Sir Alex Ferguson may be the most successful British manager of all time, but that has never prevented the great Scot from taking on bigger and bigger challenges. At the height of his glory in the 90s, Ferguson got rid of some of the most important players in his squad, such as Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis, et al, only to replace them with inexperienced youth players trained at the legendary Cliff. It left many, especially the fans, aghast. It was a League and cup winning side, dissected in what seemed like moments. Ferguson seemed like a man hell bent on self destruction. But no one in and around Old Trafford was going to question the man who had just ended a quarter-century long draught.
The media though, held no such allegiances, and predicted a trophy-les season for the band of kids who would famously be called "Fergie's Feldglings", Alexander Chapman Ferguson's answer to Alexander Matthew Busby's "Babes". In fact, Alan Hansen went as far as to make the famous statement, "You'll never win anything with kids." That he is more remembered for being the one who questioned the eventual double winners of the season than for anything else he achieved in football is testament to the genius of Ferguson which is, by definition, beyond the comprehension of us mortals.
So what does the legendary manager think of this latest quandary at his hands? Having sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Mob… I mean Madrid, Real Madrid, United have tended to revert back to their famous 4-4-2 formation. With Tevez gone, Ferguson opted to play his two top strikers, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov up top, with Luis Nani and the man who replaced Cristiano Ronaldo, Antonio Valencia on the wings. The system worked fantastically against the bottom to mid table teams, but against the top guns Ferguson revised his tactics, seemingly still smarting from the horrendous defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final of 2008, where Michael Carrick and Anderson were run ragged by the Barcelona trio of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Yaya Toure.
Against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, Ferguson has more often than not opted for seemingly defensive minded 4-3-3 formation, with Wayne Rooney as the lone striker. The formation worked like a charm last season. Rooney especially benefited from the change of tactics, bagging a career best 34 goals in the season, bringing in plaudits from his manager and comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
As this season has drawn on though, Rooney's failure to secure a goal from open play, combined with Dimitar Berbatov's scintillating form has created a mammoth head ache for the gaffer. As he showed with his team selection against Arsenal a week ago, Ferguson still sees Rooney as his leading striker in a 4-3-3 formation. Yet, as Berbatov showed against Everton, Fergie's 30 million pound Bulgarian is well capable of leading the line. Yet Berbatov's inferior work rate as compared to the ambitious Scouser means Fergie's faith in Rooney is justified.
But there is no hiding from the fact that United are an ugly side to watch when the 4-3-3 is employed. Not entirely because of the formation, but because in the absence of Berbatov, there is an obvious disconnect between United' midfield and forward line. Rooney cannot drop deep when he is playing as the lone striker, and the limited scope of a midfield consisting an out of form Darren Fletcher, an aging Paul Scholes and slightly-off-his-best Michael Carrick mean that the team spends more time trying to win back possession than bossing it. Without Anderson, and in the absence of Berbatov, United are reduced to playing long balls to the forward line, sometimes from as far back as the goalkeeper. The surprising speed with which Anderson has suddenly established himself in the United midfield is both due to his fantastic form, and due to a lack of competition.
Indeed, in this regard, the emergence of Oliveira Anderson has been a breath of fresh air for the fans, and indeed a huge relief for Ferguson. Finally, Ferguson seems to have landed a player who can effectively take over from a role Paul Scholes played with such élan that he induced Zinedine Zidane, a man who rarely showers praise on a player in public, to refer to him as the greatest midfielder he ever came across.
Anderson isn't close to producing the consistent quality of Scholes yet, but the ingredients are there. He has a breathtaking eye for the killer pass, which often sets the striker up one on one with the keeper. He keeps the ball well under pressure, and has recently developed his shot taking abilities. If he starts taking free kicks, he will easily be the most valuable asset in Ferguson's squad.
The emergence of Anderson provides as much a case for the continuation of the 4-3-3 formation as it does for the 4-4-2, or as it often ends up in Ferguson's adaptation of it, a 4-2-4.
The Brazilian's energy and ability to tackle efficiently makes him a key player when playing just two in the centre of the park. At the same time, that takes a bit away from his attacking instincts, which can be better honed in a system which leaves the dirty work to other players.
It's an even case, till you bring Berbatov into the picture. You cannot call any United team their best if Berbatov is in it. At the moment, he is probably the second most in-form player in Fergie's stable, just behind Nemanja Vidic. But to get the best out of him, Rooney needs to be present on the park, with the Bulgarian benefiting hugely with the former Everton man's work rate and quick passing.
In fact, switching Berbatov and Rooney around from their roles in the season of 09-10 has proved to be the key to get the most out of United's front four. Rooney has shown an impeccable aptitude for playing in the 'hole', as it is called, in the past, but only with the emergence of Berbatov as a regular goal scorer has Ferguson been able to employ him in such fashion consistently.
For England, Fabio Capello made this discovery when he asked Rooney to sit deeper and employed Jermaine Defoe as an out-and-out striker. Defoe grabbed a hat trick, Rooney providing two of the assists.
Increasingly, there seems to be a case for employing the 4-2-4 as a 4-3-3 instead, with Rooney playing just a bit deeper. He is sitting between the striker and the midfield in Ferguson's current system in any case. Just changing his definition from "centre forward" to "attacking midfielder" doesn't chance Rooney's job, or his game. Indeed, the two are the same.
The key though, falls again, at the Bulgarian's feet. Is he prepared to make the step up if Ferguson decides to play him against a Chelsea? Ferguson showed faith in his abilities against, an admittedly poor, Liverpool, a big game irrespective of league standings. Berbatov repaid Ferguson with a stunning display of traditional "fox in the box" striking, not just goal poaching, but also scoring off half chances. If Ferguson is prepared to show that faith on a more regular basis, United's 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 problems may be merged into one. Where does that leave Anderson? That's a thought for another day.