Manchester United-Chelsea: The Virtues of a 4-2-4-0

Dimitar Berbatov is almost assured to be included in Sir Alex Ferguson's starting XI against Chelsea on Saturday. The merits of such inclusion are still debatable. (Photo: ZumaPress)

Wayne Rooney’s injured ankle seems to force Dimitar Berbatov into the lineup for Manchester United’s Saturday meeting with Chelsea, but despite the relative paucity of striking options at Sir Alex Ferguson’s disposal, Berbatov need not be the only answer.

That is not to say Ferguson need look to little used options like Mame Biram Diouf or Federico Macheda in a match of Saturday’s magnitude; however, Ferguson should not feel obliged to insert Berbatov merely because he is the only ready-for-prime-time striker.

Not that Ferguson ever feels obliged to do anything.

Still, Ferguson need not feel obligated to start a striker and by extension start Berbatov, and while a formation without a striker sounds avant garde, it has been shown possible. Those who follow Valencia could argue that David Villa is not a number nine, but more definitively, there has been a team in Italy that nearly won the Serie A while playing without a lead striker.

Many of Luciano Spalletti’s AS Roma teams would typically play without a number nine, employing Francesco Totti as a deep number ten amidst a swarm of active midfielders – players like Simone Perrotta, Rodrigo Taddei, and Matteo Brighi, with Daniele de Rossi and Davide Pizarro reinforcing the formation’s spine. With Mirko Vucinic providing a second, class scorer, Spalletti built an entire system around no strikers: a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-3-1-0, since he had nobody assigned to play along the opponent’s line.

Francesco Totti's unique skills in distribution, finishing, and hold-up play allowed Luciano Spalletti to go without a traditional striker for much of his tenure at AS Roma. (Photo: ZumaPress)

In 2007-08, Roma, playing largely with this set-up, would come within three points of winning the Serie A, losing the scudetto to Internazionale.

That brings us back to Dimitar Berbatov and the idea that, without Wayne Rooney, Berba should be automatically included in Saturday’s starting XI. Let’s consider Berbatov’s role, responsibilities, and what he will likely be asked to do on Saturday, should he be selected.

Though he will drift from in his positioning, Berbatov will be rasked with testing John Terry and Alex in the middle of Chelsea’s defense, but while Chelsea’s back line has become a collection of relatively slow options, playing Berbatov prevents United from fully exploiting this weakness, particularly if United tries to play through him, as they are apt to do when he drops back into midfield.

Although Berbatov is a skilled, creative player, his style slows down play. He is more apt to absorb play than build it. The ball is played to his feet and he will collect and consider. Often, this is a good thing, as it will allow players like Antonio Valencia and Nani to use their speed and find space, knowing Berba can find them.

But this tact is more apt to work against a disorganized defense – one which will find itself out of position and exploited by those off-the-ball runs. Berbatov’s deliberate manner will only help John Terry, Alex as well as John Obi Mikel, who is apt to poor decisions (and fouls) against active attacks. Michael Ballack will also have an easier time if United uses Berbatov as a central component of attack. Likewise, Frank Lampard’s Saturday gets much easier.

It’s no revelation to note Chelsea is older and slower, and though there is a beautiful element of skill and fluidity to their attack when they are rolling, Chelsea has has become more readily described as methodical than explosive – particularly over the last two months, particularly against quality opposition.

And that brings us to Manchester United and the personnel choices they face ahead of Saturday’s match.

What would be the virtues if Ferguson were to harken back to his experiences preparing for his Champions League battles with AS Roma, remember the viability of a striker-less attack and decide to set-up the same way, leaving his mercurial Bulgarian as a late game substitute, to serve as a outlet when preserving a lead or as a target when chasing a goal?

The biggest benefit is being able to get Ryan Giggs on the pitch. With Berbatov in, it’s difficult to get the playmaker (at least, he’s one of United’s best playmakers) into the starting XI without canceling out another, greater advantage.

Ryan Giggs (l), pictured with striker Dimitar Berbatov, may be the better option on Saturday for Manchester United. (Photo: ZumaPress)

Obviously, Giggs will not start at the back, which is likely to feature Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and one of Gary Neville or Rafael de Silva. Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher will almost certainly play as deep-lying midfielders (though Carrick’s presence allows Fletcher to pop-up where he’s needed), while Paul Scholes, having started on Tuesday, is unlikely to start consecutive matches.

