Remember when Shunsuke Nakamura was nominated for the Ballon d’Or?

By Ross Ringsell

“We have a lot of quality players, but I turned to my assistant and said ‘I think we are witnessing a genius at work’. If you are talking a pure, pure footballer, he is as good as there is.” – Gordon Strachan

On 25th July 2005, Shunsuke Nakamura arrived at Glasgow Celtic for a fee of £2.5m, after his successful spell in Italy playing for Reggina. It was a huge possibility that the move would never go through, with Gordon Strachan having to fight off competition from Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in order to gain the signature of the Japanese star. With clubs across Europe after Nakamura, the choice was left up to him – and he chose Celtic.

Fans had heard about his talent, and with excitement in their hearts, they welcomed their new hero with open arms. After a period of crisis for The Hoops, in which they had crashed out of European competition after a 0-5 home defeat to Slovak side Artmedia Bratislava, Nakamura represented a totem figure not seen by supporters since Henrik Larsson.

This was a dream for Nakamura, and he realised that all his hard work was finally paying off. From being let go from his first team for being too skinny, to making his Celtic debut – this was the beginning of something special.

Even though he wasn’t totally match fit, Gordon Strachan decided to give him his debut against Dundee United in the second league game of the season. Nakamura had been given his opportunity to go and entertain his new fans and he did just that.

His brilliant improvisation on the ball as well as his dangerous left-foot was thrilling for those in the crowd. This new fresh style of skill and confidence shocked the Dundee United players. With a fantastic debut under his belt, he was named Man of the Match. More importantly, he was given a standing ovation from the Celtic fans. They knew, as did the players, that Nakamura was a true talent.

Alongside adapting to the style of Scottish football, Nakamura was very open with his new teammates and coaches about how difficult he found acclimatising to life in Scotland. Not speaking the language, as well as the new aspects of living in a different city, proved to be very challenging for him.

With his teammates knowing how vital he could be to the team, they encouraged and helped him in any way that they could. This, combined with the success Celtic achieved in Nakamura’s first season – winning the SPL by a 17-point margin – gave him the belief that he could be a serious influencer in the Celtic side.

During the 2006 World Cup, Shunsuke Nakamura was able to experience first-hand how his transfer to Celtic had affected the fans of his own country. Celtic strips covered about a quarter of the Japanese support, as fans travelled just to see him perform. After seeing how much of an impact just one year in Scotland had, Nakamura returned from Germany more mature and ready to take the new season by storm.

In the first half of Nakamura’s second season at Celtic, he had become a fan favourite. His improved consistency was noticeable, but even more noteworthy was his ability from a dead ball. The technique he used from a free-kick to smash the ball into the top corner with such spin was mind-boggling.

With Celtic’s title defence off to a great start, it was time to take to the European stage. A tough draw in the Champions League group stages saw Celtic needing to face Copenhagen, Benfica and Manchester United.

Of course, it was the fixtures against Manchester United that got everyone excited. With great results against English sides in recent years, Celtic were optimistic as they entered the Theatre of Dreams. It was an entertaining and intense battle that provided five goals, as United narrowly clinched all the points on offer in a 3-2 victory. Equalising to make it 2-2 in the 43rd minute, Nakamura became the first Japanese player to score in the Champions League, with a characteristically stunning free kick leaving Van Der Sar motionless.

After such a close fixture at Old Trafford, pundits and fans believed that Celtic had the ability to grab the victory at home. And with such a performance by Nakamura the first-time round, many started to believe that he really did have magic in his feet.

Celtic Park has produced some magical European nights and they don’t come much bigger than 21st November 2006. With Manchester United eager to keep their outstanding form on track, they came to Glasgow to win. They certainly gave it their all, with  Ronaldo, Saha and Rooney causing chaos in defence for Celtic.

But the Glasgow giants held their ground and with 10 minutes left on the clock, they had their chance. A foul by Vidic over 30 yards out may not present a legitimate opportunity for most…but for Nakamura it certainly did. 

