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United have been flush with superb talent throughout its history, and often we have seen the emergence of specific trio’s to trigger our imaginations. From the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Best, Law and Charlton, to the more recent triumvirate of Ronaldo, Rooney and Ruud, United fans have been spoilt by the attacking talent on display. Now that Robin van Persie has joined Kagawa and Rooney at the club, in a move that has stumped City and one or two major European teams, United’s attacking options look supreme all of a sudden. In an era where fast paced attacking football is sacrosanct, and during what is a period of transition for Manchester United, van Persie’s addition is, and should be, welcomed with open arms. This piece aims to take a look at the potential attacking combinations on offer, and tries to second-guess Sir Alex in his thinking for the coming season.
Much discussion revolves around what the arrivals of Kagawa, and more pertinently, the Dutchman, may mean for Wayne Rooney. The acquisition of the attack-minded duo could have one of three effects on Rooney, United’s talisman: 1. Limit his time on the field due to rotation and incur his wrath; 2. His form suffers as it did in the second half of last season and Fergie’s wrath is incurred; (Sir Alex’s “Chilling ruthlessness” as Rob Smyth called it, knowing too well when a player can be sacrificed for the benefit of the team if he sees weakness.) or 3. Release the immense talent and strong mental fortitude that we know Rooney has but has latterly left behind, especially given the saga of October 2010.
We can only hope that it is the latter, the other two options equate to nothing more than a Rooney departure, with City and Real Madrid likely suitors. Last season, despite the glut of team goals, it became patently obvious that Rooney was suffering from not having a settled partner in crime. Despite the odd flourishes of genius and match-winning prowess (more often in tandem with Danny Welbeck), Wayne often wandered the pitch in search of the ball, in search of fitness, and in search of the spotlight. For it is here where Rooney often betrays what the manager first saw in the boy: an appetite larger than life and the mental strength to match; a willingness to play without ego, to focus on his role in the team and to ‘be there’ when it counted.
At times, Rooney’s preponderance for dallying on the ball, or even chasing the wrong man back into midfield meant the team suffered in front of goal; in fact the entire system was jeopardised. Two games stand out: Bilbao at home (and away to some extent) and Wigan away, which crucially, came close to the end of the season whilst United seemed to have an unassailable lead.
Against Bilbao, Rooney was often so far away from goal that he isolated Hernandez completely. Bielsa’s high-octane start meant that Rooney had to come deep, but it is when this is done without conviction and a strategy where United, and in particular Rooney, become ineffectual. His night was spent shooting from long distances, playing unrealistic through-balls and generally getting frustrated. Versus Wigan, it was much of the same story, and at times it was hard to watch, especially having gone a goal down. He came deep, he gave the ball away, and he was wasteful in and around the penalty area. The manager did what many fans have encouraged him to do for many a year when Wayne is in this kind of form, and pulled him from the game on the 64th minute.
It was the right decision, and it could well be argued that Fergie had his eureka moment then, realising that his team required more ammunition, another leader, but also a finisher and a composed artist in front of goal.
Youthful exuberance v attacking finesse
Welbeck had an outstanding season in context, and flourished at times in his first season back with the club. His touch and vision are sublime for someone so young, even if his finishing could do with a little varnishing. But he wasn’t consistent enough (or given the games to find it), which we should only expect for somebody at his stage of development. Which then says a lot for Hernandez and Berbatov, who collectively played less games than each of them did in the previous season alone.
The Mexican, having had a dream debut season suffered from a confidence lapse last, and thus poor concentration for large parts; it is now no longer discussed amongst the live support ‘if’ Chicharito will be offside during a crucial passage of play, but ‘how many times?’ His build-up play, and awareness in and around the box can often resemble a youngster who has just stepped up from C-category league. Some would argue that this is a harsh synopsis, and we would do well to remember the fine goals (Chelsea stands out for obvious reasons) he scored previously – but at a club like United, time cant afford to stand still. He is a tremendous prospect and should be retained, but in games such as the Wigan contest, and at times in Europe, a leader was required, a forward who can take that half-chance and caress the ball into the net instead of snatching a shot at the keeper like both he – and Welbeck – were prone to do.
A forward who can exchange positions with Rooney at ease, who can dictate the game from deep and rise to the big occasion; a forward who can assist United in reclaiming their league title when the City have just secured their first, and crucial premier league trophy, and have the aims on ‘superseding’ the reds. Van Persie is that man. He has pace, shooting precision, agility, strength and importantly, a confidence that doesn’t descend too often into arrogance. He has the finest left foot in the league, alongside David Silva, providing a balance within a 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3 system that could elevate United to new heights.
