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Why a 4-2-3-1 with Rooney up top could benefit Manchester United

Manchester United’s formations have been the topic of many a discussion this season. Louis van Gaal’s persistence with a three man defence clearly wasn’t United’s cup of tea, while the diamond came with its own limitations. Tom Chambers feels that a return to a 4-2-3-1 with captain Wayne Rooney playing up top could benefit the side.

Despite racking up the wins in an impressive run (prior to the Swansea game), the performances of Manchester United this season have, in the majority of games, been dull and often depressing to witness. No longer is there the excuse of injuries or lack of familiarity, and frankly, United often look like amateurs, leaving fans bemused and frustrated. It is now easy to predict what a United game will likely go; countless careless passes particularly when put under pressure, meaning despite a general control of possession, moves break down and rhythm is unattainable, thus resulting in a lack of creativity.

Many of the players have not reached their top level or maintained it for an extended period, the team has staggered through the season and whilst their ability to win ugly or rescue games late on are attributes of any successful team, for United, this is the case every week. Factors in this lack of cohesion and entertainment are; a lack of confidence, an unsettled first XI, players playing in the wrong position and the inability to find a system that suits.


The best way to alter this worrying trend and not only win games, but in style, is to find a formation which the players are most comfortable in, but also which poses the most questions for the opposition. You only need to look how Liverpool’s change to a 3-4-3 has not only improved results, but seen a return of attacking, purposeful and controlled football to Anfield, something United are yet to find. As is Louis van Gaal’s mantra, United almost always dictate possession thus maintaining a level of control in the game, yet they fail to create the chances that such a domination of possession should allow. Many passes appear to be “safe”, with the ball often going backwards or square, rather than the ball being used in a pro-active way to create openings.

This is something van Gaal himself has lamented on occasion and it is clear that he is not wholly satisfied with performances despite the run of wins. Whilst his ethos is based around ball circulation, he also expects his team to play with a “high ball speed”, moving the ball at pace to dismantle the shape of the opposition, thus creating chances, and scoring goals. This is where United fall down, spectacularly and consistently, with the movement of the ball slow enough for teams to stay compact and maintain their defensive organisation. When United have played with greater urgency this season, the difference has been obvious and fans frustration stems from their inability to maintain this tempo for a whole 90 minutes, let alone from game to game.

Of the systems tested this season, 3-5-2 is the least popular amongst fans, as it is deemed overly cautious with too much possession across the defence and a lack of specialist wing backs or movement/options in midfield and attack chief amongst the issues. To a lesser extent, the 4-4-2 diamond poses similar problems. Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie do not pose a threat in behind due to a lack of pace and when paired together, neither makes runs into the channels or in behind to provide the opportunity for a forward pass by the fullbacks or midfielders. Without this movement and pace from the strikers, quick wingers are needed to stretch the pitch and get down the sides of teams. The diamond does not allow for wingers and perhaps the reason why United have rarely played with them this season is due to the poor quality of their options out wide.

However, Adnan Januzaj has found himself back in the team recently and he is more suited to a wide role on either side, than he is to central midfield in the same way Wayne Rooney is more suited to playing up front. From the outside, it appears United are persisting with the diamond to accommodate both Falcao and van Persie despite neither justifying their selection or proving to be a potent partnership, at the expense of playing other players in their more suitable positions.

In recent games against Burnley and Preston, United have reverted back to playing with wingers in the second half, resulting in greater tempo and chance creation, with the opposition full backs being asked to come out to engage the wingers, rather than sitting narrow, easily defending against United’s static and narrow attack. With Di Maria, Januzaj and a vastly improved Young, United have competent options in the wingers positions for this season at least. Rooney also needs to return to playing as a striker on a regular basis.

Januzaj recently named Rooney as United’s quickest player and whilst this may be hard to believe, his burst of pace and run past the Preston defence to win the penalty on Monday night showed that he is at least a yard or two quicker than either van Persie or Falcao, which at the highest level, can make all the difference. A combination of greater width and penetration down the sides and in behind would pose more questions to the opposition, stretching the pitch and giving more space to the creative players. This change of shape could also provide more opportunities to the likes of Juan Mata in the No. 10 position, which he thrived at during his term at Chelsea, with the pace of Eden Hazard and Oscar either side of him.

van Persie and Falcao both also suit playing as a lone striker better than when asked to play as a pair and so fighting with Rooney for one position could provide a necessary jolt to improve their contribution when involved.

Written by Tom Chambers

Tom Chambers

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