He struck the ball astonishingly hard. It wasn’t a matter of seeing it go past Van der Sar that indicated to the crowd that he’d scored, as much as the sound it made as it rippled in the top right corner of the net. It had to be a thing of beauty that managed to get Gordon Strachan screaming and jumping with joy.

When Celtic needed ‘Naka’, he delivered. And with a great team effort and an individual piece of brilliance, Celtic were through to knockout stage of the Champions League.


The knockout stages saw Celtic face AC Milan. Nakamura was extremely pleased with the draw as it was his first return to Italy since joining Celtic. With the first 90 minutes in both legs ending goalless, it took extra time to break the deadlock.

The Italian giants had the edge in the San Siro as a 1-0 defeat saw Celtic eliminated from the Champions League. And although Nakamura’s European journey had come to an end, he still had one magical moment that the Celtic fans may regard as his greatest ever.

by 22nd April 2007, Celtic had the chance to win the Scottish Premier League. A victory against Kilmarock at Rugby Park would see Celtic crowned champions. A fierce competition had the score level at 1-1, late into the game. In the last minute of the game, Nakamura won a free-kick just a few yards outside the box.

Another big moment, another free kick. With one perfect strike, Naka won the league at Rugby Park. This will remain one of the greatest individual moments in any title success that Celtic have enjoyed.

His individual achievements in the 2006/2007 season cemented him in the hearts of all Celtic fans. His success was acknowledged by everyone in Scotland, and further afield. Shunsuke Nakamura was named Scottish Player of the Year and SFWA Footballer of the Year. He made such an impact on the European stage that Nakamura was nominated for the 2007 Ballon d’Or. He was the first Celtic player to be nominated for the prestigious award since Henrik Larsson. He lost out to Kaká, who was the last player to win the prestigious award outside of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo until Luka Modrić in 2018. 

Manchester United are staring down the barrel of transfer window tragedy

By George Storr

The race to finish fourth isn’t the only cause for nerves at Old Trafford at the moment. After a tumultuous season defined by personnel changes, rumours are already circulating that up to six of United’s senior players could be headed away from Manchester come summer. Having shown his capability to get Man Utd back to winning ways, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now has to prove that he has the influence and know-how to replace potential departures. Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward is putting his faith in OGS, so expect to see some eye-widening signings and transfer fees. 

Ander Herrera


Ander Herrera has agreed terms with PSG, according to Sky Sports News, though an official confirmation of this is not forthcoming.

The 29-year-old has been a fantastic midfield workhorse for United and has made himself a real fan favourite as a result. For the United faithful, Herrera could cause the biggest heartbreak of those heading for the door.

However, according to Le Parisien, PSG may be turning their attentions to United alumnus and Ajax defender Daly Blind. This gives the Old Trafford faithful some hope that they may hang onto their beloved Basque midfielder.

Energy and commitment are the essence of Herrera’s game, so any potential move for a replacement should be made with those qualities in mind. He contributes to United’s ability to win the ball back but he’s also important in an attacking sense, even chipping in with an occasional goal.

As regards a possible replacement, a case could be made for signing Leicester’s Nigerian midfielder, Wilfred Ndidi. The 22-year-old was brought in at Leicester in an attempt to replace Ngolo Kante. Statistically, he’s made more tackles than any other Premier League player (122) and he’s been nominated for the PFA’s player of the month award for March, alongside Sadio Mane and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Ndidi is showing huge potential and hasn’t yet attracted the sort of media attention that could bump up his price tag. He could be an interesting addition to United’s midfield.

To look to a bigger name, who would have a bigger price tag, Declan Rice is another young midfielder showing immense potential. He’s got a long term contract at West Ham though so United would have to be willing to pay over the odds, as they have far too often in recent seasons.

