Darren Fletcher has predicted a more rigid Manchester United will be on show this season as they battle to win the Premier League for a fourth successive season. With Cristiano Ronaldo now settled in at Real Madrid and striker Carlos Tevez moving down the road to Manchester City after both departed Old Trafford in the summer, Sir Alex Ferguson has had a bit of adjusting to do as he prepares his side for the new campaign, which for them starts on Sunday with a home game against newly-promoted Birmingham City.
And, according to Fletcher, the outcome is an orthodox 4-4-2 formation that he believes will be good enough to terrorise opposition at home and abroad. "We have always been tight at the back because we have a great defensive record, but maybe we have been a little bit too expansive at times," he said. "The ethos of the club is about attacking football. However, you can't be wide open and attacking all the time.
"You also have to be disciplined and I think you are going to see a more rigid 4-4-2 formation this season." United matched Chelsea for best defensive record in the Premier League last season, conceding only 24 goals in 38 games and keeping a remarkable 24 clean sheets along the way. At Wembley on Sunday in the Community Shield against Chelsea, which United lost 4-1 on penalites after a 2-2 draw, Fletcher was right at the heart of that formation, partnering Michael Carrick in the centre of midfield.
Maybe it should not have been a surprise to see the Scotsman starting and keeping the likes of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs on the bench. For, as the close season dragged on, so Fletcher's abilities grew as reasons for United's lamentable Champions League final display were unearthed. The inescapable conclusion to draw was that United were out passed by Barcelona duo Andres Iniesta and Xavi because Fletcher was suspended for the Rome showdown, consigned there due to the harsh red card he picked up when the semi-final against Arsenal was already won.
Not that Fletcher is about to let the adulation go to his head. "The only thing people have said to me this summer is that United missed me in Rome," he said. "It is nice to hear and I did feel I made a big step forward last season. "But sometimes you become a better player by not playing. People notice you because you are not there. It is not easy to sit in the stand. I was desperate to be out there."
Undeniably, last season's was Fletcher's best and most consistent of his career with United since he made his debut for them back in 2003. The 25-year-old made 42 appearances last term and the vast majority of his contributions were telling ones in a season that ended with a Premier League title if ultimately not a place in the starting line-up in Rome. "There are some great midfielders at the club but I managed to get into the team for the start of the season and stay there for most of it," he said.
"My performances improved because of the continuity of playing most weeks. "Now I feel as if I am right in there competing for a place in the starting line-up each week, although I can't take anything for granted because there is so much competition." Meanwhile, Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz will miss the start of the Premier League season because of a knee injury. "We're hoping by the end of the month he'll be available," the City manager Mark Hughes said. "I'd rather give him the time that he needs."
The Paraguay forward has been struggling to make a full recovery from knee surgery he had in April. He joined City from Blackburn Rovers in June and has missed all the team's pre-season games because of the problem. Bundesliga side Bayern Munich claim they are "waiting for contact" from Chelsea as they step up their bid to sign Portugal full-back Jose Bosingwa. The Munich general manager Uli Hoeness said the club put in approach for Bosingwa prior to last weekend, but have yet to hear anything back.
"We are still interested in Jose," he said. "We need a strong, experienced defender on the right side, especially if we use [Franck] Ribery in a more offensive role, as is being considered. "We want only Bosingwa and have no interest in any other player for this position. Chelsea agreed to give us a signal after the Community Shield that they were ready to talk and we are waiting." * With agencies