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Versatility, Thy Name is United

We are playing Middlesbrough on Sunday, so we’ll get to talking about them, possibly from tomorrow. We have also discussed Vidic’s injury in the comments yesterday — always trust iron-man Vidic’s superhuman powers of recovery. He’s a tough lad and hopefully he should return in a little over three weeks, to put it more conservatively.

Apart from my usual daily updates — well, I try to make it daily — I do notice that I have written very few pure opinion pieces recently. So I thought I’d make up for that by talking about one facet of United’s play this season that could eventually prove to be decisive.

Manchester United, at the time of writing, sit pretty at the summit of the League and have one foot at the door to the semi-finals of the Chamions’ League. They aren’t in the FA Cup nor are they in the Carling Cup; collateral damage in the quest for bigger fish, one might argue. But the season has nonetheless been draining, without doubt.

Arsenal, for one, had an outstanding start to the season but followed that by petering down over the past month — reason for their dip, one may argue, was the lack of depth.

Rafa Benitez rotated his squad early on in his bid to keep his team fresh. But his side is in the reckoning on only one front, namely, the Champions’ League. Their reason — the back up weren’t really good enough to step into the shoes of the first team; this is in addition to the unsettling effects of frequent rotation.

Chelsea have had an underwhelming season due to a mix of infighting, a toad for a coach, and the departure of an inspirational manager. All this despite having one of the biggest squads. They still are in the reckoning for the League and the CL, but the doggedness that characterized them seem to have gone out of their system.

All this leads us to the question: Why are we doing so well? Fergie does rotate his side often; in fact, there have been times where I would gasp looking at the starting lineups, and yet we used to win comfortably. We did have a mini slump. Out of the top three we have lost the most games: four. Still we are sitting pretty at the top, five points ahead.

The most common reason touted around is the depth of our squad. But Chelsea also have a very deep squad. They have players who, on paper, could be better than some of our back ups. Yet they’ve uncharacteristically lost/drawn games they should have won.

The real answer, while risking oversimplification of things, lies in the versatility of our squad.

We have talked — mostly speculated — about how Carlos Queiroz and co wanted a more fluid formation, where players can switch in and out and adapt to various positions in the side. Contrary to popular belief, we have actually played pretty well in a 4-3-3 formation this season. Make no mistake, I still maintain that 4-4-2 is among our most productive lines of attack, but we have played a 4-3-3/4-5-1/4-2-3-1 much better than we’ve ever managed in the past. To put it more adeptly — and hence, to lead to the main point — we have been much more adaptive to changes in formation. Something that leads to a certain level of versatility.

Let’s take the defence, for instance. We know Vidic is injured, and it is a blow, so what does Fergie do? He would shift Brown to the centre, and bring in O’Shea, who could actually do a reasonable job all round the pitch. Gerard Pique can also play at right back as well as centre, although, thanks to Rio’s fitness, we have only used him sparingly. Owen Hargreaves, against Rome and Villa, showed his ability to play at right back.

In midfield we have a wealth of options. But the change in approach is very subtle. Scholes and Carrick, last season usually took a more withdrawn role in midfield, but this season they have shown their ability to adapt to the sort of midfield they are played in. In a three man midfield, Scholes alternates between dictating play from deep to allowing Anderson move forward. Carrick, while usually being withdrawn himself, has shown more drive moving forward and sending probing balls. However, Anderson ably showed his ability of playing deep against Liverpool and Arsenal — even managing to overshadow his pre-eminent midfield counterparts in Gerrard and Fabregas. And in case of injury and a few players needing rest, Fletcher manfully stepped in and did the job — cue the 4-0 win over Arsenal.

In attack, Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo and (even Park) have played up front as well as wide and done well. Our forward line is at its destructive best when players interchange unpredictably, with the sort of telepathic understanding that terrifies the best. It is this precise ability to adapt to different positions, and hence the players’ versatility in those positions — apart from Ronaldo’s unbelievable form — that we’ve managed to bang goals in without the need for a proper target man.

It’s been an exciting season so far. I don’t want to tempt fate anymore by creaming over our brilliance. But I would say, and hopefully even the neutrals would concur that, we are the most deserving of winning the Premier League. And if you think about it, considering Barcelona’s wretched form all season, we also look to have done well enough to deserve a Champions’ League. But then, I would be jumping the gun a bit…

… so over to you boys.