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.
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.
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 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.