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17/10/2013 12:42

The Diamond


The fallacy surrounding Manchester United in recent seasons has been that of the diamond, which is a tactical concept, and a strategical structure, deriving at Manchester United from the way in which Bobby Charlton was deployed in the 1960s, as a deep lying center forward, alongside hard-tackling midfield creator-destroyers, such as Maurice Setters, Paddy Crerand, David Sadler, or Nobby Stiles. Bringing into play with long range pinpoint passes, left and right wings, for example, Johnny Giles, John Connelly, John Aston, and George Best, a former left-wing himself, Charlton, known for success with his long range shooting and passing game in the second half of the 1950s, combined this with a short passing game of quick interchanges through the middle in the 1960s, carving out opportunities for forwards, who were twinned, that is, either Quixall, Herd, Law, Best, or Kidd, in their period of success. Beginning with the F.A. Cup Final win against Leicester City, 3-1, in 1963, and followed by Championship triumphs in 1964-65, and 1966-67, before a culminating victory in the European Champions’ Cup of 1968 against Benfica, 4-1, at London’s Wembley stadium, Charlton was United’s original diamond.

 The modern theory of the central midfield attacker, as an auxiliary forward, supporting a lone striker in front of him, isn’t what Manchester United did with their diamonds. Alongside England captain Bryan Robson (1982-91) in English manager Ron Atkinson’s early 1980s United team, which brought F.A. Cup success in 1983 and 1985, after Atkinson replaced Londoner, Dave Sexton, for the 1980-81 season, first sometime England captain (on 10 occasions) Ray Wilkins, and then Northern Irish converted striker, Norman Whiteside, in a two man midfield, were diamonds, like Robson. While Wilkins took the holding midfield role, and later Whiteside, after Wilkins was transferred to Italy’s A.C. Milan for £1.5m for the 1984-85 season, Robson was free to move forward in support of the forwards and vice versa. The player going up the field was the lower point of the diamond in tactical terms, while the left and right wings were the corners of the diamond, with the striker, if they struck on goal, constituting the sharper end.

 However, there were twin strikers, which was the point that remained underemphasized in the era after Scot Alex Ferguson’s managerial reign, with his 13 Championships, after being appointed to take over from Atkinson on 6th November, 1986, largely dependent on that understanding of the diamond. With England’s Paul Scholes there, alongside Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Michael Carrick, or Darren Fletcher, after his debut in 1994-95, with 6 starts, and 11 further appearances from the substitutes’ bench, scoring 5 goals, Scholes went on to amass 11 league titles, 3 F.A. Cup winners  medals, 2 in the League Cup, 2 in the European Champions’ Cup, an Intercontinental Cup winners’ medal, and another in the World Club Cup, with several sets of twinned strikers ahead of him in the diamond.

 Scotland’s Brian McClair (1987-98; 88 goals) and Wales’ Mark Hughes (1980-86; 37, 1988-95; 83), and Mark Hughes and Frenchman Eric Cantona (1992-97; 64), were responsible for United’s early success under Ferguson’s stewardship, with the F.A. Cup in 1990, 3-3, a.e.t., and 1-0 in the replay, followed by the European Cup Winners’ Cup, 2-1 against Barcelona, and the Super Cup in 1991, 1-0 against Red Star Belgrade; the League Cup in 1992, 1-0 against Nottingham Forest, and the League Championship in 1993, followed by the F.A. Cup,  4-0 against Chelsea, and league double in 1994, which Scholes didn’t participate in, as a first team player.

 However, both McClair and Hughes were there for Scholes, when he made his debut in the 1994-95 season, although Hughes, ending the campaign on, below par for him, 8 league goals, was transferred to Chelsea for £1m, before the commencement of the 1995-96 season. United, with McClair, then deployed in a deeper, midfield role, Cantona, and diamond hard Scholes won the F.A. Cup, 1-0 against Liverpool, and league Championship double once more., and the Championship again in 1996-97, when Cantona then retired, aged 30.