Another, slightly more old-fashioned route would be to poach one of Wolves’ star midfielders. Two beatings in close succession might have inspired Man Utd to flex their financial muscle and buy one of the players capable of meting out that punishment.

Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota have both shown their ability to shape games. Both are only 22 and have been regulars for Wolves. Jota is the most impressive when it comes to crunching the numbers though – in 26 appearances he’s scored seven goals and contributed four assists.

PICKS: Wilfred Ndidi, Diogo Jota

Alexis Sanchez


Alexis Sanchez was cause for excitement for many United fans when he signed from Arsenal, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan going the other way. As it turned out though, United, it seems, would have done just as well to keep the inconsistent Armenian.

Instead, United got an even more inconsistent Sanchez. Signing him decimated the Manchester United wage structure and he’s contributed very little on the pitch. He’s also failed to win the hearts of the United faithful, or indeed of the new manager. 

If Sanchez does leave, a lot of wage money will be freed up to guarantee the re-signing of David DeGea. By that token, the sooner Sanchez signs elsewhere, the better.

In terms of a replacement, United needed Sanchez to contribute goals, so that should be at the heart of the hunt to replace him.

Everton’s Richarlison has netted 12 this season and can play in a variety of attacking roles. He’s gained enough plaudits to bump up his fee too, though.

Watford’s Gerard Deulofeu, an ex-Barcelona and Milan player, has shown his star-quality this season, scoring two goals in Watford’s dramatic FA comeback against Wolves on Sunday. He’s netted seven in 24 appearances. The fact that the European giants didn’t see fit to hang onto him might ring some warning bells, but consider too the success Liverpool are having with a similar figure in Xherdan Shaqiri.

The Evening Standard have claimed that United are confident in signing England starlet, Jadon Sancho. He would be a worthy but costly addition to the side. Dortmund have also denied any suggestions that Sancho will be leaving the Bundesliga, with their CEO last week saying “we will not sell him, that is fact. It is clearly discussed with every person who is involved that Jadon plays in the next season for BVB.”

The Manchester Evening News have suggested that if Sancho doesn’t come to Manchester, United fans could see the return of Memphis Depay. His time at United first time round was underwhelming to say the least, but a purple patch at Lyon has caught the eyes of scouts the other side of the channel.

PICKS: Gerard Deulofeu, Jadon Sancho

Valencia, Rojo and Darmian

The loss of three defenders in Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and club stalwart Antonio Valencia will mean the United back line needs some summer additions. The Sun have also reported that Real Madrid are preparing a £35m bid for Eric Bailly, with Zinedine Zidane impressed by the Ivorian’s stints at La Liga sides Espanyol and Villareal before he signed for Man Utd. Whilst none of the four have had stellar seasons, such a mass exodus could leave United in the red.

Rojo has been given permission to train with Argentine club Estudiantes, while Valencia’s contract extension was not triggered by the club and Darmian has featured so little a move seems unavoidable.

James Tarkowski has been a prolific tackler at Burnley and could be an interesting replacement for Rojo. Equally, the continuation of the Harry Maguire rumours suggest he may be added to the backline as a much needed leader. It’s been an oft-levelled accusation that United have lots of centre-backs who should be the second, supporting player in a partnership, and not the leading man. Maguire could be the man to take the lead, likely paired with Chris Smalling. He will likely come at a hefty price though.

Serie A also has a couple of players that have caught United’s eye. Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly has been persistently linked with a move to United, but as one of the best players in his position in the world, it’s unlikely that he’ll leave South Italy for less than £100m, as well as a hefty wage. Italian journalist Ciro Venerato has suggested that the Red Devils will instead make a move for Roma CB Kostas Manolas, who has a €36m release clause.

Cross-town rivals Manchester City have shown the importance of great full-backs in a Premier League campaign this year. They’re set to bolster that too as they prepare a record breaking bid for Leicester left-back, Ben Chillwell. United will have to think long and hard about how to remedy their situation at right-back, with Darmian and Valencia leaving and Ashley Young getting on in years.

