width on the right side. The left side of the diamond was filled by Angel Di Maria, who played more of a standard wide midfielder than is typical in a 4-4-2 Diamond. Starting at the front of the diamond was Lionel Messi, who was playing as more of a standard number 10 than he will typically play for Barcelona. The two lead strikers up front were Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero.

An important aspect of Argentina’s victory is not just down to personnel and formation, though having a player like Lionel Messi doesn’t hurt, but it also came down to the tactics in the game and the problems Uruguay had in dealing with it. In most midfield diamonds, the left and right midfielders operate as shuttlers, with the key task of linking up the back 5 defensive players and the front 3 attacking players. They mostly operate in a vertical plane, dropping back to receive the ball from the defense, and bringing it forward to play into the attacking players, but Argentina’s diamond operated in a different way. The left side midfielder, Angel Di Maria, played much wider than typical in a diamond. This stretched out the Uruguayan defense, while the right side midfielder, Gago, tended to stay deeper but he also drifted out wide to stretch the defense out. Meanwhile, Lionel Messi played in a number 10 role, providing the creative spark for much of Argentina’s attacks, but he would also frequently drop deep into the midfield in a way that would be familiar to most United fans recently. This would frequently drag Uruguay’s defenders out of shape. With Messi dropping deep, Sergio Aguero would then drop deeper and operate in the space Messi left, between Uruguay’s lines. This gave Argentina two creative influences, and Uruguay struggled to deal with it. In addition, Angel Di Maria would burst forward on the left side into the space that Aguero now vacated, meanwhile Gonzalo Higuain would operate as a traditional number 9 up front, probing Uruguay’s back line.

How does this apply to Manchester United?

Now, Uruguay wasn’t helped by the fact that they were playing a 4-4-2, which left them outmatched 3v2 in the central midfield, while their deepest lying striker, Diego Forlan, was lax in his defensive duties and very rarely got goal side of Javier Mascherano. However, this was still a very commanding performance by Argentina, and there is much Manchester United can learn from it. Argentina’s use of more traditional winger on one side of the diamond allows them to stretch out the defense, which is something United’s attack has lacked when they play the diamond. In addition, it would also allow Sir Alex Ferguson to use some of his best players, Nani, Ashley Young, and Antonio Valencia. On the other side, Argentina used a more traditional, deeper lying box to box midfielder, a role in which Tom Cleverley would excel in or even Paul Scholes.

Now, the tip of the diamond and strikers that Argentina opted to use is similar to something United could use, if with some slight alterations. Up front, Sergio Aguero played in a role where he moved laterally across the pitch and dropping slightly deeper in-between Uruguay’s lines, while Lionel Messi played at the tip of the diamond in a traditional number 10 role, albeit, one who isn’t afraid to drop deep to get on the ball to influence the build-up, and also drag Uruguay’s defense out of position. The other striker then plays as a very typical number 9, trying to stress the defense and get into scoring positions.

Manchester United could do something similar, but switch the roles of the deeper striker with the tip of the diamond. If Shinji Kagawa plays at the tip of the diamond, operating as the number 10, with license to move laterally across the entire pitch and find pockets of space to receive the ball and play it forward to Robin Van Persie, who would play as the number 9, just like Gonzalo Higuain. The deeper striker would be Wayne Rooney, playing further forward where he can put his deadly goal scoring ability to use. Instead of playing laterally like Aguero did, he would take up the vertical role that Lionel Messi played. When needed, he drops into the midfield to receive the ball and help the build-up, then getting forward into the box to threaten the opponent’s defense.

One of the biggest problems with the diamond that the Red Devils are currently playing is Shinji Kagawa. He functions best when he’s in an advanced position, able to use his movement to find pockets of space, but against Newcastle United, he was forced into the right midfield position where he is too far from the goal. Additionally, Newcastle was repeatedly able to take advantage of his defense to get the ball up the pitch and into dangerous positions, where playing him as the number 10 allows him to stay up the pitch. Wayne Rooney would then be able to drop deeper than him into the midfield to put in the type of defensive effort he did against Newcastle, where he was able to shut down Cheik Tiote.


Now, I’m not the manager of Manchester United, and we should all thank god for that, but I feel that a playing a lopsided diamond similar to how Argentina played would be the best way to get the best out of the players that United currently has. Shinji Kagawa’s defensive weakness and his lack of influence far from the penalty area makes playing him further forward an important consideration. In addition, the use of Wayne Rooney in the number 10 position may get the most out of his creative abilities, but it neglects his amazing goal scoring ability. Finally, the current diamond that United plays leaves no real opening for the 3 wingers that Manchester United has, while also forcing United to play fairly narrow. This allows the defense to concentrate in the middle of the pitch.

These are important points, but my final point is that Argentina was able to dominate a very dangerous Uruguay squad and score 3 goals, while keeping a clean sheet. This is impressive, as Argentina may have considerable attacking prowess, but their defense is awful. They were able to dominate the ball, and keep Uruguay on the back foot. Isn’t this something United could use?

Thanks for reading, and comments are always appreciated!