Date: 10th June 2009 at 4:22am
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Before the Champions League final against Barcelona, Manchester United had played brilliant attacking football, both domestically and in Europe, relying essentially on a 4-6-0 formation. I think Alex Ferguson’s main tactical innovation, towards the end of the 07-08 campaign, and most of this past season, was this very tactic. While you might consider Tevez, Rooney, and Berbatov “strikers,” Ronaldo, Park, and Giggs “wingers,” and Carrick, Scholes, Fletcher, and Anderson “holding midfielders,” Ferguson interchanged many of these players, and all contributed offensively, and most defensively. I was reminded at times of Roma’s “revolving door” attack (before everyone figured it out), except United was less predictable, and incredibly fluid. Fortunately for everyone whose football consciousness is broader than the Stretford End, Ferguson (surprise, surprise!) was arrogant and flushed everything down the toilet in the final, playing essentially a 4-0-6. Once Barcelona`s midfield got the ball, they never gave it back, and the rest is history.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, City boss Mark Hughes could be, pending signings, in a similar tactical position as Ferguson was this past year. We already have an abundance of riches in midfield, and little in the way of target men or “pure” strikers. Signing Carlos Tevez would not change this, because while he is a striker, he is not an aerial target man. Jo could be some day, but it remains to be seen whether he can replicate his Everton loan form for City. Samuel Eto`o is certainly aerially competent (well, at least more so than Felipe Caicedo), but as Barcelona showed in the final, he is at his best in a mobile attack, cutting in, cutting out, and finishing fluid buildups. Unless we sign someone like Edin Dzeko, I don`t see our future being a traditional 4-4-2. But, if we follow the example set by (don`t take this the wrong way, Citizens) United, pre-Champions League final implosion, we can still be successful. And while Mark Hughes has occasionally fielded some dull squads, featuring Benjani, Richard “own goal” Dunne, and Michael Ball, this was often due to injury, petulance, or outright insubordination. Hughes has shown the ability to inspire some beautiful attacking football. I will remember this season for the wins versus Arsenal and Portsmouth as much as the loss to Nottingham Forest. The Robinho pass to Ireland for the second goal at Everton was as entertaining as anything outside of the Nou Camp last year.

This coming year, we should qualify for the Champions League. Anything less and Mark Hughes will be gone, and he knows this. So regardless of offensive strategy, we will need to concede fewer at the back, and this will mean replacing Dunne, maybe moving Kompany up, replacing Wayne Bridge, and either motivating Richards or replacing him. Some might argue that, given our goal record, we don’t need to even improve that much up front. But even with additions at the back, there will be injuries, rotations, and mistakes, and only a prolifically potent offense will get us to the mountain top. We have lots of talent in midfield, and the question Hughes will have to answer is how to get these guys on the field together and playing productively. Our best players include Robinho, Petrov, Ireland, and Barry, and there could be overlap. Tevez, a player who has occupied a similar place on the field (when playing) at United to Robinho, might also contribute to the congestion. Elano would too, but he probably already is looking at houses in Italy.

One solution would be to dump Robinho, buy whatever available target man, like an aging Van Nistlerooy and partner him with a second striker like a Tevez, and play 4-4-2 with Petrov and SWP on the wings, with Barry and Ireland in the middle. This would be unlikely to please either Khaldoon or the fans, nor would it bring in many goals. The truth is, 4-4-2 is an impractical and fairly anachronistic model of football rarely seen without some sort of wrinkle (4-1-2-1-2, 4-3-1-2, etc). My point is not to bash a formation responsible for England`s only World Cup triumph, but to suggest that forwards who mill around the box are not what we need. What I envision, and this is similar to some other City fans, judging by what I read in the forums, is something along the lines of Petrov, Robinho, Barry, Ireland, Tevez, and SWP. Such a plan would facilitate signings like Eto’o, because the pieces, especially the middle four, are interchangeable. And Robinho, Tevez, and Ireland could all slot out to the right.

Tactics like a 4-6-0 would allow flexibility, and De Jong, Kompany, or maybe even Xabi Alonso could come into midfield to hold things up, win balls, or just to tackle more. We will have a deep bench for our midfield if we don`t sell off both Elano and De Jong or if Michael Johnson ever comes back. I appreciate that someone could justify this as an elaborate excuse for a dearth of aerial prowess. Nonetheless, if one considers how far United went this year in just about every competition, propelled by a devilishly effective midfield, and that the only team that beat them, Barcelona, did much the same thing tactically over the second half of the season, it is an intriguing model. If you can’t look to Manchester United (even a United that will never exist again), look to Barcelona.

Barcelona were briefly predictable, domestically, over a stretch where Andres Iniesta was out with injury. Manager Pep Guardiola (who has, apart from all the trophies, had one of the great tactical seasons in recent memory) responded by increasingly moving around Eto’o, Henry, and Messi, including making the diminutive Argentinean the front man in the whole formation. Barcelona for much of the year were playing a 4-1-5-0 or a 4-6-0. Henry, Iniesta, Xavi, Toure/Busquest/Keita, Eto’o, and Messi acted like a giant midfield net, keeping the ball, moving quickly forward, all across the line. Their whole season played like Carlos Alberto’s famous World Cup 1970 goal for Brazil. Eto`o, Messi, and Henry grabbed most of the goals, but Xavi and Iniesta spent many a moment inside the opponents’ box, and they along with the more defensive midfielders came up offensively in key moments. A 4-6-0 would not mean that there would need to be balance on the score sheets, but it would mean an attack hard to mark, a game difficult for the opposition to predict, and possibly, contention for trophies. A quick glance at United and Barcelona standing side by side while the “champions” song played, compared to the in-game dominance Barca showed, reveals a simple fact: height will not trump skill. Someday soon, the Blue side of Manchester (aka, the Manchester side of Manchester) will have its hands on the Champions League trophy.