Changing times at United

Chelsea’s transformation from the defiant, defensive long-ball side of last year to the fluid inter-passing outfit currently on top of the Premier League has already won manager Roberto Di Matteo plenty of headlines; but is there an equally big revolution quietly taking shape at Manchester United?

Unlike Chelsea, United have rarely been labelled boring, aggressive or negative. The tradition of exciting, attacking football at Old Trafford means it would be managerial suicide to even contemplate such tactics.

But as United prepare to face Braga in the Champions League tonight Alex Ferguson is nevertheless considering major long-term changes to the tried and tested pattern that has made him so successful for more than 20 years.

When you think of United — past or present — you think of vibrant attacking football and especially of flying wingers; men like George Best, Billy Meredith, Steve Coppell, Andrei Kanchelskis, Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Antonio Valencia. And therefore you think of 4-4-2.

It’s the default formation that has underpinned everything achieved under Ferguson from his first title to the Treble and on to the most recent trophies. Yes, recent seasons have seen variations of the theme — 4-5-1 in difficult matches, Rooney played on the left when you expected him up front, Giggs moving inside. But the basic 4-4-2 has always been there in the background and the action has always taken place out wide.

This season, however, since the arrival of new signings Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa there has been a shift; not quite as noticeable as the sea change that has taken place at Stamford Bridge, but still hugely significant.

With an embarrassment of riches up front and a lack of depth in centre midfield, United’s diamond formation is being polished in training and starting to look like a long-term option.

Last weekend, in the 4-2 victory over Stoke, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, van Persie and Valencia all played in a 4-2-3-1 formation and looked hugely promising against a side renowned for their muscle in the middle of the park.

For Ferguson now it’s a dilemma. Does he make the diamond his permanent choice or does he continue to revert to 4-4-2? It’s a decision he admits will make history of a kind at Old Trafford. “It is difficult,” he said.

“We have had some success playing with the diamond. The history of the club is always to play with wide players particularly at Old Trafford so I have a decision to make. We have Ashley Young back and he will be involved and I have Nani, Valencia, Giggs, plenty of wide players. I have an issue in terms of picking the team and even the substitutes. Hopefully we get it right.

“But I think the level of the game in England and Europe is such a high level now that making yourself unpredictable is going to be a strength. Teams will have to think if we are going to play two wide players or the diamond because we have players capable of doing both things.

“Players like Kagawa and Cleverley can play really well in the type of game that a diamond offers. In Nani, Young and Valencia we have very good wide players. But if it turns out we play the diamond consistently it would be revolutionary because it is going against our history.”

Even so, it’s clearly an option for Ferguson and one that Chelsea have already taken having stripped their squad of wingers in recent seasons — Salomon Kalou, Gael Kakuta, Joe Cole, Arjen Robben all sold, Florent Malouda next through the door and new signing Victor Moses being carefully converted.

Tonight Ferguson will bring back Cleverley and Kagawa, both rested against Stoke, and all the early signs are that he will persevere with a diamond formation while all of his strikers are fit — and Paul Scholes is still available to anchor it all.

Of more temporary concern to United is their defence, which is still without Chris Smalling and Phil Jones (although both will return to full training next week) and missing Rio Ferdinand, who is rested. And that leaves the possibility of young Scott Wootton, 21, being given his chance in a match that could see United put themselves in a hugely strong position to qualify for the knockout stages.

That of course is the United way. Youth has never been a bar to selection for Ferguson or for the managers who came before him. And you suspect it never will be.

But not all traditions can stay the same when football moves so quickly so although it’s early days in the revolution, and 4-2-3-1 may not sound as catchy as its weighty predecessor, it may prove just as comforting and familiar to United fans of the future as those glorious wingers of the past.

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