With the arrival of Portuguese winger Nani and Brazilian attacking midfielder Anderson at Old Trafford apparently imminent, Alex Ferguson appears to be confirming his conviction in the fluid 4-2-3-1 formation that he adopted in the second half of the 2006-2007 season.

Many observers have declared that a frontman must be Ferguson’s chief priority in the transfer window, but the signings of Owen Hargreaves, Nani and Anderson suggest a distinct change of emphasis.

Talented attacking midfielders are one commodity which United – in Scholes, Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo – possess in abundance. So why sign two more?

It is my belief that Ferguson envisages a new shape for the new team he hopes to propel to greatness over the coming seasons. A Gattuso-Pirlo-style midfield axis of Hargreaves and Carrick will support a trio of attacking midfielders capable of playing on either flank and interchanging positions at will. They provide the attacking impetus for the team – much as Rooney, Ronaldo and Giggs did last season – reducing the frontman to the role of mere link-up player. As a consequence, the need for a Samuel Eto’o/Fernando Torres-style 25-goals-a-season striker diminishes.

Here’s how United might line up at the start of the 2008-2009 season:

1. Ben Foster
2. Danny Simpson
3. Patrice Evra
4. Rio Ferdinand
5. Nemanja Vidic
6. Owen Hargreaves
7. Cristiano Ronaldo
8. Michael Carrick
9. Louis Saha (?)
10. Wayne Rooney
11. Anderson/Nani

Louis Saha might not be United’s first-choice centre forward by then, but in the context of the present discussion the incumbent of the number 9 shirt matters not. In this 4-2-3-1, Carrick and Hargreaves protect the back four, and Rooney, Ronaldo and Anderson/Nani buzz around in support of the striker.

The team has an English spine (Foster, Ferdinand, Carrick, Hargreaves, Rooney) supplemented by Portuguese/Brazilian flair on the flanks. The trio of Ronaldo, Rooney and Anderson/Nani can change positions at will, and Giggs can be brought on to replace any of them.

The result is a team with a solid centre, pacy wings and a bewildering array of attacking talent capable of blowing through even the most disciplined defence. With six players allocated predominantly defensive responsibilities, the team is compact and hard to break down, but with three pacy young players largely absolved of such duties, it is a team which would be even more devastating on the counter-attack than Jose Mourinho’s 4-3-3. In theory.

Of course Ferguson might now go out and spunk £50 million on David Villa and prove that this is all bollocks. So we’ll just have to wait and see…

Ryan Giggs - destined to be remembered as the second best Welsh footballer behind John CharlesRyan Giggs is to retire from international football after Saturday’s game against the Czech Republic in Cardiff. The timing of the announcement may create a sense of shock, but it’s not really that big a surprise.

It is now unfortunately the norm for players seeking to prolong their careers to announce their retirement from international football, even though they seem fully capable of representing their country.

Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes are two recent examples, and while Shearer’s departure left a void in England’s front line that has still not been filled, Scholes’s performances for Man United this season suggest he is still England’s most effective attacking midfielder.

Gary Speed is still one of the Premiership’s most consistent performers, but Wales have been without his services since 2004, and now Giggs is set to join him.

As a Welshman, it is a tremendous disappointment. Since bursting onto the international scene as a 17 year-old, Giggs’s Wales career has been dogged by accusations that he elected to miss seemingly insignificant friendlies by claiming to be injured when he was fit enough to play for his club. But still the hope persisted that only with Giggs to the fore could Wales hope to qualify for a major tournament.

Only since John Toshack handed him the captain’s armband has he appeared consistently for his country, and now he decides to retire.

Toshack has received a lot of flak for his policy of blooding very young players for the national side and persisting with a slightly antiquated 5-3-2 formation, but although the current qualifying campaign has been something of a let-down, in players like Gareth Bale, Chris Gunter, Lewin Nyatanga and Jason Koumas there is real hope for the future.

Toshack needs Giggs to help the youngsters on. Since the end of the Hughes/Rush/Southall era, he has been Wales’s only world class player. Lose Giggs, and Wales lose not only a significant force on the pitch but a huge chunk of credibility – and marketing appeal – off it.

The current Wales team is a disjointed side. New players are still bedding in. The young players will want to look to Giggs for guidance ahead of the World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign (which has long been Toshack’s stated objective), but he has turned his back. The fact he couldn’t even see out the rest of the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign seems to represent a damning indictment of the supposed potential in the team.