Why strengthen up front in particular?
The caveat of course is the ongoing debate on midfield functioning. It is valid to question a manager’s spending, especially when it involves £20m plus, and where would football be without debate, right? The line of thought seems to read something like this: If United have not signed a ‘Keane-like’ player in 6 years, how can we hope to progress as a club, and challenge for trophies; further how can we stomp up a similar sum for Robin to that Real have paid for Luka Modric?
Offering a perspective on why Ferguson may have chosen to go down this path – we have to start with the above ‘null hypothesis’ on success. In the last 6 years, since the procurement of defensive midfielder, Michael Carrick, we have seen a number of midfield combinations including the likes of Scholes, Fletcher, Anderson, Cleverley, Jones and Giggs (he was fine prior to last season). In the most important department of the team, we have succeeded in taking the game to the opposition, finding the right balance between attack and defence, and utilising the wide men with aplomb. This has borne itself out in four premier league titles (nearly five!), and three Champions League finals.
Now it is fair to say that Anderson has regressed in the last 18 months, and Fletcher has been mightily unfortunate thus ensuring the debate continues. Fergie will undoubtedly hold out on Fletcher, who is a fantastic talent on his day – yet he could sell Anderson. For one reason or another he seems willing to give him one more chance, or simply cant find a suitor for upwards of £13m. The decision, pre-season, then has to come down to this for the manager:
Does he sign a classic no. 10 that has been missing far more than a defensive/combative central player (see Rooney’s mixed role in the last 2 seasons), and thereafter, with the remaining money (given Modric’s preferences and Levy’s financial savvy), does he want to procure the services of either a) a second-tier centre midfielder, in the calibre of say Tiote or b) a world-class striker who could improve the attacking output of the team no-end. For me at least, it is an easy decision to make. But even if it was a close call, transfer gambles are just that – involving such fine lines, managers going with instinct on one option over another.
Then we have the final part of the trinity in the signing of Shinji Kagawa, a player whose contribution to Dortmund’s success last year (at a bargain of £300,000!) was nothing short of staggering. His position is something of a debate amongst United fans, and Fergie will certainly trying a few scenarios this season. By definition, it is worth remembering he is a midfield player, albeit an attacking central midfielder. He may play directly off the striker at times, and on a rare occasion (as for instance for the national team) he can start up front and play somewhat of a false 9 role – but he couldn’t be considered in the same bracket as say, Del Piero, or even Rooney himself. In fact, having seen a lot of his pivotal role for Dortmund, it is clear that he plays very much ‘in between the lines’ for the vast majority of the game, drifting into wide areas in order to link with the fullbacks – and coming inside to play short passing combinations with the forwards.
It is hard to find a comparison in European football, but Ozil isn’t too far off. He is a play ‘maker’, but not the focal point as the likes of Zidane and Rui Costa, or even Riquelme were. But he starts facing goal as opposed to away from goal, and prefers to affect the game from deep, often with a very direct style of play. He has balance on the ball, his vision is superb and he can play (and shoot) with both feet.
Kagawa can also play in a deeper creative role, and though better in a central three, there can be no doubting that Fergie will, at times, play the Japanese player in a midfield two – probably in partnership with Carrick who complements his style of play. With Rooney able to drop into the midfield (and the former Arsenal man too), we may well see this predominantly against the weaker teams in the league. Like Modric, his diminutive figure betrays a strength and purpose of mind in defensive situations, and given the focus on ‘the system’ in the defensive element, this shouldn’t be too much of a worry for United fans.
Finally Kagawa can drift in from a wide left starting position, again linking with the likes of van Persie and Rooney and getting beyond them at times to cause a goal threat, and create opportunities for others. With Park gone, he may well share duties there with Nani (or Young), with Valencia and Young alternating on the right according to the opposition.
With the arrivals of Kagawa, and the much-craved ‘big name’ in Robin van Persie, Fergie has some tactical dilemmas to ponder, and this can only be a good thing given our recent regression in Europe and the often-acerbic 4-4-2 application. Kagawa can play close to the forward duo in a number of formations, which could bring to life the fluid front four United were slowly evolving this past season. Carrick and Scholes (or a fit Cleverley) are more than capable of providing a solid base for the likes of Valencia and Nani to work with, and benefit from, the movement of van Persie, who is more likely than Rooney to be hitting the box for a poacher’s finish – but conversely, the striker’s recruitment could mean Rooney is able to function higher up the pitch. The Dutchman is able to exert his influence on the game from a left-side position too, specifically in a 4-3-3 set up, with the onus then on Rooney to rekindle his 2009 form and predatory instincts to boot. Exciting times.