The bootroom: what are Fergie and Carlo thinking?

As Manchester United welcome Chelsea to Old Trafford this weekend for a game that will go a long, long way to deciding the title, we take a look at how the teams may set up.

Image: Nick Potts/PA Archive/Press Association Images

IT’S BEEN THE the oddest Premier League season for the longest time.

The top teams have all struggled with themselves and with their form in some way or another.

It’s even more unusual to see the two top sides in the division going through a full season trying to find the best system for their players. This season, both United and Chelsea have done just that.


In recent times, Ferguson’s big-game default has tended to be the 4-3-3, as the United manager pretty much realised that to control possession and games themselves (especially in Europe), he needed an extra body in midfield. (Funnily enough, the Champions League final of 2008 against Chelsea was one occasion United played a 4-4-2 variation, mainly for Ronaldo to try and take advantage of Michael Essien’s placing at full-back).

And yet now we’re seeing the United manager develop a different system, as especially since the turn of the year, United have generally lined out with some form of 4-4-2 (or more importantly in this context, with just two men in central midfield rather than the usual three) with varying success.

So what’s changed this season? Well, form and availability of key personnel have forced Ferguson’s hand to a large degree. Dimitar Berbatov’s goalscoring in early season meant he was difficult to drop – though he was dropped to the bench for United’s win over Arsenal at Old Trafford in the league in December and a partnership with Rooney ever only flickered vaguely.

Mostly, it’s been the emergence of Javier Hernandez as a genuine off-the-shoulder-of-the-last-defender number 9, along with the re-evolution of Wayne Rooney as a creative number 10; Hernandez’s positioning high up the pitch allowing Rooney drop deep into positions he can influence the game with his energy, ability and forcefulness, something we’ve already covered here.

This 4-4-1-1 has brought zip, goals and a genuine flow to United’s football in the past couple of months. Carrick’s been hinting at the Carrick of pre-Barca 09 again, Giggs has been a prolific creator of chances from the centre and switching more ball and focus to the wings has been profitable again.

Centre of attention

Playing a two-man central midfield has its issues though. There’s a real, and largely accurate, school of thought that says United’s central midfield personnel lack presence, creativity and genuine world class talent, a problem that’s felt more keenly with two bodies than three at the highest level.

The majority of United’s midfield can be more comfortable in a three than a two – Carrick often needs the protection of two others to have the time and space to do his thing; Scholes hardly has the legs anymore to play in a two; Anderson doesn’t quite have the discipline; Fletcher works better when he can get around winning second balls and tackles knowing he has two other players in there as security.

Legs are an issue when Darren Fletcher isn’t fit; witness how Carrick and Scholes wilted when pressed with energy in the league game with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge or at Anfield. United can get away with being outnumbered in midfield against Everton or Fulham through sheer ability but playing with two in the central area against the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, who generally will have three, can result in lots of chasing ball, little possession.

A quick comparison can lay things out simply. Against Arsenal in the league game at the Emirates last season playing 4-3-3, United made 21 interceptions around the field (mainly through the central midfield area in front of the back four); last weekend in the corresponding game playing 4-4-1-1, it was 10 (mainly down the flanks).

Michael Carrick made 72 passes in last season’s game; this year it was 40 passes. Even comparing this seasons’s league games with Arsenal, United played with a three-man midfield at Old Trafford and Fletcher-Carrick-Anderson made 17 tackles between them; last week the two starting central midfielders made a grand total of 1 tackle between them.

A three man central midfield team offers more control of possession, more energy, more security and fills dangerous space better than a two-man midfield, there’s no getting away from them numbers (And we take on board that there was an energy issue last weekend for United after the midweek European game).

[caption id="attachment_132170" align="aligncenter" width="295" caption="Michael Carrick's passes during the defeat to Arsenal last week. Red denotes unsuccessful attempts. "][/caption]


And still, 4-4-1-1 has proven damn effective. United outplayed Chelsea in the first half of the league game at Stamford Bridge with Carrick and Scholes controlling the middle until Chelsea upped the tempo and overpowered them second half.