His recent commitment to the Welsh cause has allowed some Welsh fans to forgive his previous reluctance to play, but the decision now to turn his back on this young, developing side in favour of his club is unlikely to be forgotten.

David Beckham is back in the England squad. He deserves to be there. I can’t think of another English right-sided midfielder who has been as consistently effective over the last few months.

But in spite of this, I don’t think he should be in the squad.

Suppose Beckham comes back, plays a blinder against Estonia and gets England’s Euro 2008 qualifying campaign back on track. What then? There is clamour for him to be included in the next squad, and, in all possibility, the squad after that and the squad after that.

Having dragged everyone through the rigmarole of his decision to step down as captain following England’s World Cup exit last summer, he won’t allow himself to be dropped again without putting up a (doubtless heavily publicised) fight.

All of which will set back England’s progress as a team. McClaren was right to drop Beckham in the first place. He was looking to the future. So bringing Beckham back is a backwards step, even if he is the in-form right-sided midfielder at the moment.

It’s unfortunate that players like Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips and David Bentley haven’t been able to stake a claim for the number seven berth in Beckham’s absence, but the decision to recall Beckham suggests McClaren has no faith in them.

Beckham is not England’s future, no matter how well he’s playing. He is England’s over-hyped, gratuitously self-important past.

Furthermore, putting him in the team means the side has to be balanced with a left-sided player who will provide similar width. As a consequence, either Joe Cole has to play as a traditional left winger, or the typically ineffectual Stuart Downing is brought into the side, and if England’s first choice strike partnership is Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, there is no need for wide midfielders whose principle asset is their crossing ability.

McClaren must experiment. He must be allowed to experiment. He will lose matches. He will get huge amounts of flak. But the future of English football depends on it. The 4-4-2 must be abandoned. Players like Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon and David Bentley must be given the freedom to play their natural game, not tied to the touchline like 1950s-style wingers.

And Beckham must be allowed to go to America to finish his career without constant speculation about whether or not he merits a place in the England team.

Many players could be said to ‘deserve’ a place in the England team. But the team should consist of the best eleven players capable of playing together in a particular system, not the eleven most deserving.

Steven Gerrard - one player who should survive the anticipated cull...It was hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Liverpool last night.

For almost the entirety of the first half they cowed Milan into submission. Mascherano and Alonso successfully nullified the twin threats of Kaka and Seedorf, presenting Gerrard, Zenden and – in particular – Pennant with the opportunity to make inroads into the Rossoneri’s much-vaunted back four.

But for all their territory, they didn’t once stretch Dida, and paid the price with that cruel Inzaghi goal on the stroke of half-time.

The second half was distinguished by the lack of any discernable onslaught from the men in red. They poked and probed, but Milan stood firm. Gerrard spurned
Liverpool’s best chance when he tried to work the ball too hard when faced with Dida one-on-one, and the nearest they came to breaking the deadlock before Kuyt’s late header was Crouch’s speculative 25-yard effort.

The problem with Benitez is that he didn’t have the players for the formation he wanted to play. Mascherano was excellent, and Alonso supported him commendably. Gerrard was typically influential, and Kuyt’s link-up play was customarily efficient, but it was on the flanks that they were found lacking.

Paradoxically, Pennant was Liverpool’s most dangerous player in the first half, but the limitations of his play meant that he was unable to make the most of the advanced positions he found himself in. Zenden, likewise, was heavily involved but frustratingly ineffectual.

The problem with Pennant and Zenden – and this is no personal criticism – is that they are both conventional wide midfielders (although Zenden has learnt how to play as a combative and disciplined central midfielder).

The 4-4-1-1 that Benitez deployed last night requires wide men capable of cutting in and heading for goal. Joe Cole and Arjen Robben are one of the most effective wing partnerships in this context, with both players placed on the ‘wrong’ flank (Robben on the right, Cole on the left) so that they can cut in and shoot at goal with their stronger foot.

Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi assume similar roles for
Barcelona, and Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are sometimes asked to do the same for Man United.

With touchline-hugging wide-men like Pennant and Zenden in the team, all you get are a succession of high crosses delivered in the general direction of a solitary striker (in this case Kuyt) who, given the sheer number of defenders around him, is unlikely to get many headers on goal.

If Benitez is intent on improving his team, attacking players whose target is the goal rather than the byline should be a priority, although it must be said that subtlety is as much a necessity as raw pace in these positions.

Rafa Benitez - keeping his cards close to his chestIt won’t be pretty.

