The most interesting part about Sunday’s Community Shield was Roberto Mancini’s use of a 3-4-1-2, which he has been thinking about for some time and was inspired by Juventus’ use of the formation to remain unbeaten in Serie A last season, and it’s increasingly common use there. In many ways, it makes sense: As teams play more and more with one striker, or no striker in the case of Spain, the idea of four defenders seems increasingly redundant. This new reality makes midfielders who can play both in midfield and in the centre of defence very attractive, like Javi Martinez and Daniele de Rossi, as well as defenders who are good in possession, like Daniel Agger, hence persistent reports linking him with Manchester City.
Pep Guardiola’s proclivity for switching his Barca side from a four-at-the-back to a three-at-the-back was seen as something only Barca could do, but the rise of the ‘false nine’ and single striker systems mean that playing three defenders might be more than a passing fad. We could be seeing the return of that system at the top levels of the game.
The main problem with playing against a 3-4-1-2 is tracking the wing-backs, as they can easily outflank the opposition. If the wide forwards do it, they are nullified in an attacking sense. If the holding midfielders do it, they are outnumbered in the centre of the pitch, and the attacking midfielder has even more space to do damage. Trying to drift wide to pick up the wing-backs will only see the ball passed into the centre.
The main advantages Manchester United would derive is that critical elements of their play would be incorporated. Antonio Valencia would do very well in that system, because he would always have space to run into, and is a hard worker without the ball. Alex Ferguson’s preference for two strikers will also be satisfied. Rooney can pair with Welbeck, Hernandez, Berbatov (if he stays), or Van Persie (if he arrives). Shinji Kagawa will also play in his preferred role behind the strikers and have more options for a final pass.
Defensively, the return of Nemanja Vidic would form a stronger unit with Ferdinand and Johnny Evans, while Patrice Evra has the freedom of the other flank. Smalling and Jones will stand ready to step in when required.
Playing three at the back also solves the need to play three in midfield, but the need for a signing or two in that area should remain a priority, especially as the medical team can’t seem to keep players fit for long periods. Persistent injuries robbed Anderson and Cleverley of playing time, and form, last season and the extent of Nick Powell’s involvement remains to be seen. Michael Carrick remains the sole reliable midfielder in United’s ranks, excluding Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, whose combined age is nearly 76.
The chances of a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 being played, or even considered, at Old Trafford is almost zero, but the above is merely to show how much of what is required to implement it is already at the club. If Mancini does find success with playing three defenders, it may be seen as the way to go.
Could such a formation work? Comments are welcome below.