Manchester United have already demonstrated this season that they are capable of overwhelming teams despite fielding what on first glance appears to be a conservative 4-5-1 formation, notably in the 3-1 Carling Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City in January.
They were at it again in the 4-0 win against Milan last week, when a side fighting hard for the Serie A title were simply torn apart by a United team fielding only one dedicated attacking player in the form of Wayne Rooney.
United’s tactics in that match (see right) saw Rooney fielded once again as a lone striker. Nani and Antonio Valencia were stationed on the flanks, with Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher occupying deep positions in central midfield. Park Ji-sung played a crucial role in the middle of the pitch by breaking forward to harass Milan’s deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo.
“Park made a sacrifice, and showed intelligence and discipline. We needed that against Pirlo who’s a very good player for Milan,” said United coach Sir Alex Ferguson.
Park subsequently spent a significant amount of time just in front of the Milan defence but his role was principally a destructive one. In United’s defensive phase, Rooney was the only player in the remote vicinity of the Milan centre-backs, with Park dropping back alongside Fletcher to present Milan with a five-man wall in midfield.
The key to United’s victory, as it was against City, lay in springing Park and Fletcher forward from midfield to add weight to United’s attacks. With Rooney having converted a cross from either flank to put United 2-0 up, Park and Fletcher killed the game off with late strikes in the second half. Both, crucially, had drifted into Milan’s penalty area unseen.
The principal purpose of the 4-5-1 is to give the team a solid base in midfield, but one by-product of the system is the manner in which it renders deep-lying opposition midfielders redundant by vacating the space usually inhabited by playmakers and attacking midfielders. One of the reasons for deploying midfielders to shield your defence is to prevent your opponent’s attacking players from exploiting the space that used to exist between defence and midfield in a traditional 4-4-2. But by completely withdrawing his midfielders from Milan’s defensive territory, Ferguson left Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini marooned – unable to engage with United’s attacking midfielders but prevented from picking out a team-mate upfield due to the wall of opposition midfielders ahead of them.
The system is even more effective against a 4-2-3-1, which Lille demonstrated in their 1-0 victory over Liverpool in the home leg of their Europa League last-16 tie last Thursday (see left).
Pierre-Alain Frau adopted the Rooney role at the tip of a 4-3-2-1, with Ludovic Obraniak and the precocious Belgian teenager Eden Hazard stationed on the flanks. Captain Rio Mavuba sat right in front of the Lille back four, while Yohan Cabaye and the bustling Florent Balmont prompted from midfield.
Lille modified the system by allowing Obraniak and Hazard to switch flanks and come infield from the touchline, but the formation was essentially very similar and meant that there were no attacking players occupying a fixed central position in support of Frau. Liverpool’s two holding men, Lucas and Javier Mascherano, were thus made to look redundant, as Lille’s midfielders scuttled forward from deep in possession only to retreat as soon as they conceded the ball.
Rafael Benitez tried to engage Lille’s midfielders by encouraging his defenders to play higher up the pitch, but he admitted after the match that it was a risky strategy given Lille’s threat on the counter-attack.
“You cannot defend against a team with this pace too high because they will get men behind but you cannot defend too deep because they have ability,” he said. “So for our defenders to defend and then go and support Fernando [Torres] was not easy.”
Key to the system’s efficacy is having multi-faceted players such as Fletcher and Balmont who can defend as well as attack. Against sides such as Liverpool and Milan, who rely on defensive midfielders such as Javier Mascherano and Massimo Ambrosini whose primary remit is to destroy, it can be extremely effective.
By prioritising versatility over defensive discipline, it may also herald a significant shift away from the specialist role of the holding midfielder. Perhaps the box-to-box midfielder is not quite dead after all.