 Trinidad and Tobago’s Dwight Yorke (1998-2002; 48) and England’s Andy Cole (1995-2001; 93), Norway’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (1996-2007; 91) and England’s Teddy Sheringham (1997-2001; 31), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the Netherlands’ Ruud van Nistelrooy (2001-06; 95), were ahead of Scholes’ diamond, as United completed the treble of league Championship, F.A. Cup winners, 3-0 against Newcastle United, and European Champions’ Cup winners, 2-1, against Bayern Munich, in 1999, as well as Intercontinental Cup winners, 1-0 against Brazil’s Palmeiras. League titles followed in rapid succession; 1999–2000, 2000–01, and 2002–03, and the F.A. Cup in 2004, 3-0 against Millwall, at the Millenium Stadium, city of Cardiff, Wales, while Wembley, London, was being rebuilt.

 The partnerships of Ruud van Nistelrooy and France’s Louis Saha (2004-08; 28), Louis Saha and England captain (2014-17) Wayne Rooney (2004-17; 183), Wayne Rooney and England’s Alan Smith (2004-07; 7), and Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney, brought League Cup success in 2006, 4-0 against Wigan Athletic, and further successive titles; 2006–07, and the treble of 2007–08 league title, European Champions’ Cup, 1-1, a.e.t., and 6-5 on penalties against Chelsea, with Ronaldo failing to find the net, Chelsea captain, England’s center half, John Terry, slipping in the rain, and hitting the post, and France’s center forward, Nicholas Anelka, having his spot kick saved by United’s Dutch ‘keeper, Edwin van der Sar, so making Wales left-winger Ryan Giggs’ successful penalty the winner, and World Club Cup, 1-0, with a goal from Wayne Rooney after Nemanja Vidić was sent off, against LDU Quito of Ecuador.

 The pairings of Wayne Rooney and Argentina’s Carlos Tevez (2007-09; 19), Carlos Tevez and Bulgaria’s Dimitar Berbatov (2008-12; 48), Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, Dimitar Berbatov and Mexico’s Javier Hernández (2010-15; 37), Wayne Rooney and England’s Danny Welbeck (2008-14; 20), and Wayne Rooney and Dutchman Robin van Persie (2012-15; 48), brought the League Cup, 0-0, a.e.t., and 4-0 on penalties against Tottenham Hotspur, and league Championship double to Old Trafford in 2008-2009, followed by a successful defense of the League Cup in 2010, 2-1 against Aston Villa, and what might have been the last of Ferguson’s titles in 2010–11, when Scholes decided to retire, as a player, to join the United first-team coaching staff, after disappointedly being left out of the sides that lost to Spain’s Barcelona in the Champions’ Cup Finals of 2009 and 2011.

 However, with Darren Fletcher injured in 2011-12, when United lost the title to City rivals on a goal difference alone of 8, with both clubs on 89 points, on January 8th, 2012, Paul resumed his diamond role in the F.A. Cup 3rd Round defeat of Manchester City, 3-2, away. In 2012–13 the last of Ferguson’s titles was won, and is how Paul Scholes won with United’s diamonds.

 With the exception of Louis van Gaal (2014-16), appointed subsequent to his role as the Dutch national team manager at the 2014 World Cup, where Holland finished third, beating hosts Brazil, 3-0, Portugal’s José Mourinho (December 18th 2016-2018), and the Netherlands’ Erik Ten Hag, appointed as former United center forward Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s successor on April 21st, 2022, successive Manchester United managers failed to approach the same level of success as Ferguson, primarily because of their failure to understand the importance of the diamond to the team.

