The fallacy surrounding Manchester United in recent seasons has been that of the midfield diamond. A tactical concept, and a strategical structure, deriving at Manchester United from how Bobby Charlton was deployed in the 1960s.

A deep-lying center forward, alongside hard-tackling midfield creator-destroyers, such as Maurice Setters, Paddy Crerand, David Sadler, or Nobby Stiles. Bringing into play with long-range pinpoint passes, left and right wingers, for example, Johnny Giles, John Connelly, John Aston, and George Best. A former left winger himself, Charlton was known for success with his long-range shooting and passing game in the second half of the 1950s. He combined this with a short passing game of quick interchanges through the middle in the 1960s, carving out opportunities for forwards. Either Quixall, Herd, Law, Best, or Kidd, in their period of success. Beginning with the FA Cup in 1963, league titles in 1964-65 and 1966-67, and the 1968 European Cup, Charlton was United’s original diamond.

United’s diamond in the 1980s and 90s

The modern theory of the central midfield attacker, as an auxiliary forward, supporting a lone striker in front of him isn’t what Manchester United did with their diamonds. Alongside England captain Bryan Robson (1982-91) in English manager Ron Atkinson’s early 1980s United team, Ray Wilkins, and then Norman Whiteside, in a two-man midfield, were diamonds. While Wilkins, and later Whiteside, took the holding midfield role, Robson was free to move forward in support of the forwards and vice versa. The player going up the field was the lower point of the diamond in tactical terms. Meanwhile, the left and right wings were the corners of the diamond, with the striker constituting the sharper end.

However, there were twin strikers, which was the point that remained underemphasized in the era after Alex Ferguson’s managerial reign. With England’s Paul Scholes, United went on to amass 11 league titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, two Champions Leagues, and two Intercontinental Cup/World Club Cup wins with several sets of twinned strikers ahead of him in the diamond.

Scotland’s Brian McClair and Wales’ Mark Hughes, and Frenchman Eric Cantona, were responsible for United’s early success under Ferguson’s stewardship. However, both McClair and Hughes were there for Scholes when he made his debut in the 1994-95 season. United with McClair, then deployed in a deeper, midfield diamond role, Cantona, and diamond-hard Scholes won the FA Cup and League double once more. And they captured the title again in 1996-97 when Cantona retired.

Into the new millennium

Dwight Yorke (1998-2002; 48 goals) and Andy Cole (1995-2001; 93), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (1996-2007; 91) and Teddy Sheringham (1997-2001; 31), and Solskjaer and Ruud van Nistelrooy (2001-06; 95), were ahead of Scholes’ diamond. United completed the treble of the Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League in 1999. They then added the Intercontinental Cup for good measure. League titles followed in rapid succession; 1999–2000, 2000–01, and 2002–03, and the FA Cup in 2004.

The partnerships of van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha, Saha and Wayne Rooney, Rooney and Alan Smith, and van Nistelrooy and Rooney, brought League Cup success in 2006, and further successive titles. The pairings of Rooney and Argentina’s Carlos Tevez, Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov, Rooney and Berbatov, Berbatov and Javier Hernández, Rooney and Danny Welbeck, and Rooney and Robin van Persie, brought additional league and cup success as the first decade of the 2000s rolled towards an end. However, with Darren Fletcher injured in 2011-12, Scholes resumed his United diamond role in the FA Cup 3rd Round defeat of Manchester City. In 2012–13 the last of Ferguson’s, and Scholes’, titles was won.

The Manchester United midfield diamond, post-Ferguson

Successive managers have failed to approach the same level of success as Ferguson. This is primarily because they failed to understand the importance of the diamond to Manchester United.

Van Gaal thought he could play three center-halves. These included Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo Luke Shaw, and Daley Blind. Gaal’s strategy was allied to former wingers in the role of wing halves. Both fullbacks, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, had been right and left wingers before Ferguson switched them to defense. This tactic harkened back to the 1900s, when United had a famous halfback line of Duckworth, Roberts, and Bell, who won titles in 1908 and 1911, and the FA Cup in 1909.

Van Gaal experimented until victory in the 2016 FA Cup Final against Crystal Palace. By the time the lineups were announced, it was clear the Dutchman had accepted the United Way. The team took the field at Wembley Stadium employing the usual two-man midfield, wingers, and twin strikers. Wayne Rooney was billed to appear in the Scholes’ diamond role in midfield, behind Marcus Rashford as the lone striker. Valencia started the match, and Ashley Young came on in the 72nd minute as a left winger, as Italy’s Matteo Darmian had already replaced Rojo at left back in the 66th minute, where they flanked Daley Blind and Chris Smalling.

Carrick and Marouane Fellaini were in midfield, with Juan Mata and Anthony Martial on the left and right wings. Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford were the twin strikers. Winger Jessie Lingard came on in the 90th minute for Mata, who’d volleyed in left-footed a cross from Wayne Rooney into the penalty area to equalize. However, it was Lingard who scored the winning goal.

