When Manchester United confirmed the signing of last-season’s Premier League top scorer, Robin van Persie, for a fee reported to be in the region of £24, fans of the club were salivating at the potential attacking combinations manager Sir Alex Ferguson could unleash.
Ferguson likened the attacking dynamics of his current crop to the legendary treble-winning side of 1998/99 when he had Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at his disposal. But what is different about this quartet of attacking wealth is the versatility of their attacking play; not only which pair will Ferguson pick, but in what formation, with which supporting players?
With the acquisition of van Persie, one of European football’s most lethal forwards, Ferguson has the opportunity to unveil a fearsome duo by partnering the Dutchman with Wayne Rooney. Even the general football fan, with no affiliations to United, could not resist the temptation to watch those two in tandem. It is likely that, should they link up well – and why wouldn’t they? – the pairing would be United’s first choice forward line-up.
Competition for Places
Where then, does this leave Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez, Dimitar Berbatov and Federico Macheda? The likelihood of the latter two departing seems further confirmed by van Persie’s arrival, as well as reports of the club’s acquisition of Chilean youngster Angelo Henriquez from Universidad de Chile.
Legendary treble-winning side of 1998/99 when he had Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at his disposal
Berbatov has had mixed fortunes during his four-year stay with United; criticised for perceived laziness in his initial 18 months, he then became the hero as his 20 league goals helped the club to the 2010/11 league title, only to see his place usurped by Welbeck last term. And it seems as though his time in Manchester is coming to an end. If he does leave, amidst the joy of signing van Persie there must be a pang of sadness for United supporters; Berbatov may have delighted and infuriated in equal measure to some, but he was never, ever boring.
Macheda, meanwhile, has added little to his explosive debut in 2008, when he came off the bench to curl a beautiful effort past Brad Friedel and salvage a 3-2 win for the champions. He has had two fairly unsuccessful loans with Sampdoria and QPR, and has scored only four times in 28 appearances in a red shirt. His departure would come as no surprise to fans.
The only question remains whether Welbeck – whose stock has risen considerably over the last year after gaining a first-team berth for both club and country – and Hernandez would settle for being ‘Solskjaer and Sheringham,’ i.e. willing to play second fiddle to the considerable talents of Rooney and van Persie.
Of the pair, the more useful for affecting the play late in the game would be Hernandez; his pace and lethal finishing ability with either feet or head almost certainly guarantees you a goal when he plays, especially against tiring legs.
Berbatov may have delighted and infuriated in equal measure to some, but he was never, ever boring
Welbeck, on the other hand, has a less clear role; he scores few and assists even fewer. His strengths lie in his off-the-ball running, creating spaces for other attacking players, but when you’re 1-0 down in the 80th minute with an opposition deploying 11 men behind the ball, his talents become considerably less potent.
However, with the addition of Shinji Kagawa on top of van Persie, Ferguson also has to find a formation to fit his wealth of attacking talent into. With Rooney, van Persie, Kagawa, Antonio Valencia, Nani and Ashley Young – not to mention Welbeck and Hernandez – all posing credible arguments for a place in the starting XI, just where do you begin? Fergie has possibly the greatest need for an aspirin of any stage in his illustrious time in charge.
De Gea; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Young, Kagawa, Rooney; van Persie.
Probably the most logical of formations in terms of the players available is the 4-2-3-1 as it leaves room for versatility along the front line. Van Persie had his best season playing the lone role for Arsenal and would be expected to maintain his position in this particular formation. The tenets of Rooney’s ability of playing the lone man are considerable and he showed in 2009/10 that he is perfectly capable of operating as the focal point up front.
However, the England international is more comfortable and better suited to dropping deep to occupy the ‘number 10’ role between the midfield and forward line, where he can utilise his vision and range of passing to bring others into the play, while still posing enough of a threat to get 20+ goals a season.