Nani and Valencia playing together (on opposite wings), is how United can utilize major advantages over Chelsea weaknesses: Paulo Ferreira and Yuri Zhirkov. Neither fullback can handle United’s opposing winger, and is an advantage Sir Alex Ferguson must exploit.

With Wayne Rooney out, Manchester United needs Park Ji-Sung, particularly high, in the middle of the pitch. His work rate will help apply high pressure to Chelsea’s back line, whereas Berbatov’s will not.

Given Berbatov’s tendencies, Park is just as likely to force positioning decisions from Terry and Alex. Park is more likely than Berbatov to move along and through the line the way Rooney does.

Unfortuntely for United, Park does not possess one-third of Rooney’s finishing skill. While Ji-Sung may be able to make similar runs and drag defenders with him as he does, he is far less apt to make Chelsea pay should they fail to do so.

But beyond what he contributes to attack, Park’s tracking back to disrupt Lampard and Ballack through the middle is the best way to mitigate one of Chelsea’s strengths. The quicker Chelsea’s two central midfielders have to make decisions, the more likely it is Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher will be able to destroy attacks before they manifest.

If you see all of Park, Nani, and Antonio Valencia playing, then there is one spot in the lineup left, and while it would logically go to Dimitar Berbatov (since we haven’t named a striker yet), the idea of putting Giggs in the middle of the pitch, having his ability to distribute wide to Nani and Valencia or picking out the ever-active Park is a scenario that should give Chelsea nightmares.

At least, it should give Chelsea more nightmares than having to deal with Dimitar Berbatov.

In this formation, Park would play as a withdrawn striker, with Giggs as an advanced midfielder - United employing no traditional striker.

In this set-up, Giggs and Park would be virtually interchangeable. As Park’s ability to track-back is utilized, Giggs would be the most advanced, central player. With the ball played to him, United would be able to distribute wide to Nani and Valencia as well as utilize Fletcher’s ability and willingness to jump into attack.

And there lies another virtue of playing all of Giggs, Nani, Park and Valencia together: interchangeability. If you consider the roles that they would occupy as two wingers, one central (attacking) midfielder and one “withdrawn” (from what?) striker, each member of the quartet would be able to fill at least three of the other roles.

Park can play all four of those spots, as can Nani. Valencia has played sometimes more centrally for Ecuador, while Giggs can play any of those positions except on the right.

This flexibility allows Ferguson to shift players around to exploit match-ups, respond to weaknesses, and apply pressure to the back line, knowing the versatility of your advance midfielders allows them to account for each other as one advances to apply high pressure to the Chelsea back line.

And should Ferguson decide to play for a nil-nil, having another player in the starting XI who can play deeper on the pitch would not hurt.

Regardless, starting Dimitar Berbatov is not a fait accompli. Just because Wayne Rooney is not available does not mean you need to replace your striker. As Spalletti showed and as the match-ups dictate, you do not need to play a striker.

Manchester United’s best formation Saturday may exemplify that. United may be best going with a 4-2-3-1-0; or, more readily (given Park Ji-Sung’s normal role), a 4-2-4-0.

26 thoughts on “Manchester United-Chelsea: The Virtues of a 4-2-4-0”

  1. mikel and ballack can handle anything thrown at them by such a weak midfield(mikel is a beast against most slow deliberate midfielders which all the players listed are).

    The wingers are the key for manUs chance to win. If anything berbatov will be useful because nani likes to cut in which means berba can be a very good link up player. Park will be manhandled by alex and terry. if manU can take advantage of chelsea’s weak right side they can make the most of their chances but they better be ready to take care of malouda and zhirkov who on attack are formidable.

    1. Mikel will NEVER be beast, rubbish at best. You talk as if Chelsea is the better team. Thank you for your entertainment. Good luck in Champions League. Whoops!

  2. Having Park, Giggs, Nani and Valencia as four attacking midfielders would definitely give Chelsea nightmares in terms of marking. Nani, Valencia and Park have tremendous speed, while Giggs has the vision to thread through the perfect pass or cross.

    If it doesn’t work, they can always sub Berbatov in for Park so that Berba can play up top.

