Having experimented with 4-4-2 midfield diamond tactic in a number of matches this season, Sir Alex put the formation to one side following the Champions’ League group phase and then it reappeared for the FA Cup game at West Ham. Within the diamond he also tinkered with personnel; take Rafael against the Hammers where he trialled him as the inside midfield player on the right hand side. Rafael has played in midfield on at least one occasion before, in a home game against Arsenal a few years ago, but at that time the move was in response to an injury crisis. This time there was no crisis, rather a tactical choice. This suggests that Sir Alex is testing out different players to find an effective fit. Which piece fits the jigsaw? That is the question we ask in this article.
Tactics or players; what comes first? It could be either depending on the circumstances. For us the loss of Fletcher for the season has made this question more acute, ironically his return from injury earlier in the year coincided with the emergence of this tactic and Sir Alex has used Fletcher as the pivot more than any other player when using this shape.
Here we look at a 4-4-2 diamond and set out the strengths a player needs to play in a position, then we consider the United players that could be use in those positions. Firstly, Figure 1 defines the shape. The key positions are the four midfield players and the full-backs, for whilst the central defenders and strikers are important, the characteristics of those roles is not significantly different in this diamond shape from say a 4-4-2, a 4-4-1-1, or 4-2-3-1; these being United’s most commonly used formations.
Defensive Midfielder or Pivot.
We prefer to use the term Pivot as this player does more than just defend from midfield. It is a critical role for which a range of attacking and defensive qualities are required.
The player should:
• Have a good tactical sense.
• Be good at shielding the defence.
• Be good at tackling and intercepting.
• Be able to drop into and hold the defensive line; possessing good defensive qualities.
• Be able to control and direct play from a static deep position, so being a point of reference for the whole team.
• Be able to spot and accurately deliver long passes.
An example of such a player would be Serge Busquets, Etienne Capoue or David Luiz in recent weeks.
The diamond has two players of this type, typically one right sided and one left sided. These players should:
• Have a good physique, with good acceleration and stamina.
• Have good defensive strengths; good at tackling and intercepting, (they may often have to dovetail with the fullbacks).
• Have the ability to break into open spaces.
• Be able to change the tempo of the game.
• Be good at dump/rebound passes.
• Be good at crossing.
• Be good at shooting from range.
An example of a top class inside midfield player would be Luca Modric, Angel Di Maria or any number of Barcelona players.
This player is critical to the teams play in the final third. The player should:
• Have excellent technical strengths, and be able to play in tight spaces.
• Be able to pass well over long and short distances.
• Have good tactical intelligence and the ability to direct the attacking play.
• Be good at dump/rebound passes.
• Be good at shooting from range.
• Be able to coordinate pressing in high positions.
An example of a great attacking midfield player to suit this role would be Mario Gotze or Mehut Ozil.
Full-backs are very significant, as they provide width both in an attacking and defensive situation. The rest of the team is usually narrow. These players should:
• Have exceptional speed and stamina.
• Have strong defensive capabilities and a good positional sense, be good at tackling and good in the air.
• Be tactically flexible, with the ability to break quickly into open spaces.
• Have the ability to provide support to the attack and wide attacking thrust.
• Be able to pass well over long and short distances.
• Be good at crossing.
An example of full-backs to suit this system would be Dani Alves or Ashley Cole.
Choosing from the midfield squad.
Looking at the midfield areas and who has played where in the diamond to date, it is evident that Sir Alex has clear ideas about which players suits which role. So far nine players have been used in the diamond over six games, with only one of these players featuring in more than one role, Kagawa who has played as both an inside midfielder and an attacking midfielder.
Four players have featured only once in the diamond, and two of these appeared in the same game against West Ham in the FA Cup game. Sir Alex rarely plays an unchanged side, instead choosing to utilise his whole squad, so the use of Scholes and Rafael in the diamond in this particular game may be as much to do with his aim of keeping everyone fresh and not overplaying individuals as a view that these two are ideally suited to roles in this shape.