Just as in the FA Cup Final, both sides are likely to flood the pitch with midfielders, so it will be tight, tense and tactical.

Most of today’s papers seem certain that Benitez will opt for a 4-5-1, with Gerrard pushed forward in support of Dirk Kuyt and Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso forming a deep-lying defensive barrier in midfield to protect against the marauding movements of Kaka and Seedorf.

But he does like to spring a surprise, and – given the tactics in the away games against Barcelona and Chelsea – there’s a chance Crouch might be chosen to partner Kuyt up front, with Gerrard moved to the right wing.

Zenden will probably get the nod over Kewell if fit, although Benitez could go for Riise in midfield and Arbeloa behind him if he wants solidity on the left and Zenden fails to prove his fitness.

For Carlo Ancelotti the main selection dilemma surrounds who to pick up front, and I would expect the wily Philippo Inzaghi to be chosen ahead of the goal-shy Alberto Gilardino.

It won’t be a thriller, but it should be a fascinating game. United made the mistake of giving Milan too much time on the ball at the back, and soon realised how quickly they can slip through the gears. Liverpool will have to be on alert all night.

With both sides mindful of their opponents’ powers on the counter-attack, gung-ho attacking will not be on the agenda, and penalties are thus a distinct possibility.

And in Jose Reina, Liverpool possess a goalkeeper fully qualified to follow in the bendy-legged footsteps of Bruce Grobbelaar and Jerzy Dudek.

Owen Hargreaves - Old Trafford-bound?Manchester United’s season finished less than twenty-four hours ago, and already Alex Ferguson appears to be on the verge of sealing the long-expected signing of Owen Hargreaves from Bayern Munich for a fee believed to be in the region of £18 million.

The notion of Hargreaves joining United for such a fee would have provoked derision a year ago, but such were his performances in the World Cup that his reputation as England’s most accomplished defensive midfielder is now secure.

His arrival will obviously add graft and industriousness to United’s midfield, but it might also paradoxically make them stronger in attack.

In too many big games this season (most notably in the away leg of the Champions League semi-final against AC Milan and in yesterday’s FA Cup Final) Ferguson has allowed his natural tendency to attack to be overcome by caution. Thus, in both games, he fielded a solid 4-3-3, rather than the more attack-focused 4-2-3-1 that has enabled United to play such insistently thrilling football this season.

Anyone wondering who to blame for the dreariness of yesterday’s game need look no further than the fact there were no less than six central midfielders on the pitch. In mirroring Mourinho’s formation, Ferguson allowed United to get dragged into a midfield wall of attrition.

In signing Hargreaves, Ferguson hopes to create an English interpretation of the silk-and-steel Andrea Pirlo-Gennaro Gattuso midfield partnership that laid the foundation for Italy’s World Cup success last summer and continues to prosper for AC Milan.

Where all this leaves Paul Scholes is another matter entirely, but with Hargreaves and Carrick sitting in front of the back four, Ferguson will be less inclined to field an extra pair of legs in midfield, as he did with Darren Fletcher in the aforementioned games against Milan and Chelsea.

All of which should mean a space in the team for a proper centre forward, allowing United to stretch the game and giving Rooney, Ronaldo and Giggs the space that allows them to function most effectively; the space Ferguson denied them yesterday by electing to go toe-to-toe with Mourinho, rather than relying on his team’s attacking instincts.

Cup Final Comedown

May 20 2007

A fitting first Cup Final goal at the new WembleyAt times like this – when your team has just lost a Cup final that had been hyped to the hilt like no other – it’s hard to be objective. But with the benefit of a few hours’ hindsight, things don’t look too bad.

It was a dour game. Both teams were tired, and the heaviness of the pitch didn’t help. Ronaldo was a disappointment. But Scholes’s passing and Giggs’s industry and Rooney’s sheer determination made up for that. And if you are going to lose a Cup final to your biggest rival, you might as well lose it to a goal of real quality.

It would be churlish to say that Chelsea didn’t deserve it. They had the best of the first half, United the best of the second. Extra time ebbed and flowed. It doesn’t matter who deserved it. All that matters is who wins, and football would not generate the endless discussion it does if the team with the most shots on target/larger share of possession/most impressive Opta stats always won.

United fans wouldn’t swap the Premiership for the Cup. But losing the Cup still hurts. And losing it means that a season that has scaled such glorious heights now ends on a low. The stakes for next season have just been raised.