So to the last 16 of the Champions League and Sir Alex and his men will be seeking cathartic release from last season’s quarter final exit in largely unfortunate circumstances. They have a tough fixture ahead of them with French champions Marseille unbeaten in their last eight league games and able to boast a defence that didn’t concede a goal in four of their preceding Champions League fixtures. Aside from pondering the intricacies of the task ahead of him, Ferguson will also be aware of arguably his last major challenge before ending his glittering managerial career: How to set up his side in order to maximise his chances of claiming his third European Champions League triumph.
Under Didier Deschamps Marseille are a fluid attacking outfit, and although missing arguably their two star names in Gignac and Valbuena (likely to be on the bench having only resumed training yesterday), have attacking options in the form of Brandao, Remy, Ayew and Lucho – who may all start in an atypical 4-2-3-1 formation with either Kabore or Cheyrou joining Cisse in the deeper midfield roles.
Nani’s duel with Heinze is an intriguing one as much for its tactical intricacies as it is for the fact that Heinze will be facing his former club for the first time since his departure; a departure which was very similar to his compatriot’s Carlos Tevez, in that Evra, an exciting young prospect from Monaco at the time, worked tirelessly to claim the left-back slot ahead of the Argentine. Though Heinze’s battling qualities and smooth passing range made him a crowd favourite at Old Trafford, it cannot be denied that the subtle alteration in approach was yet another Fergie masterstroke, and maybe, just maybe, Evra is his best signing in the last 5 years.
The Frenchman will likely be up against Lucho an astute attacking midfielder who can play wide right or in the centre, meaning that the pacey Remy might feature as a lone striker. Dragao has been excellent of late in a playmaking position, and Carrick must work in tandem with Scholes to press the space in which he operates.
Probable United Starting Lineup
Tactics, Manchester United:
Man United are without their influential former captain Rio Ferdinand, as well as Giggs and Anderson who were in contention to start the game. Smalling should take the place of Ferdinand despite Brown’s captain’s performance against lowly Crawley at the weekend; and though the young centre half lacks the experience at the highest level, his performances this season – culminating in a devastating showing in the derby last weekend – have earned him some fantastic praise from the manager and fans alike. Vidic will partner Smalling and the back four should be complete by O’Shea and Patrice Evra, who has recently penned a 3-year deal with the reds, giving Fergie a timely boost ahead of a tough run-in and climax to the season.
In midfield, Carrick should slot into a three-man centre in tandem with Fletcher and Scholes – both of whom were instrumental in the derby win, constantly seeking to switch the play and feed Nani and Giggs out wide (see chalkboard below). With Giggs out tomorrow however, (and with Park still recovering from injury and Obertan suffering a loss of form) Rooney could be asked to perform his least favourite task and play wide left in what is a defensive minded 4-5-1 set-up when without the ball.
Paul Scholes distribution v City (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
Another option Fergie may be tempted with is Fletcher in a wide right position (helping to nullify the probable threat of Ayew), meaning Nani would switch to the left and Rooney to a deeper trequartista role. A personal feeling is that Rooney doesn’t have the required finesse for such an attacking midfield remit, but given his recent repositioning within the team (see chalkboard analysis), it seems to be something that Fergie isn’t quite ruling out as we discuss below.
Rooney playing behind Berbatov this season, in contrast to last (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
The debate rages on as to how both Rooney and Berbatov can be accommodated in a 4-2-3-1 system (we discussed a few options here earlier on in the season), whilst at the same time seeking to embrace the attacking principles which has typified United’s approach through the years. With Berbatov rumoured to be nearing a successful conclusion to contract discussions, it is clear that Fergie wants to embrace the qualities and application of the 7-time Bulgarian footballer of the year, and perhaps as per his new premiership remit, to do so in a more traditional ‘9’ striker role. For the moment, Berbatov is content to play a role from the bench having accepted Fergie’s tactical approach and his concerns about the midfield dynamic against the very top clubs.
For me then, Fergie has broadly two main tactical options to consider in the near future:
1. Rooney at the tip of the midfield diamond – starting in a more central position and working across the final third relinquishing defensive duties to the holding midfield pivot. Though not extremely likely due to his lack of experience in this position (both in terms of finesse and positional maturity), given Rooney’s ever deeper remit of late (not including City and Arsenal), and Anderson’s inconsistent application, it could be an option Fergie is giving serious consideration to.
2. Rooney to the left of the band of 3 – this can only work with a well-drilled midfield composition, and competent and ambitious fullbacks as the Barcelona Final of 2009 painfully exposed. Rooney has rarely looked comfortable in this role since the departure of Ronaldo, only recently being highlighted at trips to Birmingham and West Brom on the domestic front. Scholes’ eventual replacement, and/or the progression of the likes of Anderson and Cleverley, could be crucial to exploring this option with greater ambition, and indeed confidence; whoever is signed (and there are strong rumours regarding the recruitment of exciting Chilean winger, Sanchez as well as Villa’s Ashley Young) will have to be able to work in a fluid front 4, in tandem with the likes of Nani, Valencia, Park and Rooney.
A More Fluent Front Four?
Of course, with the contract extensions on the table for both Scholes and Giggs, there is no immediate rush to dip into the market, and one further option for Sir Alex to explore is the re-positioning of Nani to either a central winger (starting fairly central and seeking to exploit the wide areas to either side see excellent Zonal Marking article, here), or to the left once Valencia is back in contention; by relieving the Portuguese player of defensive duties and allowing him the freedom to work from left to right in much the same way that his predecessor Ronaldo did his last final two seasons, United may well be able to achieve similar success. Nani’s supreme progression in the last 12 months or so has seen his understanding of the game, his positional acumen, shooting ability with either foot and passing range all improve immeasurably.
This will be a tight but lively game given the formation similarities, and both coaches will have options from the bench if required late on; United can turn to the excellent Hernandez who has made an instant impression at Old Trafford, whilst Deschamps can call on Valbuena to provide that creative spark, often deployed on the right of a front three. Fergie will be paying particular attention to the fluency of his evolving 4-3-3 formation and will hope to find a sustainable solution to his tactical dilemma going forward.
Prediction: 0-1, Scholes.
Referee: Felix Brych, (Germany). This is a big fixture for the relatively inexperienced German referee, but big things are expected of him in the future.
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