By Mike Njoroge
The mixing and matching is evident. Like a Chemistry lab professor mixing his elements, it still looks as if Sir Alex Ferguson is trying to figure what his favourite combination for a starting XI is. Tinkering and tampering has occurred. Changing and switching. All the while, it has led to Manchester United having indifferent games. Dominating then dominated. Conceding, then scoring. It has been difficult to determine just what Manchester United will produce, or how they will produce it.
For one, it seems as if Sir Alex this season has started by building his team from the front. Ordinarily, teams are built from the back. You start filling in the defensive positions first before moving on to midfield and then ultimately the attack. Where Manchester United is concerned this season, the inverse seems to have been happening.
This is the only reason that can explain how three strikers can start, with an attacking midfielder, and a winger. Most team sheets this season have featured; both Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney; either Javier Hernandez or Danny Welbeck; Shinji Kagawa has also been on the pitch, then out wide either Luis Nani or Antonio Valencia. This means that in essence, there are 5 attacking players. That leaves room for 5 other players. Considering that a back four is a certainty, that leaves room for only one central midfielder.
It really looks like the Maradona confusion that Argentina played with at the FIFA World Cup in 2010. A wonderful array of attacking players, with as little midfield cover as possible for the defence. That little midfield cover has led to the defence being exposed in more situations than is necessary. And it is no wonder Manchester United has been leaking goals.
However, some common sense has been restored in recent games. A midfield diamond has been deployed, meaning that width has been abandoned. The midfield diamond still looked shaky when introduced against CFR Cluj in the Champions League. But against Newcastle United, it glistered. In the first 22 minutes, Man Utd were averaging 70% possession. In that period, the pressure on Newcastle’s goal had produced two goals. To avert further disaster, Newcastle had to change tact and fill the midfield. It worked as it reduced United’s momentum. But what it did was to also reduce Newcastle’s strengths. Now, they did not have two strikers up top to aim at with crosses. Furthermore though, it meant that Newcastle, the home side, were now playing on United’s terms. That is what control is all about.
But that control has been lacking. In subsequent games, United have fallen behind. Luckily, they have had the firepower to always bounce back. And against Braga in midweek, the stakes were raised a bit higher. They stretched and dug deep to come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. Then however, their most dominating period did not include the diamond, but rather Kagawa’s injury had necessitated the introduction of Nani. Width in place of the diamond, and still the victory was acquired. It doesn’t look that much confused now as Maradona’s model was. Sir Alex’s model can morph into the circumstances it finds itself in. A case of Plan A and Plan B working in tandem. There is no set standard, and that is why it looks all confused, while all the same fulfilling its eventual purpose of winning.
Major questions still linger though. What happens when, as Maradona found out against Germany, this model meets up against a well organised team. Can Man Utd continue to come back against the better organised teams of this world. Can they afford to continue conceding? Can they still score more than their opponents can? Those are questions that will probably be answered in the coming weeks. A run of fixtures that sees United face Chelsea twice, then Arsenal, and then a trip to Braga in the Champions League. This is bound to set things into perspective. United faces major tests here. The diamond and the width will now have the chance to prove their worthiness.