The Primera Liga kicked off at the weekend, and there were a fair few surprise results. Barca were held 0-0 away at Racing Santander, Real Zaragoza went down 2-1 at Real Murcia, and newly promoted Almeria stunned Deportivo La Coruna with a 0-3 win at Estadio Riazor.

But one of the biggest shocks of the weekend occurred at the home of title hopefuls Valencia, who suffered a 0-3 defeat at the hands of Villarreal.

Former Newcastle misfit Jon Dahl Tomasson rounded Santiago Canizares to put Villarreal ahead after 16 minutes. Valencia were reduced to ten men when star striker David Villa was bravely and correctly dismissed for diving, and new signing Giuseppe Rossi made it two from the penalty spot in the second half.

Things went from bad to worse for the home side when Joaquin received a straight red for swearing at the officials after being denied a penalty. Santiago Cozorla sealed the win with a low left-footed strike in the 73rd minute.

Neutral observers may wonder how a team that boasts Pascal Cygan at centre half could have so ruthlessly dispatched one of Europe’s most potent attacking sides, but Cygan’s leaden-footed calamitousness is more than compensated for by young talents like the Chilean attacking midfielder Matias Fernandez.

Signed from Chile’s Colo Colo in October last year, Fernandez struggled to find his feet in his first season, but his introduction from the substitutes bench against Valencia saw him win the penalty that gave Villarreal their second goal and supply the assist for the killer third.

A fleet-footed attacker who has been likened to Atletico Madrid’s Sergio Aguero and Barca’s Lionel Messi, he scored an absolutely astonishing goal in his first full season for Colo Colo in 2004:

One suspects we might be seeing quite a lot of Matias Fernandez in years to come…

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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.

It’s always a shame when a young player has to leave the Premiership before he’s had a chance to really shine, and that’s certainly true of Giuseppe Rossi, particularly as he’s left a club famed for putting its faith in youth.

The thrilling thing about Rossi is that he is a very highly rated young Italian footballer who chose to play in England. Italy usually does a very good job of keeping its most exciting young players under wraps on native soil, and had Rossi stayed at United and been successful it would have represented a ringing endorsement of English football as a real breeding ground for international talent.

This may seem an anomalous observation at a time when the number of English players graduating from the Premiership’s academies is under intense scrutiny, but had Rossi remained in England it would have sent out a clear signal that the Premiership is as good a league as any for the game’s future superstars to earn their spurs.

His departure suggests that even managers like Alex Ferguson will only go so far when it comes to giving youth the chance it so desperately deserves.