The fans in the Bernabeu may have given in to the odd bout of impatient whistling, the home defence may have been exposed with worryingly familiar frequency and Ruud van Nistelrooy may have spurned a hatful of chances before notching the goal that proved to be the winner, but there was enough in Real Madrid’s 2-1 win over Werder Bremen in the Champions League on Tuesday night to suggest that Bernd Schuster’s post-Capello revolution is well underway.

Mindful of the Madridistas’ disdainful attitude towards the defensive tactics of his predecessor, Schuster arrived at the Bernabeu promising to create a team capable of a brand of fluid, attacking football more in keeping with the traditions of Puskas, Gento, Di Stefano and co.

The key difference against Bremen was one of shape. Whereas Capello favoured a 4-2-3-1 with Diarra and Emerson (who has now been shipped off to Milan) protecting the back four and van Nistelrooy ploughing a lone furrow up front, Schuster fielded a 4-1-3-2, with Fernando Gago the sole holding midfielder, Raul alongside van Nistelrooy up front, Wesley Schneijder and Gonzalo Higuain attacking from the flanks, and Guti setting the pace in the middle.

The tactical shift made for more cohesive use of the ball in the final third, with Schneijder, Guti and Higuain linking up well with Raul to provide chances for van Nistelrooy. Raul seems to relish being restored to the role of centre forward, and he turned in a tigrish, industrious performance illuminated by some wonderful touches.

Playing with no less than three attacking midfielders enabled Madrid to introduce all manner of different patterns to their play, and with Bremen’s central defenders and central midfielders preoccupied, there was plenty of room on the flanks for full-backs Sergio Ramos and the impressive Brazilian Marcelo to exploit.

Typically, Madrid were often caught short at the back, and with the impish, artful Diego prompting in midfield, Bremen went close on occasion. But then, that is the beauty of Madrid, as it is with Brazil. They exist to play attacking football, and when it clicks – as it did on occasion here – it is wonderful to behold.

And with Diarra, Gabriel Heinze, Royston Drenthe, Arjen Robben, Julio Baptista, Robinho and Javier Saviola also in the squad, this might just be the season that Madrid add another European Cup to the nine they have already won in such sparkling style.

The King is dead! Long live the King! Rooney is out, Tevez comes in! Simple, n’est-ce pas? Maybe not as simple as you’d think.

Manchester United began their opening fixture against Reading with the 4-2-3-1 formation that many commentators expected them to adopt this season. Carrick and Scholes sat deep in midfield, Evra and Ronaldo attacked from the flanks and Giggs played in support of Wayne Rooney up front.

This! – cried The Mirror, in the wake of the signings of Nani and Anderson – is Fergie’s vision of United’s future. Carrick and Hargreaves in midfield, Nani, Anderson and Ronaldo just ahead of them, Rooney in attack.

As far as I’m concerned, they’ve all got it wrong. Including Fergie.

The 4-2-3-1 requires certain types of player, all of which United possess. The key is in fitting them all together. Observe the following, hastily scrabbled together diagram:



I’ve used ‘old-fashioned’ shirt numbers, because they will help me to embellish my point(s). In this system, the two central midfielders sit deep in front of the back four. The number 4 is responsible for winning the ball and breaking up opposition attacks. It’s the number 8’s job to get on the ball, pick out a team-mate and set the team’s attacks in motion.

The wingers (number 7 and number 11) play further forward than mere ‘wide midfielders’. It is their job to a) attack the goal directly and b) create chances for the strikers. The presence of the deep-lying central midfielders enables the full-backs to push forward alternately (it can be dangerous if both do so at the same time), so the wingers are not required to hug the touchline like wingers of old.

Crucial to this formation are the two forwards (number 9 and number 10). The number 9’s role is fairly conventional. He is the goal-getter and target man, but he must also be skilled at holding the ball up and playing with his back to goal.

The number 10 is the man who brings it all together. He is the metronome which sets the pace for the entire team, and he needs to be on the ball as often as possible. With the central midfielders sitting deep and the number 9 pushing the opposition centre halves as close to their own goal as possible, he has the run of the pitch to create magic. And that is exactly why he is in the team.

To my mind, such a system would suit a United first eleven that looked like this:

1. Edwin van der Sar
2. Gary Neville
3. Patrice Evra
4. Owen Hargreaves
5. Nemanja Vidic
6. Rio Ferdinand
7. Cristiano Ronaldo
8. Paul Scholes/Michael Carrick
9. Louis Saha
10. Wayne Rooney/Carlos Tevez
11. Ryan Giggs

And there it is. Ferguson – despite having bestowed the number 10 shirt upon Wayne Rooney before the season began – is playing Rooney as the number 9. This is not a position he suits.

