Sir Alex Ferguson has used permutations of both 4-4-2 and 4-3-3/4-5-1 in recent seasons, but the spectacular strike rate of Wayne Rooney in the latter system and the poor performances of United’s other strikers made it their preferred set-up for the latter stages of 2009-10. However, as the England striker is still struggling for form and fitness, Ferguson reverted to his old 4-4-2 for Sunday’s Premiership clash with Fulham at Craven Cottage.
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United’s defence was unchanged from their opening day victory against Newcastle; Nemanja Vidic partnered Jonny Evans in the centre as Rio Ferdinand is out until late September with a knee injury. United’s ironman of the last few seasons, Patrice Evra, continued at left back and John O’Shea was set out on the right side. Paul Scholes again started alongside Darren Fletcher, while Park was preferred to Nani on the left wing and Valencia provided a more attacking option down the right flank. Dimitar Berbatov operated as the more reserved of the two centre-fowards, dropping deep off of Javier Hernández, who made his first Premier League start.
Last year’s league runners-up started extremely brightly, powered again by the attacking verve of the nearly ageless Paul Scholes. Just like he did against Newcastle, Scholes bossed the game from central midfield. He dropped deep to receive the ball from the defence and brought it out with quality runs and passes. Fletcher was much more reserved and played more square passes with his more limited opportunities on the ball. United benefited from Fulham’s conservative approach in the first half, controlling possession as the home side stood off and defended deep, even after Scholes’ early opener. Unfortunately for United, they did not get much quality from their wide players – Antonio Valencia had a poor game and playing Park against mid-table opposition seemed a strange selection. While Evra had more licence to get forward because Park can drop in to cover, O’Shea did not provide much of an attacking outlet on the right, and United played much better when they kept the ball in the centre.
As the game went on, Fulham became more aggressive and exploited United’s paucity of attacking options. While Scholes was excellent again, both ideas and application were lacking elsewhere. Even if he can play twenty-five or thirty games this season, the wingers will have to raise their level significantly for United to push Chelsea for the title. Nani provided a much more positive option than Park when he came on with twenty minutes to go, but neither he nor Giggs played up to their (admittedly very high) standards. The result could have been different if Nani had scored his penalty, but in the long-term view, the Red Devils need more attacking intent from their central midfielders, aside from Scholes, and their wide play from the wingers and wide midfielders must improve. Rafael, of course, would provide a more aggressive option from right back, and with United hosting West Ham next weekend we could see O’Shea making way for the Brazilian. Also disappointing was the link-up play of the strikers; Hernández had a fair time of it as the more forward of the pair, but Berbatov wasn’t able to smooth the transition from midfield to attack. In a 4-4-2 it is imperative that a team get quality delivery from wide areas or one striker drops deeper, receives and moves the ball effectively to link the two forward bands.
While we saw some of United’s frailties on show against Fulham, they were hampered by the absence of Rooney and will surely appear a different side when he is back in the team. The jury is far from out on this group, and we’ll take another look at them when Rooney returns and Ferguson returns to 4-3-3.