    The Gaffer

  3. Pay no attention to the Sir Cecil’s of the World – they know not of what they say.

    Fantastic tactical breakdown.

  4. Good breakdown, but it is not going to play out like this. Wouldn’t be surprised if Carrick doesn’t play (he wasn’t so hot on Wednesday) in favor of Berba in that lineup. Fergie may also play Park on a wing to neutralize some perceived threat as he often does. Plus I think you’ll get Nev at RB, not Rafael DA Silva.

  5. And AS Roma won what exactly with these tactics?


    Absolute nonsense to consider playing without a striker and it will never EVER take off as it has clearly been proved to be ineffective. Ferguson never plays for a draw, home or away, regardless of opposition.

    1. AS Roma has won three titles in the history of Serie A. They have an ownership group that has become the Romanistas’ bane for not properly financing a world class club. It is only out of the loyalty that players like Totti and de Rossi have to the fans that Roma has continued to be one of the top sides in the Serie A.

      Taking this team to within a match day of the title speaks to the efficacy of this tactic. To note them not winning anything would be akin to saying Tottenham has never had a tactical plan because they have never qualified for Champions League or won the league. It doesn’t make sense. You can have effective tactics yet still fail to reach the top 5% of the league that embodies the league’s champion.

      Regarding Ferguson never playing for a draw, perhaps you forgot the away leg of their Champions League quarterfinal at the San Siro last year? Perhaps you also are forgetting the away leg of the semifinal against Barcelona the preceding tournament?

      Sorry to sound crabby, but of your comment’s four retorts, I find none of them viable. If you have more to offer, I’d be thrilled to read it.

  6. Why do people hate Berba and want him to fail? He has more talent that Rooney, Lampard, and Gerrard combined! The guy creates magic on the field, opens up spaces for his teammates, his intelligence on and off the ball should be studied by little 10 and 11 year old kids as to how to play the beautiful game.
    I know why he is not liked in England. He doesn’t beat up a DJ (Gerrard), cheat on his wife w/ his best freind’s girlfriend (Terry), buy hookers (Rooney), act like a complete douche (Ashley Cole-this moron published 2 autobiographies by the time he was 25; what a mistake of nature he is), in other words, unlike other England “stars”, Berbatov doesn’t have an IQ of negative 43 as most other English thugs-turned footballers.
    After pratice, he goes home to his newborn girl and girfriend.
    I understand that Berba will never be a Cantona as some expected, that he is not a leader on the field, but his contribution for Man Utd this season is being forgotten on purpose by the “pundits”, in favor of the golden boy, Rooney.
    Berba MUST start tomorrow. He is a creative force, he is the type of player who makes his teammates look better when he is playing. He already has 12 goals in the Premier League this season, which is not too shabby.
    I am amazed listening to commentators every time Berba plays; there is a certain negative attitude there that I don’t understand. It’s like everyone in England wants him to fail…disgusting!

    1. I don’t hate Berbatov, and against almost any other team in the league, I think he should start.

      Bolton had a lot of the same defensive shortcomings that I highlight with Chelsea. Berba started against them, had a mixed performance, but I support his inclusion there.

      Why there and not here? One is Bolton and one is Chelsea. Chelsea is a completely different level.

      Your implication of Berbatov being a automatic inclusion clearly is not shared by the “pundit” who matters most: Alex Ferguson. Berbatov has started 19 of 32 league fixtures this season, far from an automatic player. In Champions League, Berbatov has stared once in nine matches.

      Put together, Berbatov has 20 starts in 41 matches.

    2. I have never gotten the Berba hate thing. OK, he glides rather than gallops. That doesn’t make him lazy. He is stoic rather than demonstrative. That doesn’t mean he is indifferent.

      Personally, I find him fun to watch. He is not the “second coming” of anyone and just needs to be appreciated for the skills that he does have. 12 goals in the time he has had on the pitch is pretty impressive.

      Must Fergie start him? Of course not, but I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t and I think Man Utd will be the poorer for it.

        1. Agreed. On Berbatov, I think his positioning hurt United, and the ball in the 23rd minute where he was momentarily on goal – he’s got to get that shot off. Instead, it looked like he was going to try to spin around Lampard, and Frank made a very nice play to dispossess.

