thumbnail Hello,

Manchester United have switched between their regular 4-2-3-1 formation and a diamond setup this season and the unpredictable nature of their forwards could prove a weapon

COMMENT
By Oliver Platt

The cynics would argue - quite legitimately - that Manchester United conceded two goals again and benefited greatly from two red cards but the facts are that Sir Alex Ferguson's team inflicted upon Chelsea their first defeat in the Premier League this season and their first at Stamford Bridge against the 19-time champions in over 10 years.

United would always need some good fortune at a stadium that they have found consistently difficult to visit, with or without the presence of Roman Abramovich. Before Sunday, the Blues were the only team to boast a positive record against the Red Devils in the Premier League era but Chicharito's controversial goal made it 13 wins each.

The same problems persist. Again, United gave their opponents an opportunity that they should not have had. Against Braga, that came in the shellshock of Alan's early double. This time, United took a two-goal lead largely thanks to Robin van Persie but allowed Chelsea to creep back into the fixture with goals either side of half-time.

Having drawn within a point of the hitherto unbeaten league leaders, though, Sir Alex might be more inclined to focus on the positives for now. Of those, Petr Cech had a better view than David de Gea.

UNITED THEY STAND
 PLAYER RATING | ROBIN VAN PERSIE

Showcased superb movement for his team's first two goals and looked dangerous whenever his team gave him the ball.
 PLAYER RATING | WAYNE ROONEY

The key to the success of his team's gameplan early on, linking play brilliantly going forward and tracking back into midfield when his team were out of possession. Resorted to tired and cynical challenges as the game wore on, however, and was withdrawn for his own good with 15 minutes left.
 PLAYER RATING | ANTONIO VALENCIA

A display which makes it hard to see why the muscular Ecuadorian does not start more often. Defensively aware, he pinged a pinpoint cross in for Van Persie early on and gave Cole kittens all day.
The 70-year-old manager has experimented with a diamond formation which he claims is "revolutionary because it is going against our history". That setup delivered a 3-0 victory over Newcastle but many of the same problems at the back remained against Braga and the more familiar 4-2-3-1 was restored for the trip to the Bridge.

It is always difficult to tell with Sir Alex whether decisions like this are of tactical design or simple instinct. He joked in his pre-match press conference that he did not want to upset 80-year-old Margaret from Rochdale, who phoned in to a programme on the club's MUTV channel last week to complain about the new formation. "I don't like it," she lamented. "It's going to give me a heart attack and I'm 80. You wouldn't like to give me a heart attack, would you?"

Whatever his reasoning, it worked - at least in spells. Van Persie, with seven goals in nine top-flight matches, is the undisputed first-choice striker but Wayne Rooney looks increasingly at home in a deeper role. His key shortcoming as a No.10 in the past has always been his striker-like defensive play, or lack of it, but here he tracked back responsibly to give United a central midfield three that more effectively combated the hosts' potent attack.

Undoubtedly, Rooney tired as the match wore on and, if Sir Alex had not ended his involvement after 74 minutes, referee Mark Clattenburg might have not long afterwards. Rooney is beginning to prove, though, that his underwhelming displays in the same role for England might have something to do with the quality of the players around him. With Van Persie and Chicharito, he has flourished.

MANCHESTER UNITED LATEST
4/1 Manchester United are 4/1 with Bet365 to score over 2.5 goals against Chelsea
The real tactical advantage gained by the dispensing of the diamond, though, was on the flanks. It is Chelsea's clear area of weakness, not so much in their personnel at full-back but more in the lack of protection that they afford to Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole. Against weaker teams, the duo might maraud into all kinds of space - only Juan Mata and Fernando Torres have scored more goals for the Blues than Ivanovic this season -  but when they come under pressure, as they did early on in Sunday's match, vulnerabilities rear their head.

Ashley Young and, in particular, Antonio Valencia took advantage. Young played a part, with Rooney, in setting up Van Persie for the first goal, which bounced in off David Luiz, before Valencia left the Dutchman with a relatively simple task to double the lead eight minutes later.

The right winger is a simple player - a traditional wide man in the truest sense. He could even be described as predictable. It did not matter that Cole knew what was coming, though; he still could not stop it. It would be wrong, too, to suggest that his game has not developed and evolved since he debuted in the Premier League with Wigan six years ago. Goals are still not in great supply but his effectiveness in more central areas has improved.

The debate over the diamond will continue but what might be more of a weapon for United than a single system is the flexibility that their array of attacking talent allows. "Teams will have to think if we are going to use two out wide or the diamond because we have players capable of doing both things," Sir Alex noted. That could yet prove their biggest strength.

Follow Oliver Platt on

Related

From the web