If shopping within the Premier League, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and DeAndre Yedlin are tempting propositions. Yedlin’s pace is noteworthy but Wan-Bissaka is man of the moment in the prem and reports suggest United may be going head-to-head with Spurs in an attempt to win his signature.

Raphael Varane has also been discussed as a target for Solskjaer. However it seems likely Zinedine Zidane will do everything he can to keep hold of the star centre back, with Los Blancos reportedly in talks to offer the Frenchman a new long-term contract. 

PICKS: Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka

Pogba and Mata


Paul Pogba is seemingly quite unlikely to depart Old Trafford this summer. However, contingency planning for the potential departure of such a big-name player is important. If Pogba was lured away by Real Madrid, as some comments from the midfielder have suggested, who could replace him?

A marquee signing might be considered necessary to fill the hole and keep pace with Manchester City and Liverpool. Any fee for Pogba would doubtless be a huge one and give Ole a war chest for such a marquee signing.

Rumours have circulated that Barcelona may target Juan Mata as a discount buy to bolster their squad. The Oviedo native may be tempted to return to Spain and add the European giants to his footballing resume. This prompts further contingency planning in central midfield, considering too the seemingly imminent departure of Ander Herrera.

According to the Daily Star, United have abandoned pursuit of Gareth Bale to target the oft-talked about crop of England youth talent. This includes the aforementioned Declan Rice and Jadon Sancho, as well as Chelsea wünderkind Callum Hudson-Odoi. Hudson-Odoi might be persuaded to leave Chelsea for a club that is willing to give him regular game time, after a frustrating season mostly spent on the bench – Maurizio Sarri didn’t give the 18 year old his first premier league start until last Wednesday, despite him making his international debut in England’s game against Montenegro back in March. However, Chelsea may be reluctant to let Hudson-Odoi leave Stamford Bridge, with a two-season long transfer ban looming over them. 

This tactic would represent a significant investment in youth but all three players are showing immense potential. It also gives Solskjaer the opportunity to usher in a new era of long-term United legends. 

Saul Niguez, of Atletico Madrid, has been mooted as a potential addition to the Manchester United midfield. The suggestion is though that he would cost around £70m. Competition could come from the blue side of Manchester, however, with Man City also reportedly lining up a bid for the 24 year-old.

PICKS: Saul Niguez, Declan Rice

De Gea

De Gea

The absolute worst case scenario for Manchester United this summer would be the departure of David De Gea. The Spaniard wants wage parity with Alexis Sanchez and it seems there have been complications in contract talks. Hope remains for United fans but, if the worst were to happen, who would replace De Gea?

It’s worth remembering that United’s back-up keeper, Sergio Romero, is an underrated talent. The Argentina international has shown himself to be more than capable when he has been called into action and, should De Gea leave, he deserves at least a place in the conversation about his replacement.

According to Spanish news outlet Marca, Thibaut Courtois will be Real’s number one next season, despite spending time out of the starting line up under Zinedine Zidane recently. If this is the case, United may consider a move for Keylor Navas who it is expected will be told that he can leave. However, the Costa Rican is 32 and hence doesn’t work as a long term solution.

An alternative could be a big money swoop for Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak, one of the only men able to rival De Gea’s goalkeeping quality. The 26-year-old claimed his 100th clean sheet in his 178th appearance for Atletico and was rated by FourFourTwo Magazine as the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment. His price-tag would likely reflect that rating though.

PICKS: Jan Oblak, Sergio Romero

Manchester United have suffered following poor transfer dealings over the last few seasons. The United faithful will hope, with Ole at the wheel, that the reds can adopt a more sensible transfer policy.

More patience is needed in bringing players to Old Trafford. Instead of seeking another expensive “finished article” like Pogba or Sanchez, United have to swallow their pride and learn from the transfer policies of rivals. Salah, for example, was no big name before he signed for Liverpool. Equally Fernandino only cost Manchester City £30m and has been a stand-out at Pep’s City.