          Berba had a moment of brilliance early in the match were he beat (I believe it was) Ferreira and got to the line but then played the cross straight to Alex’s feet. People will say “look at that,” but ultimately, his actions hurt the team by giving away possession in the penalty area, killing off the attack.

          He is a very good player, but he has pocks, and we saw them today. I’ll stand by my contention that leaving him out would have improved United’s chances.

          1. “I’ll stand by my contention that leaving him out would have improved United’s chances.”

            No way to tell. You win. 😉

    3. You lost me at Berbatov “has more talent that Rooney, Lampard, and Gerrard combined! The guy creates magic on the field”

      Absurd statement. Do you notice that Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard all start and excel for their clubs? Berba can’t even get in the starting XI, and don’t tell me you’re ready to question Ferguson, because he knows much more about football than any of us will ever know.

    4. Ivan most people that watch football don’t know what a good footballer is.

      Berbatov is an incredible footballer and hes one of the most talented to put on a pair of shoes. He’s kind of like the Premier Leagues Ibrahimovich. A lot of people give Ibrahimovich slack too but simply put the man is an incredible player.

      Berbatov hasn’t been started a lot this year because he has a knee inury but out of 20 starts in 40 games he has gotten 12 goals. If you do the math if he played as much as other players in the league who get a regular start he would be one of the top scorers in the league this year.

      You want to know why Berbatov hasn’t been played a lot this year?

      He was supposed to go under the knife when his nagging injury got worse but United delayed the surgery. Obviously we have to play him less till he has his surgery in the summer. Next year you can hold me responsible if he isn’t a regular starter at United.

      Don’t let a few idiots fool you into thinking Berbatov isn’t appreviated Sir Alex Ferguson is the best manager on the planet and he has praised Berbatov time and time and time again since hes joined United. Look at what he had to say about Berbatov only a week ago. All the United team also respect Berbatov and so do most educated United fans.

      It’s mostly the bitter losers from a lot of other teams that launch attacks on Manchester United players. They talk a lot of crap though last year they claimed United relied on Ronaldo and would fail without him. This year they are saying United rely on Rooney, next year it’ll be Van Der Sar and they will keep making miserable excuses because all they will have is misery since they only lose.

      1. There seems to be an emerging straw-man in this thread:

        Dimitar Berbatov isn’t good.

        The only time that sentiment has appeared has been when it’s coming off the fingers of people who think Berbatov is Ibrahimovic-esque, quite a quirky notion. The day somebody gives up a 30+ goal scorer plus €40m for Berbatov will be a surprising day indeed (not that it wasn’t surprising when Barça paid that for Ibra).

        I’m not sure anybody who watched Wednesday’s match at the Emirates thought, “that guy Barcelona has. He’s just like Berbatov!”

        I’m actually giggling a bit, but I digress.

        Nobody has said Berbatov isn’t good except for the people who actually think him great. I suppose that makes their hyperbole easier to argue. He’s clearly not great, but he’s also clearly good.

        It is only the purporting that Berbatov is great that forces others to retort that he has been selected to start in less than fifty percent of his teams matches.

        The injury deserved mention, but was he injured on Tuesday in Munich? Clearly not. He came on as a sub.

        This whole article and discussion is about the options United has. To say they have other options than a man who Ferguson has found worthy of starting 20 times this season seems obvious.

        I actually feel foolish for my article’s exposition. Nobody who follows the league should need it explained that Berbatov could conceivably start on the bench.

        BTW, anybody want to venture how many starts Wes Brown – who we can all agree was not a first choice when healthy – has for United, between league and Champions League. I’ll give you a hint: the number appears in this comment.

        1. 1: Eto had a dispute with the management at Barcelona and they wanted to get rid of him.

          2: Eto has scored 13 goals in 33 appearances this year.. so much for 30+ goal scorer. Maybe if you thought about this you would realize a large part of Etos high goal count had to do with the service he was getting from Xavi, Iniesta, Alves, Messi and Henry.

          In fact he scored more at Barcelona the last year than he scored in his first three years combined at Mallorca. He is not a 30+ goal scorer hes just a good player on the receiving end of the best midfield on the planet and a team that affords him endless opportunities for goal scoring. He has only one more goal than Berbatov this year and he has played a full 90 minutes on many more occasions.

