They were Ferguson’s bogey side during his time at Aberdeen, winning seven out of 10 matches between 1978 and 1981. “The number of times we lost in the last two or three minutes was unbelievable,” wrote Ferguson in A Light In The North, the story of his Aberdeen career. “We tried everything. We tried playing with two wingers and no strikers, we even tried two wingers and two strikers. We tried playing three at the back. We tried everything, believe me. It wasn’t until the last few years that we began to get results.”
As well as demonstrating that Ferguson used what is now known as a false nine back in the 1970s, the quote hints at his essential distaste for playing three at the back. That did not change over time.
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Ferguson played three centre-backs in around 10-15 of his 1500 games at Manchester United. No wonder, as when he did it was usually a disaster: thrashed 2-0 by Norwich on live TV in 1989-90, trounced 3-1 by Aston Villa in the first game of the 1995-96 season, the "you'll never win anything with kids" game, battered 3-0 at Fulham in 2009-10 during an injury crisis.
As often as not Ferguson would switch to a back four before the end of the match. The longest run he gave it was at the start of 1990-91 season - showing that even the greatest can be susceptible to a fad, with the sweeper system in vogue after Italia 90 - and that only lasted three games.
Three at the back was not used in the top flight of English football until Jim Smith did so at QPR in 1987. Ferguson was already at Old Trafford by then, and his lack of success with three at the back means that United have far less experience of the formation than any other big club.
That is about to change, with Louis van Gaal openly planning to use a 3-4-1-2 for the time being. To most, that will seem like a minor change. For United, however, it is a rejection of tradition.
One of the reasons Van Gaal was such a popular choice as United manager is that he shares the established philosophy of the club, primarily a belief in young players, attacking football and wingplay. Van Gaal has used two touchline-huggers for almost all of his managerial career.
“I am more in favour of 4-3-3,” he said, “but with the squad we have, I have to choose this system ... At this moment, we have five No. 9s and four No. 10s – and we don’t have wingers to give us attacking width. Or, I should say, we don’t have wingers of the highest level, like Ronaldo or Di Maria or somebody like that. So, I have to play in another way.”
It seems it’s never too late for an old don to learn new tricks. Arguably the two teams in world football most associated with with wingers – Netherlands and Manchester United – have both had their DNA altered by Van Gaal this summer. In both cases, it was a logical response to an unbalanced squad.
Whereas with international football you get what you are given, because players can't be signed, the state of United's squad was down to the negligence of Sir Alex Ferguson and the panic purchase of Juan Mata by David Moyes.
The upshot is that United go into the season with the unlikely pair of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia as wing-backs. At the moment Van Gaal’s stock is sufficiently stratospheric that he could put Francis Lee and Alan Shearer at wing-back and most United fans would approve. The system worked in pre-season, with Young excellent, but the reality of the Premier League will test United’s limited resources.
Van Gaal needs to be careful. He could detail umpteen sound reasons for using this system, but mature, nuanced discussion is increasingly scarce in the coverage of English football. If he does not get off to a good start, the lack of wingers surely will be used in evidence against him.
Rob Smyth
You can buy Rob's book, 'Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team', which is out now.
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