Trying to buy the finished article, or players making headlines, isn’t what’s needed at United. Instead, some shrewd transfers are necessary to bolster a United side still in stuttering form.

Plucking a player from ‘under the radar’ might be more advisable at this point. Wilfred Ndidi, Diogo Jota and Gerard Deulofeu are all exciting players who are used to the league and wouldn’t set the reds back in a big way financially.

Julian Nagelsmann and the RB Leipzig revolution

On Monday evening, a clash between Germany’s first and second most hated clubs finished as an exciting 1:1 draw. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim played like the home team despite being almost 300 miles from Sinsheim. Leipzig, despite being incredibly flat for 85 minutes, nabbed a late equaliser through captain Willi Orban, assisted by Marcel Halstenberg. The game was more than just a European-chasing rival clash, though, as Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann, who was so close to earning a full three-point reward for his tactical masterclass, his side were better than Leipzig in almost every area – flooding men forward on the counter but always remaining defensively sound in transitions. The game was in interesting analytical piece but to me it has more to give than just what happened on the green at the Red Bull Arena.

Continue reading “Julian Nagelsmann and the RB Leipzig revolution”

Eric Abidal: Cule of the year returns home to Lyon

By Barney Stephenson

Earlier this month Eric Abidal was awarded “Cule of the year”, an award that recognises individuals who possess “the Barca DNA: teamwork, solidarity, respect, fair play, humility, ambition and generosity”. Back at the club he spent six years at after five years away it is fair to say that the Frenchman is a decent candidate for the accolade.

Continue reading “Eric Abidal: Cule of the year returns home to Lyon”

Mauro Icardi and the Internazionale conundrum

In recent seasons, strikers are becoming very underrated. This is understandable, because there are now goals coming from all positions apart from the goalkeeper. With the advent of 20 goal-a-season wingers, midfielders chipping in with double figures in goals and centre backs like Sergio Ramos bagging 6 league goals already this season, the over reliance on out-and-out centre forwards feels a bit old school.

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Stop comparing Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden, they are both the future of England

Video Assistant Referee. Messi and Ronaldo. Who will win the title race? Three debates that are unavoidable on a daily basis that, if you’re like me, will make your ears (or eyes, in the age of social media) metaphorically bleed. Three torturously annoying debates that have no real answer, but are still discussed on the daily. Another argument that seemingly pops up in conversation nearly as frequent as Brexit does is whether or not young Englishmen making the move to the German Bundesliga – or other foreign top leagues for that matter – is better than sitting on the bench back here.

Continue reading “Stop comparing Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden, they are both the future of England”

Diamonds are a manager’s best friend: a look at the diamond formation

By Joe Davies

“They say diamonds aren’t forever, but they certainly are for this manager.”

So go the dulcet tones of Alan Smith on FIFA’s hugely popular football simulation game. Such is the rarity of the 4-3-1-2, 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-4-2 (diamond) formation that it has been gifted its very own Worcestershire cliché when deployed on games consoles across the land.

For those brought up on the classic 4-4-2 formation, or the more continental 4-3-3 variants used to great effect by various Dutch sides over the years, the narrow, seemingly imbalanced diamond offers little more than a convenient way of forcing all your favourite Ultimate Team players into a starting eleven. However, over the years this strange and enigmatic shape has been used to great success by the more open-mind coaches in global football, eventually finding its way to the British isles.

Indeed, managers in the English Premier League have now begun lining up their teams in the formation with increasing regularity, especially among the top six, despite its perceived weaknesses. Just why is the diamond midfield seeing a growth in popularity in British football?