Mourinho arrives…

The win wasn’t enough to keep Van Gaal in the manager’s seat. José Mourinho, arriving via Chelsea, galvanized the players to win the club’s first Europa League trophy, against Ajax. They’d win the League Cup again, bringing in Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimović to pair with Marcus Rashford up front. Zlatan scored twice against Southampton, and United ran out winners, 3-2. Paul Pogba, winner of the 2011 FA Youth Cup with United against Sheffield United, was brought back by Mourinho for £89m to partner with Ander Herrera in midfield.

However, Carrick and Fellaini weren’t overlooked. For example, Fellaini played in the diamond behind Zlatan in the defeat of Ajax.

…and Mourinho leaves

Despite the arrival of Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku, United’s failure to capture the 2018 FA Cup led to Mourinho’s dismissal. The results largely resulted from United’s playing a 4-3-3 system, with Pogba in the center of a midfield that also contained Nemanja Matić and Herrera. Chilean forward Alexis Sánchez was brought from Arsenal in an ultimately disastrous January swap deal for the previous season’s Europa Cup-winning Henrik Mkhitaryan. Alexis would score only 3 times before joining Italy’s Inter Milan for their 2019-20 campaign. Together with Lingard and Rashford, Alexis couldn’t prey on United’s clipped wings, while the squad was similarly lacking in inventiveness from a midfield diamond.

Solskjaer takes the reins

The legendary Cristiano Ronaldo was brought back by Ole Gunnar Solskjær for the 2021-22 campaign for €15m from Italy’s Juventus, where CR7 had won Serie A titles in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

In the Europa League Final, Solskjaer had started with forwards Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani, and England’s Mason Greenwood, although Rashford and Greenwood were nominally left and right wings. With Fernandes as the diamond midfield creator, in front of central midfielders, Scot Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba, Ralf honored Bruno’s talent but denied United their traditionally successful paired twin striker combination with wingers. When Rangnick’s team drew with Atlético in the last 16 of the Champions’ Cup, Ronaldo and England’s Jadon Sancho were nominally the wingers, although the absence of the second striker was palpable, and the same was true of the second leg at home, which they lost, 0-1, with Fernandes in the diamond behind Elanga for the most part, rather than the more experienced Rashford, 11 league goals that season.

However, Solskjaer, whose side were runners-up in the league to City and Europa Cup finalists the previous season, was sacked on November 21st, 2021 with United seventh in the table.

United had to wait until the League Cup in 2023 for their next trophy, under Erik Ten Hag.

The Ten Hag era

Ten Hag was appointed on April 21st, 2022.

The Dutchman Ten Hag moved quickly in the transfer market, bringing in Lisandro Martinez from Ajax, and Dutch left-back Tyrell Malacia, to strengthen the defense. Christian Eriksen and the Brazilian Casemiro strengthened his midfield options, while Brazilian winger Anthony gave the team another attacking ploy. However, the role of Bruno Fernandes as the midfield diamond remained problematic, with the option of fielding a single winger, and two strikers, or three strikers, masquerading as left and right wingers, invariably prevailing to the detriment of the club’s desire for success.

Although scoring 18 times in the 2020-21 campaign, Bruno’s inability to fit into a midfield of two limited United’s striking capability. The 2023 League Cup Final defeat of Newcastle United with Wout Weghorst at center forward, who didn’t score, further exacerbated the issue. Left-footed Anthony appeared on the right wing, with center forward Rashford on the left, without a recognized goal scorer in the center. Although Casemiro, with a 33rd-minute header, and Rashford, with a 39th-minute strike, secured the trophy, it left the diamond looking rather offset.

Moreso, rivals Man City, then beat United 2-1 in the June 3rd F.A. Cup Final. United’s four-man midfield, including Eriksen, labeled AM (auxiliary midfielder), deployed Casemiro and Brazilian Fred in the center. Fernandes, nominally on the right wing, did score an equalizing penalty in the 33rd minute. City left-wing Jack Grealish was controversially judged by VAR to have handled the ball, as England’s United right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka attempted to head on. However, with only center forward Rashford and left winger Sancho recognizable as forwards, the diamond was perceivably out of its setting.

2023-2024 – make or break?

United has had nine defeats before January in the 2023-24 term, lying supine in seventh. They also didn’t qualify for the 2024 Europa League, finishing fourth in their Champions League group. With just one win against Copenhagen and a lone draw in six games, and already out of the League Cup, only time would tell if Ten Hag would be saved by another good cup run – or wingers and a pair of strikers.

With or without a midfield diamond or two, improvement at Manchester United can be seen waiting in the wings. Argentina’s Alejandro Garnacho joined United’s youth system from Atlético Madrid in October 2020 for £450,000, scoring a career-announcing twice from the left wing in United’s 2022 FA Youth Cup Final win over Nottingham Forest. He was alongside center midfielder Kobbie Mainoo, who had six first-team starts in 2023-24 before New Year’s Eve. Garnacho started five times, with 14 appearances as a substitute, in 2022-23, before a career-establishing 3rd-minute left-footed overhead kick in an away win at Everton.

Photos: Imago.