A United without Wingers

International break is on, and we’re faced with the worst nightmare that a football fan can expect – a weekend without league football. Nevertheless, this allows us folks here at Football Paradise to reflect on how our teams fared over the past few games.

Talking about Manchester United, we played Newcastle at St. James Park last weekend; and Cluj away in the Champions League the midweek before. While every United supporter will gladly take the 3 points we took from both games, the manner in which we went about our business was a rather different one, yet it showed saddening glimpses of what has been bothering United for the past year or two.

On paper, it was a straight-forward Champions League group fixture – so what if it was a visit to the land of the vampires? However, a disjointed start for United, followed by Evra being caught out of position (again) put the home team ahead within a quarter of an hour. Of course, United being United, regrouped quickly and ensured that we regained the lead right after the second half was underway. Of course, we had to do the customary ‘switch-off’ after taking the lead. Two assists from Rooney, two goals for van Persie. It all looked perfect.

The United line-up was a strange one – we lined up with a diamond in midfield with Rooney operating as the trequartista. Cleverley and Anderson played in the center, with Fletcher sitting in front of the defence. The lack of width was clearly noticeable. The United way has always been the wingers’ way. With the likes of Giggs, Beckham, Ronaldo, Nani, Young and Valencia, we have been spoilt by quality wingers tearing up opposition teams like their full backs didn’t even exist. Ask Arsenal, they know Ryan Giggs a little too well in that respect.

The future?

It is but obvious that if you see United line-up in such a manner in midfield, you’d expect to see Shinji Kagawa somewhere in there. This is exactly what happened at St James Park. Rooney was again deployed as a trequartista, with Cleverley on the left. However, Kagawa replaced Anderson and Carrick replaced Fletcher. This was a rather unfamiliar role for Kagawa, as he is used to playing further up the field. He struggled a little in this role, but put in a good shift for the time he was on the pitch. The match was won in the center because Newcastle was forced to change their formation to account for the extra player United had in midfield. United responded by switching to a 4-5-1 by bringing on Valencia for Kagawa, and Rooney dropped back into the center.

Call the new formation a 4-1-2-1-2 or a 4-3-3 of sorts, will we see more of this shape in the coming games? If so, will Rooney continue to play as trequartista? He is undoubtedly creative and has great vision when it comes to passing, but playing as a trequartista limits his goal scoring opportunities. Personally, I’d rather see Kagawa play trequartista with Rooney and van Persie ahead of him. That would definitely worry many an opposition defender in the premier league. Or does SAF see this as a temporary solution, or a Plan B to fall back to, since our wingers are either injured or under-performing?

Newcastle are no pushovers – and the fact that this was the first time a visiting team has recorded more than 50% possession in the first half at St James Park – indicates that this is a system that could definitely work with more polishing and refining. A more clear understanding of roles is required for Kagawa and Cleverley. Our full backs could provide us all the attacking width that we need. While Evra is indeed aging, Alex Buttner is no novice as he has shown us so far. Rafael, meanwhile, continues to impress this season – having won the manutd.com player of the month award.

There are no second thoughts that an attacking, free-flowing United is what we all like to see. The second half performance we put in against Tottenham is what we know our team is capable of. My greater concern is that it had to come on the back of a shambolic first half, a shameful disaster of epic proportions. When will we ever get back to playing an entire game without switching off after taking the lead, or playing for our lives only after the half-time hairdryer? Easy for me to say from the comfort of my keyboard, but all Red Devils will agree that this is something SAF had better address – and he had better address it soon.

Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.