 Van Gaal thought he could play three center halves, that is, Wales’ Jonny Evans, England’s Phil Jones, and Chris Smalling, with Argentine center half, or left back, Marcos Rojo, bought from Portugal’s Sporting CP for £16m, left back Luke Shaw, bought from Southampton for £30m, and defensive midfielder, the Netherlands’ Daley Blind, bought from Ajax for £14m, later added to the possible triumvirate, Gaal’s strategy was allied to former wingers, in the role of wing halves, as both full backs, Ecuador’s Antonio Valencia and England’s Ashley Young, had been right and left wingers, before they were switched by Ferguson to defense. A tactic harking back to the 1900s, when United had a famous half back line of Duckworth, Roberts and Bell, who won the Championship in 1908 and 1911, and the F.A. Cup Final in 1909, against Bristol City, 1-0.

 Gaal experimented until victory, 2-1, a.e.t., in the 2016 F.A. Cup Final, against Crystal Palace, although by the time the line ups were announced, it was clear the Dutchman had accepted the United way and a team had taken the field at Wembley stadium employing the usual two man midfield, wingers, and twin strikers. Although Wayne Rooney, United’s all-time top goal scorer, was billed to appear in the Paul Scholes’ diamond role in midfield, behind Marcus Rashford, as the lone striker. Valenica started the match, and Ashley Young came on in the 72nd minute as a left winger, as Italy’s Matteo Darmian had already replaced Rojo at left back in the 66th minute, where they flanked Daley Blind, and Chris Smalling, who was sent off in the 105th minute of extra time for holding onto the left leg of Palace left wing, Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Yannick Bolasie, to prevent his progressing up the field, in the center of defense.

 Carrick and Belgian’s Marouane Fellaini were in midfield, with Spain’s Juan Mata and France’s Anthony Martial on the left and right wings, while Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford were the twin strikers. England winger Jessie Lingard came on in the 90th minute for Mata, who’d volleyed in left-footed a cross from Wayne Rooney into the penalty area, headed down by Marouane Fellaini, to equalize substitute Jason Puncheon’s 78th minute goal in the 81st minute, volleying in left side of the area at a narrow angle, However, it was Lingard who, in the 110th minute, right of center, inside the 18 yard box, right footed, volleyed into the top left corner of the Palace net, 2-1.

 The win wasn’t enough to keep Gaal in the manager’s seat, and José Mourinho, arriving via Chelsea, where he’d managed ‘the Blues’ to the 2014-15 English Championship, as well as the League Cup that season, galvanized the players to win the club’s first Europa Cup Final, against Ajax, 2-0, and England’s League Cup again, bringing as a free agent Swedish striker, Zlatan Ibrahimović, age 34, from French club Paris Saint-Germain, to pair Marcus Rashford up front. Zlatan scored twice against Southampton, and United ran out winners, 3-2. Paul Pogba, winner of the 2011 F.A. Youth Cup with United, 6-3, home (4-1), but first leg away (2-2), on aggregate against Sheffield United, before leaving for Italy’s Juventus, was brought back by Mourinho for £89m to partner Spain’s Ander Herrera in midfield; bought by Gaal from Spanish side Athletic Bilbao at the start of his reign as United manager for £28.85m. However, Carrick and Fellaini weren’t overlooked, for example, Fellaini played in the diamond behind Zlatan in the defeat of Ajax, although Rooney’s farewell to the twin striker’s position occurred in the 90th minute, when he came on as a substitute for Mata, and it wasn’t until the 77th minute that Rashford came on for Lingard, in the diamond role behind the striker, to partner Ibrahimović in the EFL Cup win over S’ton, with ‘Ibra’ heading the winner in the 87th minute, suggesting the traditional pairing of twin strikers at United was being challenged.

