For as long as we have been watching United our team has always played with width. So we can all be forgiven for not seeing this one coming. Yes United have played a 4-3-3 formation on the odd occasion, and with some success, (notably at The Emirates in recent years), but United are known for their wingers. Sir Alex’s side over the last twenty six years has been characterised by a strong spine, (often with two combative rather than creative midfield players), wingers and fullbacks threatening in wide positions and a front man droping off to add creativity and link play, (think Cantona, Sheringham or more recently Rooney). This is a bit of an oversimplification but contains a lot of truth.

So we were taken by surprise by Sir Alex on this one. It wasn’t something we had anticipated, in fact for quite a while now many United fans have been calling for the signing of combative midfield players to strengthen that area. It has been a common criticism of the team in recent seasons that we have lacked a ball winner and that too often we have allowed the opposition to retain possession too easily in the centre of the park at times seemingly unchallenged. The net result has often been an inability to dominate the opposition and an open initiation for the opposition to attack in central areas. Last season outcomes, both in the Champions League and in key domestic games, (Everton at home for example), could be directly attributed to this weakness. As a consequence we fully expected Sir Alex to sign at least one combative central midfield player. He didn’t, instead choosing an alternative tactical reorganisation to address these concerns.

4-4-2 with a diamond or 4-3-3?

The differences here are subtle. With a 4-3-3 the three forwards tend to stay high with at least one of the wide attackers staying wide, usually on the side down which you are probing with the opposite wide player tending to tuck in more, (see Figure 1). The midfield players generally form up in a triangle, either with one player deeper and two ahead or two players deeper and one ahead. This was exactly how United played on the first occasion United used the new tactic this season against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup.

To transform this 4-3-3 into a 4-4-2 with a diamond the central forward drops deeper and the two wide forwards tuck in more. The midfield three from the 4-3-3 then become a narrow 4 with a player in front of the defence and one just behind the attack, (see Figure 2). The fact that the difference is subtle obviously appeals to Sir Alex who tends to tinker with his formation a number of times throughout a game. Even with United’s more traditional wider approach we would estimate that he makes subtle adjustments which change the shape or emphasis of United’s threat to the opposition on average about three times in any one game. He loves flexibility.

Sir Alex has perhaps turned to this approach for a variety of reasons; to counteract that ball winning weakness and provide greater protection for the central defence, but also to exploit the strengths of the players he has available to him. When United signed Robin Van Persie many United fans asked how we would fit him and all these creative forward players in. Would this be the end of Hernandez, where would Kagawa play? have for some time questioned whether United had the players to make a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1 work against strong opposition, particularly without a strengthening of the midfield, (and central defence). Our concerns were demonstrated in several games last year, take your pick. Everton at home, Manchester City away late in the season. Sir Alex’s answer is to change his approach……..when it suits him.

Is this the new orthodoxy?

A Lot of United fans have asked this question; some with concern, (Maggie of Rochdale on MUTV taking Sir Alex to task for example), but the answer is no. Sir Alex himself has addressed this question directly in recent press conferences. He sees this as an option to be used when it suits in specific fixtures against specific opposition.

The characteristics of the 4-3-3/4-4-2 diamond

Perhaps the easiest way of looking at this approach is to look at a couple of recent examples.

One of the most successful recent exponents of this approach is Marcello Lippi. He has used it at a number of clubs, but United fans will remember his Juventus side well. Lippi’s basic shape was a 4-3-3, but with subtle tweaks this often resembled the 4-4-2 with a diamond, (see Figure 3). At Juventus Lippi fielded three specialist midfield players, with one of these, usually Deschamps playing fairly deep. Even when Juventus came forward he would be positioned close to his two central defenders, who as Juventus attacked would split. This maintained a three man back line whilst allowing the fullbacks to push on and give some width. The full backs generally did not advance beyond the midfield but they did join in with the midfield as the side moved up the pitch.

Of the front three the central Juventus attacking player would play high when they attacked, but would drop deep to an advanced midfield position when Juventus lost the ball and did not win it back quickly. That central player was generally Zidane, the classic number 10. The other forwards, (Del Piero and Inzaghi), would play narrow when Zidane dropped deep, but would run wider when he advanced.

This approach worked well for Juventus because they were generally very disciplined and had a number of key players, (Del Piero, Zidane, Deschamps, Ferrara, Pessotto and Montero), who were if not the best in the world, certainly amongst the best in the world in their positions. The two centre backs were as important as the more illustrious names. This formation naturally lacks width. Juventus overcame this successfully because of the intelligence of the forward players, but also because having lightening quick central defenders allowed their full backs to advance into the wide midfield areas.