It would seem however that the core group from which Sir Alex has chosen for this tactic numbers five players, one of which, Fletcher, will now miss the rest of the season with injury. He has featured four times as the pivot, and his unavailability means that if Sir Alex uses this tactic going forward this position will be the subject of some careful consideration.
Players used in the diamond this season.
The Defensive Midfielder or Pivot role.
Fletcher has dominated this role and the emergence of the diamond tactic at United coincided directly with his return from long term illness. He has all the qualities identified above, but his strength is more as a defensive player. He does have good tactical sense, and importantly will diligently follow the game plan, but offensively he does not have the full range of passing and creative skills that others do, yet he contributes with headed goals. Unfortunately, others do not have his defensive strength.
The alternatives used to date as the pivot are Carrick and Scholes.
Carrick is having an excellent season and has the majority of the characteristics required for this role, yet lacks strong tackling ability. He is good at shielding and intercepting and Sir Alex clearly has a high regard for his defensive abilities, (used as a centre-back on several occasions when injury has hit), but generally he is a deep creative player rather than a defensive midfielder. One notable problem with Carrick in this role is his tendency to give away possession occasionally in deep positions, especially when he is pressed, (the Champions League Final in 2009 being an example). He has done this less over the last year, but it remains a concern.
Scholes tackling ability is legendary and it was interesting that he was used in the diamond recently at West Ham. Within the Club, Fletcher’s recurring illness will probably have been apparent by the time of this game and Sir Alex use of Scholes was probably a reflection of his desire to rest Carrick for future league games. The diamond at West Ham worked well for a period in the first half, but West Ham were able to outmuscle the diminutive four forming the diamond. Scholes as a pivot can’t really help out the defence when high balls are thrown in, and both West Ham’s goals came from high balls delivered into the box. The formation was changed in the second half as United snatched a draw.
Is there another alternative? Jones could be considered as defensively he would fit the bill, but lacks experience and perhaps the creativity of Carrick or Scholes. In time he might suit the role, but questions have been asked about his concentration levels.
Cleverley has been a feature as an inside midfielder, with Anderson and Kagawa also featuring in this role on more than one occasion. Generally, Cleverley and Anderson seem ideally suited for these positions as both have excellent stamina, and a natural tendency to run into spaces carrying the ball. Cleverley is perhaps a better crosser, (as seen at Spurs when he delivered a superb cross for Van Persie to convert), and more accurate with shots than Anderson, but when playing in these roles in tandem they seem a good pair.
Kagawa has also featured as an Inside Midfielder twice, and may have featured on other occasions but for injury. He seems to have most of the qualities required, but the biggest concern is his stamina; starting a number of games well, then fading in the second half, for example when he played in the diamond at Newcastle and in the recent games against Liverpool and Tottenham. The other concern is his defensive ability; at Newcastle he went too deep, and when pushed back he seems to lose his positional bearings.
Rafael; as a defender can bring a defensive ability to this role, whilst as an attacking fullback he has the ability to run into spaces and stretch people in wide positions. He has good stamina and like Carrick, is having an excellent season. His positional and general defensive discipline is much improved, although his shooting radar is perhaps not as keenly tuned as one would wish for a player in this role, is it any worse than Anderson’s however? In view of all this we should not then have been so surprised to see Rafael feature in the midfield at West Ham and he has featured as a midfield player on at a least one occasion before. We may see him here again.
Like Fletcher at pivot, Rooney has dominated this position. Kagawa and Powell have played in this role on one occasion each, but Rooney featured here the first four times this tactic was used.
Rooney seems ideally suited to this role. He has all the qualities an attacking midfield players needs. He is a great all-rounder with both good attacking instincts, married to a reading of the game. His technique is excellent and he has the ability to direct the attacking play, dropping deep to collect the ball and then turning to feed those ahead and around him. His attacking vision is excellent. Prior to the arrival of Van Persie he was the team’s talisman, but freed from that burden he could and should excel. The one question mark is his ability to direct pressing in high positions. Forwards tend to concentrate on their own games rather than giving consideration to the direction of the wider team. Perhaps this is an area where he might improve.
Kagawa can play this role and again we might have seen more of him in this area but for injury. Kagawa is good at playing ‘between the lines’, has good close control and rarely gives the ball away. We would like to see more of him, whether in this position or elsewhere.