 Despite the arrival of Belgian center forward powerhouse, Romelu Lukaku, United’s failure to capture the 2018 F.A. Cup, losing the Final, 0-1, to a 22nd minute Eden Hazard penalty for Chelsea, after center back Phil Jones had clumsily brought him down, led to Mourinho’s dismissal, and largely resulted from United’s playing a 4-3-3 system, with Pogba in the center of a midfield that also contained Serbia’s Nemanja Matić, bought for the 2017-18 season from Chelsea for £40m, and Herrera. Chilean forward Alexis Sánchez, ‘El Niño Maravilla’ (The Wonder Child), brought from Arsenal, in an ultimately disastrous January swap deal for the previous season’s Europa Cup winning team’s Armenian right winger, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Alexis would score only 3 times before joining Italy’s Inter Milan for their 2019-20 campaign. Together with Lingard and Rashford, substituted by Lukaku in the 73rd, who was struggling to regain fitness after an injury, Alexis couldn’t prey with United’s clipped wings, while the squad was similarly lacking in inventiveness from a midfield diamond.

 United had to wait until the League Cup Final of 2023 for their next trophy, with Dutchman Erik Ten Hag, former center back with Eredivisie club Twente Enschede, before being appointed to coach Eerste Divisie’s Go Ahead Eagles to promotion to the Eredivisie in 2012-13. Ten Hag then coached Bayern Munich II to the Regionalliga Bayern in 2013-14, after being runners up in 2012-13, and again in 2014-15, before joining Eredivisie’s Utrecht, where in his first season the side lost 1-2 to Feyenoord in the 2016 KNVB Cup Final. Joining Ajax, Amsterdam, on December 28th, 2017, the team had already been knocked out of the 2017-18 season’s KNVB. Erik won three out of the next four league titles, after winning the Eredivisie double in 2018-19, with a 4-0 win over Willem II in the KNVB Final; again in 2020-21, with a 2-1 win over Vitesse Arnhem in the KNVB, and the Eredivisie again in 2021-22, but losing the KNVB Final, 1-2, to PSV Eindhoven.

 Legendary Portuguese right winger, Cristiano Ronaldo, winner of the European Champions’ Cup with United in 2008, and 18 goals that season, after being sold to Real Madrid by Ferguson on June 26th, 2009, for £80m, where he won a further four European Champions’ Cups, in 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018, was brought back by manager, Solskjaer, for the 2021-22 campaign for €15m from Italy’s Juventus, where CR7 had won Serie A titles in 2018-19 and 2019-20. However, Solskjaer, whose side were runners up in the league to City rivals, and Europa Cup finalists the previous season, 2020-21, losing 11-10 on penalties, a.e.t., after an equalizing strike from Uruguayan center forward, Edinson Cavani, 1-1, in the 55th minute, was sacked on November 21st, 2021, after a defeat, 1-4, away at Watford; leaving United 7th in the table.

 Ten Hag was appointed on April 21st, 2022, after German caretaker manager Ralf Rangnick’s side, on February 23rd, 2022, drawing 1-1 away to Spain’s Atlético Madrid in the last 16 of the European Champions’ Cup, lost on March 15th, 2022, 0-1, at Old Trafford. Rashford was ousted from the return leg starting line-up against Atlético by Sweden’s 19 year old Anthony Elanga. Coming on as a substitute in the 75th minute for Rashford, Elanga had scored the 80th minute equalizer in the 1-1 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium. Put through by Portugal’s Bruno Fernandes, in the midfield diamond role, before striking right footed from the right side of the 18 yard box, low past Slovenian ‘keeper, Jan Oblak, into the bottom left corner of the goal, the inexperienced Elanga, 2 goals in the league, and three in total, before being transferred to Nottingham Forest for their 2023-24 season, started a game that United, eventually finishing 6th that league term. needed to win at home, and didn’t.

 In the Europa Cup Final, Solskjaer had started with forwards Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani, and England’s Mason Greenwood, although Rashford and Greenwood were nominally left and right wings. With Fernandes as the diamond midfield creator, in front of central midfielders, Scot Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba, Ralf honored Bruno’s talent, but denied United their traditionally successful paired twin striker combination with wingers. When Rangnick’s team drew with Atlético in the last 16 of the Champions’ Cup, Ronaldo and England’s Jadon Sancho were nominally the wingers, although the absence of the second striker was palpable, and the same was true of the second leg at home, which they lost, 0-1, with Fernandes in the diamond behind Elanga for the most part, rather than the more experienced Rashford, 11 league goals that season.