The second example worth examination is Jose Mourinho Chelsea side circa 2004-05 season, that is the first year in which Chelsea won the Premiership, (see Figure 4). In that season the team shape was close to a classic 4-3-3. Chelsea generally played a three man midfield with Makalele as the holding midfield player and Lampard and Cole further forward. The key point to note here is that Mourinho fielded two wide players, Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, and a single central striker, Drogba. Robben had a great year that season and was almost unplayable at times, but the key to this approach was Drogba who was a battering ram of a centre forward and Makelele as the screen allowing Cole and Lampard to supplement Drogba’s central threat. Mourinho was able to play a 4-3-3 with width because of the quality of Drogba and Makelele. In later seasons Mourinho abandoned the use of natural wide forwards and chose to utilise more adventurous fullbacks whilst increasing the numbers in midfield. This was a more cautious approach, and it means that we forget the more adventurous approach in his first year at Chelsea.

United’s use of these systems to date

There are a number of points about this system which flow from the examples above. Firstly to play this way you need a number of key players suited to a number of key roles. You can play this system in a variety of ways, but to make the most of it you have to select the way which suits the key players you have available. Juventus would not have played the Chelsea way because Zidane’s strengths were different to Drogba’s.

Secondly positional discipline is vital. Everyone must know their role and the movement expected of them in and out of possession. Players must follow the game plan.

Thirdly, and this is critical to United’s use of the system, it is no substitute for a strong spine. Both the teams considered above had strong central defenders and a world class holding midfield player/ball winning screen. It ironic then that Sir Alex has perhaps chosen to turn to this approach because of a lack of that type of midfield player.

United have used this system a number of times this season. Here we consider its use in a number of those games.

United v Newcastle United
Capital One Cup, 26.09.2012
(Figure 5)
The shape here was more 4-3-3 than a 4-4-2 diamond, in fact this was the most 4-3-3 United have played. As such we could conclude that this wasn’t deliberate but was rather a case of the players getting used to a new shape and not quite getting it right. What is almost certainly clear is that this was a dress rehearsal for the following week’s game in the Champions League.

United played with Fletcher, (making his first appearance of the season), behind Anderson and Cleverley in midfield and in attack Welbeck to the right, Rooney centrally and Hernandez to the left. Fletcher, sat as a holding midfield player provided a solidity which allowed a greater degree of movement from Cleverley and Anderson. There were periods of good inter-passing in the middle of the park between these players and those ahead and behind them. The midfield had a well balanced look to it and United retained possession well, although they did not create that many clear cut chances. Fletcher gave an excellent performance throughout the game and noticeably provided a hard tackling, harrying, ball winning aspect to United’s play, an aspect not seen for some time.

The downside, which was immediately evident, was narrowness. United were relying upon their inexperienced full backs to provide any width. Buttner, (making his second appearance), got forward more than Vermijl, (making his debut), but neither player provided a significant wide contribution. Rooney occasionally dropped deep or went wide allowing Anderson or Cleverley to run into the space vacated and it was from these situations that the two goals came. Rooney stayed fairly high for the most part. One final point worth mentioning is that United’s centre backs, Wootton and Keane were also very inexperienced. In view of this the experiment worked fairly well.

Cluji v United
Champions League 02.10.2012
(Figure 6)

Just under a week later and United continued the experiment with the same four players in the centre of the park. This time Rooney came deeper and the shape was more definitively a diamond. The difference here, looking beyond the adjustment of Rooney’s position was a more experienced full backs in Evra and Rafael who were more able to provide width when needed and the presence of Van Persie to partner Welbeck in a two at the front.

In the opening stages United’s shape was actually more of a 4-1-2-2-1 with both Van Persie and Rooney dropping deep behind Hernandez. It’s difficult to say whether this was by design; it could have been a ploy to help withstand an early home onslaught, but as the half wore on Van Persie moved further forward to create a diamond with a front two. Again this experiment worked with United retaining possession for long periods. United didn’t create many chances in the game and in fact fell behind before eventually scoring twice to take the game. In many respects this was a development from United’s play in the Newcastle game, with the presence of more experienced, confident and accomplished performers around the diamond making a difference.

Newcastle United v United
Premier League, 07.10.2012
(Figure 7)

This game saw a change of personnel in the diamond. Now Carrick sat behind Kagawa and Cleverley with Rooney at the tip. Welbeck partnered Van Persie at the front. Newcastle of course had prior warning about United’s new formation, but this didn’t stop United racing into an early two goal lead.