Nick Powell has played this role once in the game against Galatasaray. We have perhaps not seen enough of him yet to form a firm opinion, but from what we have seen he appears to have a good eye for goal, close control and composure which allows him to successfully operate in tight spaces. He is clearly a very promising player who may well develop into a valuable attacking midfield player.
Full-backs are important to the success of this tactic, because the rest of the formation tends to be fairly narrow. Full-backs at United are expected to contribute to the attack whatever formation we play. In theory then our full-backs should be ideally suited, but they perhaps need to show a greater degree of defensive discipline if we are using a midfield diamond.
The narrowness of the shape can leave the full-backs exposed and it is interesting to note that Sir Alex has chosen not to use the diamond when we have played against teams with width. This was most noticeable in the league game at Chelsea when many expected a diamond, but instead he chose a 4-2-3-1 shape which blitzed the home side in the first twenty minutes. For this reason we would not expect to see a diamond in the forthcoming Champions League tie against Real Madrid.
When we have used the diamond the full-backs have been fairly cautious. This has been most noticeable in the approach of Evra, a player noted for his forward surges. In the diamond he has tended to stay deeper. Evra and Rafael should, in many ways be ideally suited to the full-back role required. Both are, when disciplined, good defenders who can contribute going forward. Both have an eye for goal and can pass and run with the ball over long and short distances.
Buttner is raw. He has played as a full-back on a couple of occasions when we have used this shape, but he is head strong and whilst he does contribute going forward he needs to focus more on maintaining the defensive shape. He tends to dive in to tackles in high positions when he does not need to do so.
Smalling has played at full-back recently when a diamond was used at West Ham. On first thought one might think that he was a choice because Sir Alex required defensive discipline in this game, but early in the game he made a significant contribution to United’s attack, dovetailing with Rafael.
Jones is another player who has played at full-back on occasions, and like Smalling he too might have a good balance of defensive discipline and attacking intent. He is certainly a possibility.
But why use the diamond?
On first reflection it appeared that Sir Alex had turned to this new tactic because of the lack of a hard tackling midfield ball winner. The tactic certainly helps the team to keep the ball; reducing the number of times we need to win it back. In Europe last season we were just too profligate with possession and having given it away often then found it hard to regain; as evidenced against Athtletic Bilbao. With a diamond there is always a man available in central areas and its use in Champions League games this season has seen us successfully through the group phase. But the question remains why has Sir Alex chosen to experiment with this shape?
This might actually be as a consequence of the poor form of our wide players this year, but just as likely is a desire to control the centre of the pitch. This has long been a focus for Sir Alex, ever since our defeat against Real Madrid in 1999-2000 season. After that he developed a shape to control the centre of the park, but without an all action ball winner it is difficult to use the tactics developed thereafter. More bodies in the centre is an alternative approach.
So far the tactic has allowed that we control the centre of the pitch, but to do this we have sacrificed some attacking intent. It seems strange to say this when you reflect on the number of goals we have scored this year, but actually when we have used the diamond we haven’t scored as freely. A number of the goals scored in the games listed above have been scored after we have changed to an alternative shape. So currently the balance is not quite right.
Just as likely an explanation is that Sir Alex feels that the players we have currently suit this tactic and the analysis set out here appears to demonstrate this is the case. The balance might not be right yet but that could be as much to do with learning the tactic as anything else. Cleverley and Anderson are both mobile and forceful midfield runners, Rooney has qualities that ideally suited his deployment as an attacking midfielder; the question mark is the pivot position. With Fletcher out of action the Carrick appear the first choice for this role and his attacking creativity may result in a greater attacking emphasis. The balance of full-back play, attacking and defending is also a key factor. Criticism of the use of the diamond to date must be tempered, players are still finding their feet within this approach, occasionally players have forgotten the script in games, (the home game against Braga being a classic example), with Sir Alex experimenting there will be a few things tried that don’t work.
As the season progresses we would expect to see more of this tactic, although used sparingly and in select games. As ever we would expect Sir Alex to keep us guessing in the month ahead.