 Ten Hag moved quickly in the transfer market, buying in from Ajax for £49m Argentine center back, Lisandro Martinez, and Dutch left back from Feyenoord for £13m, Tyrell Malacia, to strengthen the defense; Dane Christian Eriksen, as a free agent after a spell with Brentford, and the Brazilian Casemiro from Real Madrid for £60m, strengthened his midfield options, while Brazilian winger from Ajax, left footed, but preferring to deploy on the right wing, Anthony, bought for £82m, gave the team another attacking ploy. However, the role of Fernandes as the midfield diamond remained problematic, with the option of fielding a single winger, and two strikers, or three strikers, masquerading as left and right wingers, invariably prevailing to the detriment of the club’s desire for success.

 Although scoring 18 times in the 2020-21 league campaign, Bruno’s inability to fit into a midfield of two limited United’s striking capability, and the 2023 League Cup Final defeat of Newcastle United, 2-0, with on loan from Burnley, Wout Weghorst, at center forward, who didn’t score, to add to his league tally of 0 in 10 starts and 7 substitute appearances, further exacerbated the issue. As left footed Anthony appeared on the right wing, with center forward Rashford on the left, without a recognized goal scorer in the center. Although Casemiro, with a 33rd minute header from England left back Luke Shaw’s free kick, and Rashford, with a 39th minute strike, after being put through on goal by Weghorst, secured the trophy, it left the diamond looking rather offset.

 Moreso, after City rivals, en route to a historic treble, beating Inter Milan, 1-0, in the European Champions’ Cup Final on June 23rd at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul, after already securing the league title, with Arsenal losing at Nottingham Forest, 0-1, on May 20th, with a game to play, and four points behind, then beat United, 2-1, in the June 3rd F.A. Cup Final. United’s four man midfield, including Eriksen, labeled AM (auxiliary midfielder), deployed Casemiro and Brazilian Fred in the center. Fernandes, nominally on the right wing, did score an equalizing penalty in the 33rd minute. Manchester City left wing, Jack Grealish was controversially adjudged by VAR technology, that is, video assistant referee, to have handled the ball, as England’s United right back, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, attempted to head on. However, with only center forward Rashford and left winger, Sancho, recognizable as forwards, the diamond was perceivably out of its setting.

 United had 9 defeats before January in the 2023-24 term, lying supine in 7th, and didn’t qualify for the Europa Cup, finishing fourth in their Champions’ League group, although third was required, behind Germany’s Bayern Munich, Denmark’s Copenhagen, and Turkey’s Galatasaray. With one win against Copenhagen, 1-0, at home, and a lone draw, 3-3, against Galatasaray away, in six games, and already out of the League Cup, losing 0-3 at ‘the Theater of Dreams’ to Newcastle in the 4th Round, only time would tell if Ten Hag would be saved by another good cup run; or wingers and a pair of strikers.

 With or without a midfield diamond or two, improvement could be seen waiting in the wings. Argentina’s Alejandro Garnacho joined United’s youth system from Atlético Madrid in October 2020 for £450, 000, scoring a career-announcing twice from the left wing in United’s 2022 F.A. Youth Cup Final win over Nottingham Forest, 3-1, alongside center midfield, Kobbie Mainoo, 6 first team starts in the 2023-24 season before New Year’s Eve. Garnacho started 5 times, with 14 appearances as substitute, in 2022-23, before a career-establishing 3rd minute left footed overhead kick on Sunday, November 26th, at Goodison Park, Walton, Liverpool, opening the scoring in an away victory, 3-0, over Everton.