As you would expect from this position, Newcastle in front of their own fans, had to respond and their response was to change their shape. They went from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 and worked at overloading the United full-backs. This worked for them with United’s narrowness leaving those fullbacks exposed. United had had something like 70% of possession in the opening 15 minutes, but the change saw Newcastle have close to 70% possession in the next 40 minutes. The consequence for United was Kagawa and Cleverley were forced back to help out the full-backs leaving Welbeck and Van Persie increasingly isolated. United’s shape now resembled a 4-3-1-2. Seeing this, and with Newcastle still not having made a breakthrough, Sir Alex decided to act before Newcastle scored to get themselves back in the game. He brought on Valencia to replace Kagawa who had dropped deeper and deeper as the game had worn on. This pushed the Newcastle full-back back on the right and gave United an out ball. Newcastle could not know overload on Rafael and the whole United team were able to take a step forward. United’s shape changed to a 4-1-3-2, closer to the diamond, but with Rooney so deep that he was often level with Valencia and Cleverley. Playing a higher line United were now able to get men forward to support attacks and so secured a third goal. Game over! The lesson here was clear; you need the right players in the right positions to make the diamond work. Kagawa has attacking qualities and is perhaps better suited to the tip of the diamond, but does he have the defensive nous to play further back?

United v Braga
Champions League, 23.10.2012
(Figure8, 9 and 10)

This was the first of the back to back fixtures against Braga. Did United intend to play a 4-4-2 diamond in this game? We will probably never know, but if they did it proved to be the most problematic use of that shape to date. The team selection suggested that it was the intention to use the diamond, but two early goals seemed to throw the formation out of shape. For this game Fletcher returned to the base of what we believe the diamond should have been. Figure 8 shows that shape. Braga’s bright start and their ability to keep the ball saw United pulled into the shape seen in figure 9. In this game Fletcher was the one being overloaded and as a consequence Kagawa moved further back. United’s shape in the second half of the first period was as shown in Figure 10. Kagawa did okay in this position, but was withdrawn at half time with an injury. He was replaced by Nani and with a reshuffle United morphed into a familiar 4-2-3-1.

United had already started to make a comeback by half time with Van Persie scoring after 25 minutes, but in the second half they were able to stay on top and scored two goals to win. It is the first half which concerns us here however. United’s were easily pulled out of shape in that half by Braga’s movement and ball retention. Cleverley and Kagawa seemed to lose their bearings; Cleverley in particular seemed too high, almost as a winger. With Kagawa at times level with Rooney, Fletcher was left exposed. Cleverley pushing forward gave United’s shape a lopsided look with a box of players on the left. The triangles which make a diamond an effective ball retaining formation had been lost. What this game showed more than any other is that positional discipline is vital, when the players go off message disaster looms.

Galatasaray v United
Champions League, 20.11.2012
(Figure 11)

With United having already qualified from the group this game was effectively a dead rubber. A number of players who perhaps would have played if the game were more critical were left in England, whether as a consequence of minor injuries or simply Sir Alex’s choice. The midfield diamond experiment however was continued and in terms of the four midfield players this was perhaps the most promising selection to date. Fletcher played at the back with Cleverley and Anderson ahead of him. Nick Powell, making his Champions League debut played at the tip of the four. Powell was excellent, he showed maturity, composure and positional awareness. United ultimately lost the game to a set piece goal, but the midfield four again kept the ball well, and some of United’s approach play was very promising. Anderson and Cleverley ran well in the central midfield areas, always providing the triangular options for the man in possession.

There were downsides however. United’s narrowness again saw an opponent overload on the fullbacks. Galatasaray chose to pull the ball back towards the edge of the United box from wide positions rather than throwing in hopeful crosses. Fletcher found it difficult to cover this space due to the number of runners from midfield bearing down upon him. United were lucky not to concede more and Galatasaray had a number of good shooting chances in the area he was trying to patrol. The problem here was that neither Anderson nor Cleverley got back in position to help Fletcher out when Galatasaray came forward, (as Kagawa had done in the Braga game). The overall midfield performance was promising and the balance of the midfield felt right when United had the ball. Carrick was playing as a makeshift centre back behind the midfield four, and the players in front of the midfield, Hernandez and Welbeck had poor games. As a consequence despite good play in the centre of the park moves broke down when United entered the final third and as highlighted in earlier game despite good periods of possession they did not create many chances.

This game, left one wondering how well this midfield four would function with strong quick centre backs to the rear, fullbacks achieving a balance of defensive stability and adventurousness and Rooney and Van Persie to the front providing alert intelligent movement to feed off the approach play.

What was clear here is that the 4-4-2 with a diamond is an option which although it allows United to achieve a good share of possession in a game, it is not one which generates chances galore. Perhaps this is not a significant concern for Sir Alex. Clearly he is concerned with developing a system that can be used successfully in Europe to ensure that the opposition does not dominate the play. He is then trusting that the sharpness of his forwards, will ensure that when chances come they are taken. To date Van Persie, Hernandez and Rooney have not disappointed in this respect.

For United however this system must still be considered a work in progress; this is an experiment we would expect to see more of in the months ahead.

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