For the Champions League second leg with Chelsea, Carrick and Giggs were up against a three-man midfield but got away with it by switching play quickly to both wings and counter-attacking effectively, and also by Wayne Rooney dropping deep at times to fill space. There’s plenty evidence so far that the 4-4-2 with Rooney-Hernandez up top is a much superior animal to the 4-4-2 with Rooney-Berbatov, which may explain many of United’s lacklustre displays pre-January.

It’s gotten the best form from Wayne Rooney, United’s talisman again. And the form of Valencia, Nani and Park, all natural wing players, make it more workable.

Big call

Long term, it’s a decision Ferguson will probably need to come to, whether a two-man central midfield can compete in the big games over time (and as importantly, what personnel can fill these positions). For now, there’s two huge games to consider the options. They’ll most likely go for – and get away with – a 4-4-1-1 this Sunday against Chelsea. As for Barca at Wembley, that might be a different story.


If United are switching from their 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 mainly to fit in-form players up front, Chelsea have been toying with 4-4-2 (and other systems) themselves, just to try and fit certain players, who have been out of form, into the side.

Though Carlo Ancelotti also spent last season fiddling with formations attempting to get the most from his group of players, this year’s switching has been more harmful, and he hasn’t had the splendid form of individuals to save him quite so often.

Throughout 2009/10, Ancelotti worked a number of systems. Initially he favoured a diamond in midfield with Drogba/ Anelka combination up front and although this got some results, it tended to be undone by a lack of real width. In the end, he tended to play mainly some variation of 4-3-3 which at different times got the best from Malouda, Drogba and Anelka in attacking roles and also suited his midfielders in that Lampard could get forward and Essien could get around the pitch knowing they have a minder in, usually, John Obi Mikel behind them.

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This year Ancelotti’s masterplan has been disrupted by loss of form at times (Malouda), injury (Lampard, Essien), sickness (Drogba), a new signing taking time to gel (Ramires). And of course, there was the issue if being given an extremely expensive present in Fernando Torres with which he had to figure out exactly how to play.

And at times, the Chelsea manager has appeared to not quite have the answers as Chelsea have scraped through periods of dodgy form and results with varying formations and personnel, all the while without the sort of guile in midfield that can open teams up  - something they got away with previously through power and sparkling form of certain attackers.

John Obi Mikel was discarded for a few months and now seems to have been reintegrated as the holding player in midfield. When Torres first arrived, there were thoughts of playing Anelka as some kind of playmaker behind Drogba/ Torres and though there was initial promise in a win at Sunderland, it proved a complete mess in losing at home to Liverpool and was abandoned rather sharpish. And since then, it’s been a mishmash of ideas in trying to integrate the Spanish striker into the side in the most beneficial way to everyone.

In the league game against United, it was 4-4-2 with Torres partnering Anelka and though Chelsea won the game, it was more a general upping of tempo and power in the second period, won despite the system rather than because of it. In the Champions league first leg, it was again 4-4-2 with Drogba partnering Torres but this time it was even less effective, and Chelsea only looked like creating when they went 4-3-3 for the final 20 minutes.

In the Champions League second leg, Ancelotti bit the bullet and went back to a 4-3-2-1 system; they performed far better but were undone by Torres’ lack of form and confidence.

[caption id="attachment_132205" align="aligncenter" width="293" caption="Fernando Torres' passes in the home game against Manchester United. "][/caption]


The thing is, as with United, some of the Chelsea players are just more suited to a 4-3-3 type system. In a 4-4-2, Lampard is restricted and can’t play his natural game getting forward; Essien can’t get around the pitch with as much energy as he has to mind the space in front of his back four.

Right calls?

Malouda tends to drift infield and isn’t suited to having to stay on the touchline to give width; ditto Kalou or Ramires. It’s trying to fit players into a side and formation to suit others and it’s unlikely to work.

Even as recently as Saturday, Ancelotti tried to use Drogba out wide right in a 4-3-3 but there was no rhythm to this style. It was only when Kalou and Anelka were introduced into the wide positions of the 4-3-3 that Chelsea looked remotely fluent going forward.

As with Ferguson, Ancelotti has a decision to make for Sunday. Does he pick his players in form and fit them into the best system available for them or does he impose a system and slide players into it?

We’ll know Sunday night who’s made the correct call.

We’ll have a liveblog of the Old Trafford showdown from 3pm on Sunday.

About the author:

Barry O'Donovan

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