There are some things that you just can’t imagine particular managers doing. You couldn’t imagine Brian Clough tweeting, for example. Begin a conversation with ‘So, Brian, what you do, is you take a hashtag and...’ and you’d get clumped: game over.
You’d also be hard pressed to imagine Roberto Mancini saying his fringe wasn’t the most important thing in his life.
Most surprising, though, is that Alex Ferguson has decided that his best team doesn’t include a winger. It’s early to label it, of course, but what started at Cluj continued at Newcastle, where the team used a remarkably narrow line up. It’s at odds with Manchester United’s history, but given their deficeincies, gives them a chance of producing the required consistency to win the league this term.
The tradition is long established at Old Trafford. George Best, Steve Coppell and Andrei Kanchelskis are three obvious examples of United’s love affair with their bits on the side. There have been other heroes, but none who represented a similar tradition. In the modern era (I know, I only recently found out Sky didn’t invent the game too), Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo made their mark with the fearlessness of youth, and eventually became utterly crucial to the side.
When Ronaldo left, he wasn’t replaced with someone who could match his genius, instead Ferguson again reached for his fail-safe, a winger. Antonio Valencia is a relentlessly direct player, and his partnership with Wayne Rooney was enough to keep the side challenging for titles, all against the backdrop of a decaying midfield. Next, Ferguson again overlooked the gaping wound in the centre of the pitch and signed Ashley Young, yet another wide player.
As a result, United inevitably found themselves overrun in midfield. There was a chastening 3-0 defeat against Newcastle United last season. There was the farce as a lithe Athletic Bilbao dished out a humiliation. Most importantly, there was a bully ramming from Yaya Toure in the decisive clash at Manchester City.
While Manchester United fans united in vain hopes of actually signing a real life, genuine, existing and alive central midfielder, Ferguson was again provocatively stubborn, signing Shinji Kagawa. Having played on the left of midfield a couple of times, and it looked like Ferguson had simply decided to start turning people into wingers, rather than simply buying them. The match against Cluj and formation against Newcastle, though, suggests that Ferguson has come up with an unexpected solution to a now incredibly obvious weakness.
He’s lost the wingers. Ashley Young is injured but he was never convincing in big games, preferring to launch himself to the ground in search of cheap free kicks and cheat penalties. The rumours continue that this season will be Luis Nani’s last at Old Trafford, and Antonio Valencia is the most one dimensional winger - though what a dimension - at United for years. With four or five of Wayne Rooney, Tom Cleverley, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Kagawa, there’s no brute to repel Yaya Toure, or go like for like with the energy of Bilbao. There are, however, numbers. By focusing on the centre of the pitch, they compromise the strength of direct attacking by masking the weakness of flat-footedness.
Against the greatest teams, this won’t be enough. The danger is, without positional discipline, that the fullbacks are exposed. Against Paolo Maldini and Gary Neville (don’t laugh) that wouldn’t be a problem. Against, Patrice Evra and Rafael, who are effective attacking fullbacks, but borderline useless as defensive ones, wide players will burst into tears of joy as they saunter goalwards. This isn't necessarily disastrous. Given the paucity of genuinely good sides in the Premier League, if Ferguson has managed a system that allows Kagawa, Rooney and Robin Van Persie to start a game, all somewhere near their preferred positions, then it could just be enough to win the league.