Jewel in the crown

Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan Diamond, 2003 Champions League Final

It is impossible to talk about the diamond midfield without first looking at Carlo Ancelotti’s overwhelmingly successful reign in the fashion capital of the world. The eyebrow-raising Italian’s side embodied the luxury his formation implied; from 2001 to 2009, AC Milan won the Champions League twice, the UEFA Super Cup twice, the FIFA Club World Cup, as well as all the major honours in domestic Italian football, and featured three Ballon d’Or winners in Andriy Shevchenko, Kaká and Ronaldinho.

However, what defined this team more than the titles and star names was its peculiar use of four central midfielders behind two strikers. Ancelotti would later go on to squeeze five in behind a solitary forward, but in the early days of his tenure, the Rossoneri took to the field with Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and the oft-overlooked Rui Costa in the centre of the park.

Milan were a well-oiled machine. Rather than relying on their full-backs to provide width, often using the centre-back Costacurta on the right of defence before Cafu joined from Roma in 2003, Ancelotti instructed Seedorf and Rui Costa to drift out to the left and right respectively while in possession of the ball in order to overcome the natural narrowness of the formation.

At the base of the diamond, Pirlo dictated play from deep, while Gattuso acted as the classy playmakers bodyguard, putting in enough miles to serve as two defensive midfielders on his own. As an interesting aside, one can have little doubt that it was this midfielder partnership that served as inspiration for Maurizio Sarri’s use of Jorginho and Allan at Napoli, and his ill-fated attempt to recreate it with the Kante at Chelsea.

Injuries to Inzaghi, and the arrivals of the aforementioned Brazilians Cafu and Kaká, as well as the attacking Jankulovski at left-back, saw Ancelotti switch to a Christmas tree formation in his later years at the club. Rather than relying on his midfielders to provide width, full-backs were instructed to push higher up the field, and defensive solidity was compensated by bringing the more defensive Ambrosini on the left side of Pirlo, and pushing Seedorf higher up the field next to Kaká. However, his commitment to the original diamond set-up endured.

“We want to maintain the same system,” said Ancelotti in 2009, having begun implementing his favoured shape at Chelsea.

“I said before that for this season, we follow this way at home and away. The last two matches away were not good for us, but we don’t want to change because of that. I think this system is very good away from home.”

Carlo Ancelotti began Chelsea’s 2009-10 season with a diamond shape

This was one of the first times that the shape had been used consistently in the top flight of British football. Ancelotti won the league in 2009-10, alternating between a diamond, the Christmas tree and a wider 4-3-3. However, his most used system, seen above, largely failed to get the most out of its players. Initially Lampard was used at the top of the diamond, which prevented him from making his trademark late runs into the box from deep and left him playing with his back to goal. Ancelotti quickly clocked on to this, and moved Lampard a bit deeper, seeing the Englishman score 14 goals in his last 11 games, but had to use Florent Malouda in behind the strikers instead – a central role he was uncomfortable in.

In many ways, Chelsea won the league in spite of the formations Ancelotti used, though they did become the first team to score over a 100 goals in a season, and Ancelotti became the first Italian manager to become champion. The diamond was abandoned in the Italian’s second season at the club, seemingly never to be seen again in the Premier League.

Lucy in the sky

Over in Brazil, the value of the diamond was once again realised in what was undoubtedly the most exciting team at the 2014 World Cup: Chile. Taking over from Marcelo Bielsa, Jorge Sampaoli built on the foundations laid by the enigmatic Argentine, taking the high-pressing fundamentals Bielsa espoused but shifting the team from the unconventional 3-3-1-3 they had played in South Africa four year before to a sort-of modified diamond (alternating with a 3-4-1-2 as well, depending on the number of opposition forwards).

Jorge Sampaoli’s Chilean Diamond 2014

Unlike with Milan, Chile attacked with a surprising amount of width, in part down to the attacking instincts of Beausejour and Isla who both regularly performed as wing-backs both at club level and when deployed in a five-man back line for the national side. However, it was Sampaoli’s use of the two forwards, and particularly their interaction with the man at the top of the diamond that was most interesting. Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez both played as wide forwards for their clubs. Sanchez, specifically, had a frustrating time at Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, who gave him strict instruction to stay wide in possession despite the player thriving in a free-role at Udinese before signing for the Catalan giants.

