For the first time in the current league campaign, Sir Alex Ferguson fielded both Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie in the same starting XI for United’s trip to Newcastle last Sunday. The pair had clicked in the previous game on Champions League duty, with Rooney teeing up the Dutchman for both his side’s goals in the 2-1 win over CFR Cluj and while Van Persie failed to fire against the Magpies, Rooney continued to revel in a more withdrawn role after providing another pair of assists in the 3-0 win.
Intriguingly, this was the first time Ferguson has rolled out his new diamond formation in the league. With Michael Carrick at the base, Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley played right and left respectively, while Rooney tucked in behind Van Persie and Danny Welbeck. Post-match, the United boss talked up the success of his new formation:
“I wanted to try the diamond again after some success against Cluj, which is not an easy place to go to, and against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup…We played so well on Tuesday against a decent team. People look at the name Cluj and say they expect United to win, but they are a decent side. And because we played so well on Tuesday, I thought we should find out how far we can go with that diamond system.”
Looking at United’s respective shapes over the past couple of games, there’s a significant difference. From left to right and from front to back, in particular, there are far fewer spaces in between for opponents to thrive in. Ferguson’s default 4-4-2 formation was picked apart by Spurs in the previous match, with Gareth Bale’s second for the visitors indicative of just how stretched the Red Devils can be when opponents win possession and quickly counter-attack.
In the Tottenham match (above left), Andre Villas-Boas’ side were savvy enough to exploit the space behind Rio Ferdinand (5) and Jonny Evans (6) but Ferguson’s tactics against Newcastle (above right) saw the central defensive pairing sit deeper and nullify the home side’s threat.
Prior to Sunday’s match, United’s problems at the back meant they had opened the scoring just once in their first six matches. Back in Gameweek 4, they cruised to a 4-0 home win over Wigan and, having grabbed the lead through Jonny Evans at St James’ Park, United registered their second clean sheet of the campaign in a comfortable 3-0 triumph. With Patrice Evra adding a second soon after, the visitors established a two-goal cushion within the first 15 minutes of the Toon tussle and quickly set about dominating the match.
Maybe it was a case of sitting back and protecting their lead but there seems no doubt the system afforded the recently-maligned backline greater protection. Analysing United’s overall involvement in each of their seven league matches so far, though, there was a definite downturn in their forward forays on Sunday.
|Possession||Touches||Tchs Opp Half||% Tchs Opp Half||Tchs Final 3rd||% Tchs Final 3rd|
While United bossed the proceedings with 55.7% possession, only 278 of their total touches came inside the Magpies’ half – their least of the season. In three of their previous six matches, Ferguson’s side had less possession, yet in all of those fixtures they were in more advanced positions when on the ball. In the Gameweek 3 win at Southampton, they had 54.7% possession, yet 395 touches were inside the Saints’ half, while the same applies to Gameweek 4 at home to Wigan (52.2% and 340 respectively) and Gameweek 5 at Liverpool (47.8% and 307).
Looking at the final third touches, United had just 114 on Sunday – again, their lowest of the campaign. This means that just 14% of their total touches were made inside this crucial area; although they doubled this percentage in four out of the previous six matches, Ferguson was more than happy as to how his side were able to control Sunday’s match:
“The diamond closes off the midfield. The only problem is when the ball goes out wide, how far your midfield gets separated. If you try to keep it tight in the centre of the field, then the opposition have to go wide. Okay, we took a gamble today because Newcastle are so big up front and they’re good crossers of the ball. But the football we played from the central midfield positions through Cleverley, Kagawa, Rooney and Carrick was terrific.”
|Crosses For||Crosses Against||Total Succ Cross||% Succ Cross||Chances Created|
Once again, the statistics back up Ferguson’s comments here. United had managed fewer crosses than their opponents in just one of the six previous matches, with Liverpool delivering 26 balls from out wide at Anfield (in comparison to the visitors’ 18) back in Gameweek 5. United produced an incredible 43 crosses against Spurs in their last home game, with Villas-Boas’ side making a mere seven, but last Sunday the situation was turned on its head.
Afforded plenty of width on the flanks, Alan Pardew’s men provided 38 crosses, with United managing a mere 14 – their lowest tally of the season. Their total of three successful crosses was also the least in any given Gameweek thus far but this equated to a 21.4% accuracy – their third highest rate of the campaign. Overall, it’s fair to say that United’s delivery from the flank has been disappointing; with only four of those 43 crosses against Spurs proving successful.
Ferguson could well be looking for a little more guile and intricacy to his team’s play. With ball-playing individuals like Kagawa and Van Persie brought on board, perhaps there’s less need for delivery into the box – United still
created 10 chances against Newcastle, with the stats above highlighting the fact that they don’t need to continually pump balls into the penalty area to provide goalscoring opportunities.
Finally, it’s impossible to overlook the effect this new system had on Van Persie – in particular, his average position when on the ball. As the graphic highlights, the Dutchman was far deeper when on the ball in comparison to the previous six Gameweeks. While he mirrored his previous average for minutes per touch, Van Persie had just 15 touches in the final third, considerably down on his previous 24 for Gameweeks 1-6; on a more optimistic note, however, his penalty box touches (5.5 to four) weren’t too dissimilar.
Although Newcastle did well to shackle the Dutchman and reduce the former Arsenal man to a single attempt, Van Persie’s creativity took a turn for the better – he created a goalscoring opportunity every 29 minutes against Pardew’s men, well up on his average of 54.5 from his first six appearances.
|Mins/Tch||Tchs Final 3rd||Pass Rcvd Final 3rd||Pen Box Tchs||Mins/Attempt||Mins/Chance Created|
While the tactical spotlight has mainly centred on Chelsea since the arrival of Eden Hazard and Oscar, United’s shift of system over these last few games certainly hints at another evolution under Ferguson. Whether it’s to protect the shaky defence or find a solution to integrate the two summer signings alongside Rooney or perhaps a combination of both, the diamond affords a definite alternative to the usual 4-4-2 and gives United another dimension to their style of play as Ferguson attempts to wrestle the title back from Roberto Mancini’s City.
*The Technical Area is put together using the statistics and maps available in our members area. For access to such data and tools on every player, team and match of the 2012/13 season, and for exclusive members articles like this, click here for details.
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For Gameweek 38
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“I am happy with the way I’ve started, but on the other hand, I should have scored four or five more, so that’s something for me to work on.”Robin Van Persie talks about his early form at United ahead of his first Manchester derby