United's wingless revolution
If 1966 was a great year for English football, it was also a memorable time for one particular Scottish striker. Just after Dunfermline centre-forward Alex Ferguson concluded a 45-goal campaign, the most prolific of his career, England won the World Cup.
The latter was a triumph that owed something to a tactical rethink involving two of Manchester United's finest. Nobby Stiles was the destroyer at the base of the midfield, winning the ball for former winger Bobby Charlton, who enjoyed a freer role further forward. A nickname invented because of Alf Ramsey's system was given to the entire team: the wingless wonders.
It is a description that could rarely be applied to United. In the subsequent four-and-a-half decades, they have been wondrous at times but they have invariably been winged. The flanks have been manned, most notably by George Best and then by an unfortunate host of players damned by comparison with the Northern Irishman.
In Ferguson's never-ending reign, width has been a constant: Ryan Giggs had a two-decade shift on the left with Andrei Kanchelskis, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo the most prominent of his right-sided counterparts. Even when Ferguson, that arch proponent of 4-4-1-1, switched to 4-3-3 - especially during Carlos Queiroz's two spells as his second in command - there was a constant presence on the touchline. The men stationed on the sides have been as different as Wayne Rooney, a converted striker, Ji-Sung Park, a defensive-minded marathon runner, and Ronaldo, who defied the job description of supplier to act as the main scorer, but United have always had wingers.
Until now. Ferguson, the former shop steward who once led a strike, is considering turning into a revolutionary in his dotage. Wingers have been jettisoned in three matches - the Capital One Cup and Premier League games against Newcastle, and the Champions League clash with Cluj - and all were won. Selecting a quartet of central midfielders has its advantages and gives Ferguson an option.
"We have had some success playing with the diamond," Ferguson said. "The history of the club is always to play with wide players, particularly at Old Trafford, so I have a decision to make. If it turns out a consistent team selection for me, playing the diamond, it would be revolutionary because it is going against our history."
As United's living link to the past, Ferguson has rarely endorsed Henry Ford's famous theory that history is bunk. Nevertheless, the new shape suits some of his charges. Rooney flourished at the tip of a diamond in each of his three trials. It is a role, too, that could benefit Shinji Kagawa as, without shifting one to a flank, there is no way of accommodating the Englishman, the Japanese and Robin van Persie in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
"The initial reason for taking Kagawa was his ability to play behind the strikers," Ferguson said. "But players like Kagawa and [Tom] Cleverley can play very well in the diamond." Neither, arguably, is best deployed as one of two central midfielders - when Cleverley operates as such, it tends to result in open games where opponents are permitted a host of chances - but a quartet offers both more protection. They have safety in numbers.
"When we play the diamond, three central players can go forward," Ferguson argued. When they do so, however, it comes at a cost to the inheritors of a proud United tradition: the wingers. "In Nani, Ashley Young and [Antonio] Valencia, I have very good wide players," their manager added.
Indeed, Valencia, the 21st century Steve Coppell tribute act, is United's reigning player of the year and has tended to be Rooney's provider-in-chief; while Giggs has become a master of reinvention in his old age, the Ecuadorian's only involvement in the three-game experiment came as a replacement at St James' Park when United ditched the diamond to prevent being outflanked. Nani did not take the field in the same time while Young, out injured for eight weeks, is pencilled in for a return against Braga. That Cleverley and Kagawa sat out the Stoke game, however, suggests both are likely to start at his expense and that the diamond will return.
"Making yourself unpredictable is going to be a strength," Ferguson said. "Teams will have to think if we are going to play two wide players or the diamond."
It adds another element to the question of how to stop United. Since Ferguson wholeheartedly embraced squad rotation, predicting his team has become a task that has confounded many. Now the guessing game extends to the shape of his side. And for a manager who prefers secrecy, the hint of mystery is another of the diamond's selling points.