For Chile, the pair were set free as winger-cum-strikers, starting very wide before drifting in to central goalscoring positions when higher up the pitch. They led the press, backed up by a peak Arturo Vidal, who thrived in a central attacking role, driving forward and making use of the goalscoring instincts he demonstrated at Juventus where he scored 18 times in the season leading up to the World Cup.

The dynamic between the front three was not altogether dissimilar to Barcelona’s use of a false nine, with Lionel Messi drifting deeper while Pedro and David Villa made diagonal runs from out wide. This is where numerical formations fall short; the lines between a winger and striker become blurred to the extent that it is foolhardy to try and define their positions with such a binary. However, the key difference was in Sampaoli’s use of Vidal who started deep and made late runs off the ball through the middle when the forwards ended up wider in attack. This tactic may have been influenced from an unlikely, Northern Irish source.

Brendan Rodger’s near title-winners, 2013-14

In the season leading up to the World Cup, Brendan Rodgers faced a selection head ache at Liverpool. Favouring a typical 4-3-3 at Swansea, Rodgers now had to fit in his two high-goalscoring forwards into the same line-up, with both preferring to play through the centre rather than being forced into unnatural wide berths. While Liverpool experimented with a number of different systems in 2013-14, the diamond became his favoured shape as a method of maintaining control in the centre while still keeping Suarez and Sturridge in nominally centre forward positions.

Much like Chile, at least one of Suarez or Sturridge would drift into wide positions when Liverpool advanced in possession. This opened up space in the centre for Sterling, who had previoudly played exclusively out wide, to exploit. The young Englishman now plays in extremely wide positions for Manchester City, and regularly picks up goals and assists for the sky blues, but this new role  proved a tactical masterstroke back in 2013, seeing him score nine and assist seven in the league that season, compared to just two and six respectively in the previous campaign.

Deeper in midfield, Gerrard completely changed his game. Despite describing the end of the season as “the worst three months of [his] life”, the lifelong red picked up 13 goals and 13 assists that year, earning him a nomination for PFA Player of the Year. However, rather than the long-busting, game-winning performances he had consistently put in for his hometown club across the previous decade, Gerrard became a regista in the mould of Pirlo, operating as a sort of quarterback who would receive the ball from defence and utilise his long-range of passing to launch counter-attacks from deep. This was allowed for, in part, by the dynamic roles of Allen and Henderson on either side of him, who picked up most of the defensive duties, covering the wings and shielding the now less-mobile Gerrard from pressure.

Following Liverpool’s late capitulation that year, after a dreadful slip from their skipper, Rodgers would go on to abandon the system. With Suarez off to Barcelona in 2014, and Gerrard increasingly less important to how Rodgers wanted to set up his team, the 2013-14 side has seemingly been forgotten by most neutrals. However, the reds scored 101 goals that year, the record for a Premier League runner-up, and came the closest they had to a Premier League title since the 1980s, in no small part down to the unconventional formation deployed by their manager. Liverpool demonstrated that coaches did not have to stick to the tried and trusted formations of yesteryear in order to be successful in British football, but falling just short of a title win probably prevented more teams attempting to play the same way in the years to come.

Diamonds in the rough

Tottenham 0-1 Manchester United, 13th January

The once seldom seen diamond has seen a rise in popularity this Premier League season, particularly at the turn of the new year. Tottenham began using the formation with injuries to Dembélé and Dier seeing them replaced with Winks and Sissoko at the heart of the midfield. While an excellent distributor of the ball, Winks lacks the defensive presence required to play in a two man midfield, and Mauricio Pochettino compensated for this by playing him at the heart of a midfield three, flanked by the powerful Sissoko and a Christian Eriksen tasked with greater defensive responsibilities than he was used to in Spurs’ traditional 4-2-3-1 formation.