          3: So your conclusion is based on a single match a week ago? Wow.

          Ferguson doesn’t need to play Berbatov if Rooney is doing a fine job. Why not save a clearly injured Berbatov for when he is needed. Also you don’t seem to understand about the injury. He has been given less play time on purpose so the nagging injury doesn’t get aggravated. The more minutes he plays the higher the risk of something going wrong. With Macheda, Owen and Diouf injured he had no choice but to play Berbatov very sparsely and common sense dictates that when you are winning your games and progressing you don’t risk your players.

          Saying United have options is hardly rocket science in fact its common sense. I remember reading Rooney has missed I think 9 games this season and United have won 8 of those games and drew in the other one. United obviously have options the whole squad is full of talent and numerous players have scored this year nobody is disputing that the dispute is about Berbatov hatred because people can’t get their head around the way he plays.

          Ferguson has forgotten more than everybody on this website combined knows about football I’d say hes in a better position to judge when, where and how to use his players.

          1. Tyson,

            I apologize if the tone of this discussion has gone toward the negative.

            Ferguson has forgotten more than everybody on this website combined knows about football I’d say hes in a better position to judge when, where and how to use his players.

            I completely agree. I will just observe again that Berbatov has started 20 of 41 matches in Champions League and the Premiership. He has been subbed out of another ten in the Premiership, meaning he has gone the full ninety in less than 25 percent of his team’s matches.

            Looking at that, I would contend Berbatov may actually deserve more playing time. However, we should bow to Sir Alex’s judgement.

            BTW, something I wrote last month about Samuel Eto’o:


            Samuel Eto’o’s summer departure from FC Barcelona was derided by supporters who saw the mercurial Cameroonian lead their treble-winning side in goals, but there should have never been any real doubt that Barcelona was getting the better of their swap with Internazionale, getting (and paying for) the talent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

            And Ibrahimovic, in September:


            Alves plays the ball to his right. Messi’s alone and puts a ball to the fall post. There, Zlatan Ibrahimovic heads the ball in for the opener.

            It’s not only a goal that Barcelona doesn’t score last year (they have nobody besides Gerard Pique who has that height, and Pique does not come up in this situation), it’s a play don’t even attempt.

            Samuel Eto’o is a great player, but he’s no Ibrahimovic.

            But the stats are appreciated.

  7. Great breakdown, but I have to agree that Park would never cause fits for Terry and Alex, he is at his best when there is a striker occupying the two CB’s, and without one he would cause little damage.

    I really like the idea though, because Chelsea are a relatively slow side with exception of Malouda. The game truly rests on the fullbacks: Neville, Ferreira, and Zhirkov, who are all weak links. Ferriera cannot handle Nani, and Neville cannot handle Malouda, who has largely been Chelsea’s player of the year in the second half. Can’t wait for the game! Get here already.

    1. Tend to agree re: Park, Patrick. Park’s key would be his movement and trying to pull Alex and Terry and ruin Chelsea’s shape/organization.

      I think this is more of Park and this tactic being (potentially) a better option than just saying “well, Rooney’s out. I guess w have no choice. Start Berba.”

      There are choices.

  8. Good breakdown of the upcoming game Richard Farley, very in-depth. However, it seems that everyone is missing one big factor to this game. This is the fact that the blow of Rooney injury blow will surely be lessened by the hurting backline of Chelsea. Chelsea is currently missing 5 quality defenders if I counted correctly and like you said that leaves the wingers of Man U with an advantage.

    A lot of people are trying to compare Man U’s Europe and league games. The thing about that is they fail to realize when comparing Man U’s league games and Euro games is the simple fact that SAF uses strategys that are quite different from his league games. He is one of the few managers that seem to do this and it has worked for him just fine.

    It is my belief that Man U is going to keep a smiliar roster to what it would of done if Rooney is healthy and just insert Berbatov. I can see them playing the wings a lot to exploit Chelseas injurys in the back while trying to keep the pace up hoping Berbatov will be able to get his head on a few trying to use him almost as a pure finisher.

    1. I agree with you Patrick. At least, if I had to bet money, we will see a team very similar to the one that started at Bolton. And it very well might work, too. I wrote this piece to lay out another option, but matches are most often decided by things other than formation.

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