Fergie has possibly the greatest need for an aspirin of any stage in his illustrious time in charge
Van Persie also has a tendency to drop deep to collect the ball and run at men, but this should be treated as a positive notion rather than a negative one. Too many people – largely not United fans – argue that the two are too similar in style to operate together. Rooney and Tevez had no problem adapting to each other’s games despite similar protestations in 2007/08 when United won both the Premiership and the Champions League. The potential remains the same, if not greater; Rooney and van Persie have the qualities to complement each other’s play and switch roles at ease, if needed.
Accompanying Rooney in behind van Persie could be any number of players, but a prudent approach would be to deploy Kagawa and Young who are both capable of sticking out wide and playing more centrally – offering more in terms of versatility than Nani and Valencia; two more traditional wingers. With Rafael and Patrice Evra in the side, United would have enough width supplied by those two romping forward to offer options down the flanks.
The centre of the park would need to be controlled by whichever pairing Sir Alex plumps for, though Michael Carrick is most likely to be the first choice, with any one of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs or Tom Cleverly coming in to fill the other role. There is the argument to play Phil Jones to add some muscle and industry, something the side would not be in need of if Darren Fletcher were to be given clearance to play.
De Gea; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes, Valencia, Nani; Rooney, van Persie.
Ferguson’s most trusted formation over the years, with one of the forward two expected to drop slightly deeper to form the link between midfield and attack, a role we’ve clarified that both Rooney or van Persie could quite easily fulfil.
With Rafael and Patrice Evra in the side, United would have enough width supplied by those two romping forward to offer options down the flanks
In this formation, the wingers are obligated to assume more traditional roles, i.e. taking on players and cutting a ball into the box for the strikers, and so Valencia and Nani would get the nod ahead of Kagawa. Young, also a great crosser of the ball, would be excellently suited to playing in this particular set-up.
Concerning the central midfielders, over the years Ferguson has preferred to play two ‘all-rounders’; players capable of covering great distances between box-to-box, offering as much in front of their own box as they do in the final third. Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, even Paul Scholes occupied similar roles in the 90's.
It has only been in recent years that the United boss has switched to pairing a workhorse with a more creative midfielder; Scholes or Juan Sebastian Veron took up playmaking duties, while Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Carrick, Owen Hargreaves or Fletcher harried, chased and closed down loose balls with tempered aggression.
The beauty of the 4-4-2 is that if United are under pressure, Rooney can drop deeper to form an impromptu three-man midfield in the centre of the park, effectively moving to a 4-5-1.
Scholes or Juan Sebastian Veron took up playmaking duties, while Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Carrick, Owen Hargreaves or Fletcher harried
De Gea; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes, Rooney; Valencia, Nani, van Persie.
The least viable of the three formations discussed is the 4-3-3, simply because to accommodate Rooney, the fulcrum of this United side, you would have to either play him on the wing or in centre midfield. However, there is an argument to say that his passing ability can warrant a position in the centre of the park. Van Persie would be free to lead the line with support from Valencia, Young, Nani or Kagawa, while Rooney would add some industry and creativity in the midfield.
Looking to the Future
Whichever formation Ferguson chooses to deploy, and the Scot has by and large stuck to one formation throughout a season, he needs to maintain van Persie as the main striker. The Dutchman is at his best when he is allowed to lead the line, be the focal point of the attack, and would provide a healthy number of goals, as well as assists.
Rooney showed he can hit 30+ goals in a season whilst occupying a deeper role, and couple this with the potentially equal or superior amount that van Persie could offer, and United may have found the difference to help close the gap on Manchester City. After all, the 12-time Premier League only lost out to their bitter rivals on goal difference last season.
Van Persie’s arrival seems to hint at an array of exciting possibilities; not only the obvious talent he can bring to United, but the added bonus of competition up front. Hernandez and Welbeck cannot afford to rest on their laurels and the addition of the Dutch superstar is surely the kind of motivation they need to up their respective games in an attempt to break into the first team.
Best, Law and Charlton; Cole and Yorke; Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo – Manchester United have been blessed with some of the most potent attacking partnerships in footballing history. Rooney and van Persie certainly have the potential to add to that list.
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