When selecting the sharp end of his lineup to face Chelsea at Stamford bridge yesterday, Sir Alex Ferguson had, as the cliché goes, a 'selection headache.' In contrast to Chelsea's relative two aspirin of Fernando Torres, their lone striker, playing as a lone striker, Ferguson had to opt for some combination of his four forwards which, while giving United some unpredictability, also seems to curse them with the fact they must leave out at least one of their best players for each game.
Many have spoken on the death of the poacher, citing the need for more universality in players in the modern game, but an equally valid reason is the difficulty posed by one-striker systems to a Premier League squad. Liverpool struggled to find the answer to the problem when they were relying on a Torres-Gerrard partnership, as they failed to find a player who could operate as a backup or a partner for the Spaniard. Since anyone they found was unlikely to be at his level, and therefore unlikely to get too many games over the course of the season, they were unable to find anyone of sufficient quality.
The way around this, combined with the continued decline of 4-4-2, is to either find strikers capable of fulfilling two roles or to deploy other two-striker systems, as United and City have with their diamond and 3-5-2 respectively. Those experiments have been inconclusive - for United, an intriguing idea that winger-obsessed Ferguson seemed unlikely to ever try, and for City, largely a disaster.
United, however, with their midfield shortcomings, have benefited from the experimentation, as it has allowed them to find systems where their sheer firepower can carry the day. The result has been a kind of emulation of their class of 2008, where 4-2-3-1 was used not as a rigid blueprint to give each player a clearly-defined job that suited them best, as it is with most teams today, but represented a clear division between attack and defence - six holding back, four in attack.
As in 2008, United's four strikers are a versatile bunch. Danny Welbeck has been deployed with some effectiveness on the wing, and both Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie are capable of playing deeper roles or out wide. Javier Hernandez is the only player who lacks the capability to play in more than one position - his all-round play has improved immensely this season, but he is still unlikely to be very productive in a deeper or wider role. Nonetheless, his form so far this season has been superior to Danny Welbeck, which should put him further ahead in the pecking order. Beyond that, the similarities to United's class of 2008 are striking, with Robin van Persie performing a remarkably similar role to Cristiano Ronaldo before he was moved back out to the wing.
The result of this is that while United struggle to control games, they can compensate for the shortcoming by virtue of such a dangerous and unpredictable attack which can make the most of any opportunities that do appear. The midfield concerns itself more with controlling space than the ball - a job which the current lineup is still too incompetent to perform well, but certainly better than they have been at attempting to dominate possession. Another of the advantages has been that the deeper midfield gives United's fullbacks greater security, as evidenced by Rafael's excellent form, even managing to add important goals to his game, while Patrice Evra has not been as obviously vulnerable as he had been last season.
Of course, the elephant in the room continues to be United's midfield, and it may well be asked: is this really necessary? Wouldn't it have just been easier to, well, buy some decent midfielders? Perhaps, but United are bucking the trend of possession and universality - their forwards are comfortable in possession, and the rest of the team is simply geared towards moving the ball up the pitch towards them as quickly as possible. It is the classier version of the Tony Pulis "why make 12 passes when one will do?" school of attacking, and one which at its best, is capable of producing even more breathtaking football than the Barcelona model.
The large caveat there is 'at its best', and United are still a distance away from the greatness of their 2008 side. Making the midfield functional is not a solution to the problem in the centre of the pitch, just sort of shifting it to one side and hoping that not thinking about it will make it go away. Yet the plan for letting the back six hold the fort while the front four work their magic appears to be working not only against the dross in the Premier League, but also the bigger teams. It's simple maths - if the defensive six play better than the opponents attackers, and the attacking four perform better than the opponents defenders, you win the game.
For the present and the future, it's a good plan for United, allowing them to get the most mileage out of their imbalanced squad, and enabling Ferguson to indulge his addiction to attackers yet still maintain a cohesive strategy for building his squad. They have been fortunate to come away from Anfield and Stamford Bridge with wins, but options win games, and games win titles. It'll be interesting to see how Ferguson develops his squad, whether his conviction in variety over the wider trend towards universality is a commitment borne of ideology or practicality, but once again United look set to punch above their weight and cover up their glaring weakness.
There is one significant difference with 2008, however - that team was, for all its attacking brilliance, founded on an impenetrable backline, as so many great teams often are. United are now struggling with shoddy defending in addition to an inability to control games, and yet the goals of their strikers are making even that irrelevant. If they end the season as champions, United and Ferguson will prove that sheer offensive power can prevail over all other concerns. It's not a common way to win a title, but it certainly looks like being an interesting one.