The shape was a hit for them over November and December, seeing big wins against Chelsea and a 6-2 thrashing over Everton during the period. Alli thrived making late third-man runs through the middle, in the vein of Vidal or Sterling, and the Lilywhites made up for their lack of width with the attacking instincts of their full-backs. Sissoko’s old schooling as a right-sided midfielder and Eriksen’s adaptability and tendency to drift around the field meant both were well suited to the outside roles of the diamond.

On the 13th of January, Ole Gunnar Solkjaer came up against his biggest test as Manchester United boss. Most were surprised when his front three of Rashford, Martial and Lingard were set up in a 1-2 shape rather than the usual three spread across the pitch. United were able to pack the midfield, stifling Spurs’ strength through the centre of the pitch, and hit them on the counter, utilising the pace of their two forwards spreading wide and Lingard bursting through the centre. United dominated the first half with Pogba pulling the strings in midfield, and survived a barrage of Spurs efforts in the second, seeing them win 1-0.

Arsenal 2-0 Chelsea, 19th January

Perhaps taking inspiration from United’s solid display and Spurs’ prior success with the formation, Unai Emery opted to use it for the first time against London rivals Chelsea the following weekend, seeing the Gunners win 2-0 with a mature defensive display. Much like Rodgers in 2013/14, Emery’s constant challenge this season has been to incorporate his two most potent attackers, Aubameyang and Lacazette, in the same team while preferring to use a lone striker tactically.

Most of the time Arsenal have either opted to start Lacazette on the bench or shift Aubameyang to the wing, despite the pair’s obvious chemistry both on and off the field. However, in this game the two were started together up top, thriving in a system suited to their strengths. Both forwards are comfortable in wider positions and have the pace to get in behind defences with diagonal runs made in between the oppositions full-back and centre-half.

Against Chelsea this worked perfectly, with space found most prominently between the oft-criticised David Luiz and predominantly attacking full-back Marcos Alonso. Ramsey was used in a more attacking role than he was used to under Arsène Wenger, and thrived in the space afforded to him by the forward’s wide positions. Crucially, his dynamic style was perfect in nullifying Jorginho‘s threat on the ball, leading the press from midfield.

Arsenal defended well, with the defensive-minded Torreira and Guendouzi flanking Xhaka, who played a distributive role in possession. The Gunners only had 35.7% of the ball, but managed to nullify Hazard, who performed poorly in a false-nine role he has publicly criticised. Emery demonstrated his tactical versatility, playing a containment style rarely seen under Wenger, and frustrated Maurizio Sarri to the extent he criticised his own players after the game.

While neither Tottenham, United or Arsenal have persisted with the diamond for extended periods over the season, all three have demonstrated its effectiveness in big games. Indeed, it would be surprising to see the formation used with more regularity by other teams, as managers constantly seek to emulate displays when analysing videos of others’ victories.

The diamond may never be the most popular formation used across England due to its obvious weaknesses out wide. However, it is worth baring in mind that the last time England won the World Cup, Alf Ramsey used it with aplomb. Much as Gareth Southgate borrowed the back-three system used by Chelsea, City and Tottenham at various points over the last few seasons at England’s last World Cup, it would not be surprising to see him trial a diamond in upcoming fixtures, with so many players having benefitted from playing it at club level. Perhaps the failures of England’s golden generation may be alleviated by a shift to the diamond age.

Joe Davies is a founder of 5WFootball, edits copy and writes regularly for the site. You can see his work for 5WF here and follow him on Twitter here.

Declan Rice: West Ham’s wonder kid and now the future of England’s midfield

By Lauren Savage

The long-awaited decision has finally come. Declan Rice has pledged his international allegiance to England over the Republic of Ireland, despite already earning three caps for the men in green. Continue reading “Declan Rice: West Ham’s wonder kid and now the future of England’s midfield”