Any idiot could tell you that Rooney is at his most dangerous when he receives the ball in deep areas and then heads for goal. Working the line on his own – as he did until Michael Duberry’s untimely intervention against Reading – is not what he’s cut out for. Yes, he will provide moments of inspiration, but that’s despite, rather than because of, the formation.

Rooney is good enough to have a team crafted around him, but English football has tended to look scornfully at attacking players who demand a free role. Rooney is a natural playmaker, not a goalscorer, and playing him as an old-fashioned centre forward takes all the joy out of his game.

United will undoubtedly miss Rooney, but they have as good a replacement as you could possibly wish for in Carlos Tevez. The player who really makes the 4-2-3-1 tick is Louis Saha, and it is his currently unavailability – rather than Rooney’s – which makes Alex Ferguson’s decision to sell both Alan Smith (who played the number 9 role so admirably in the 7-1 demolition of Roma) and Guiseppe Rossi seem foolhardy.

Man United’s comfortable victory over a spirited but inevitably very limited Glentoran side told us little that we didn’t already know, but it did give a tantalising glimpse of the talents of new signings Nani and Anderson.

Nani certainly caught the eye. He was energetic and industrious, showed some wonderful ball skills and capped it all with a fine goal. He will obviously face far sterner tests in the Premier League (not to mention the Champions League), but he demonstrated a bewitching sleight of foot and an appetite for the ball that suggests United need no longer rely solely on Cristiano Ronaldo for rapier-like thrusts infield from the flanks.

As brilliant as Nani was, it was Anderson who caught my eye. He sat a lot deeper than his fellow debutant, but he was at the heart of practically all United’s attacking play, and seemed comfortable setting the pace and directing the flow of United’s offensive moves.

Nani, if anything, was perhaps trying too hard. The feints and step-overs didn’t all come off, and a couple of shots flew high and wild. Anderson was more economical with his distribution of the ball, but he managed to embellish the game with a quiet authority that suggests he is better suited to playing in the centre than Nani or even Ronaldo.

It was interesting to see United lining up with a classic 4-2-3-1 shape: Carrick and O’Shea sitting in front of the back four, Frazier Campbell (how is he not Scottish with a name like that?) the lone striker, and Nani, Anderson and Lee Martin attacking from advanced midfield positions.

With the midfield shield in place, both full-backs were able to attack down the flanks, and Nani, Anderson and Martin interchanged positions with an ease suggestive of a greater level of familiarity than a couple of weeks of pre-season training.

Communication is key in a formation that places such great emphasis on fluidity, but with Nani, Anderson and Ronaldo all fluent in the same tongue, it will be even harder for top-flight defences to keep tabs on their movements in seasons to come.

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…

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.

The dust has settled, the hype has abated, and United have once again been found wanting in the Champions League.

But before we begin to assess the reasons for this failure, it should be noted that United were eliminated by an AC Milan team Back to the tactics board...playing at the peak of their organisational and expressive powers.

Fatigue was obviously a factor, as was the lack of no less than three first-choice defenders. No matter how dangerous your attack, no team can be expected to win when confusion reigns supreme in the back four. Gabriel Heinze’s erratic performance was particularly disappointing, but sadly not without precedent this season.

I think Fergie missed a trick with his tactics. 4-3-2-1, with a three-man midfield shield, looks solid enough on paper, but last night it succeeded only in inviting Milan to set up camp within striking distance of the perilously nervous United defence.

The 4-2-3-1 – a subtle but nonetheless significant variation – would have allowed United to take the game to Milan and peg them back in their own half. It was, after all, the formation that bewildered Roma so unforgettably in the second leg of the quarter-final, and it is the shape that has yielded United’s finest football in the last few weeks.

A 4-2-3-1 with Smith or Saha at its head allows Rooney to come deep in search of the ball, and doesn’t put him under the pressure of being the team’s only nominated centre forward. The World Cup demonstrated that he simply cannot lead the line on his own.

On Wednesday night Rooney struggled with the burden of the lone striker, and as he, Ronaldo and Giggs found themselves outnumbered, the Milan defence was able to step up and push them back towards the three men behind them who, in spite of their number, were unable to get to grips with Kaka’s movement and Seedorf’s subtlety.

Rafa Benitez has demonstrated on at least two occasions this season that when it comes to playing away from home in Europe, attack really is the best form of defence. As such, he fielded an attacking 4-4-2 against both PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona, and this tactic was only negated in the away leg of the semi-final against Chelsea by a similarly bold performance from the home side.

It is this unique understanding of the demands of European football that currently puts Benitez above Ferguson and Mourinho when it comes to the Champions League.

Fergie may claim to favour attacking, expansive football – and the heights United’s football has reached at times this season certainly bears testament to that – but in the big European games a natural (and understandable) tendency towards conservatism costs him dearly.