Louis van Gaal was very active in the last week of the transfer window and signed Àngel Di Maria, Daley Blind and Radamel Falcao. Three players that goes straight into the starting eleven for van Gaal and Manchester United. Since the Dutchman’s arrival in Manchester he has used a 3-4-1-2 or most recently a 3-5-2 formation, but the new arrivals and the players in the squad might mean a system change to one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s old experiments.
In Sir Alex Ferguson final season as Manchester United manager, United struggled early on. The arrival of Robin van Persie and his terrific form meant United won games but they conceded a lot of goals and struggled to control games in midfield. Before the league cup visit of Newcastle in late September, Ferguson decided to experiment with a midfield diamond. It worked well and United won the game 2-1 while playing some very good football. The following league game was lost at home to Tottenham, after Ferguson reverted to a 4-4-2 and again United struggled in midfield. Three days later, the diamond was back in an away win in the Champions League against CFR Cluj. The next game was a trip to Newcastle, a side United had lost 3-0 against the previous season after being overpowered and overrun by midfield duo Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote. Ferguson continued with the diamond shape, lining up Michael Carrick as the holding midfielder with Shinji Kagawa to his right and Tom Cleverley to his left, and Wayne Rooney as the most advanced just behind the front two of Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck. United were brilliant in the first half and totally dominated the game. In the first 15 minutes they enjoyed 80% possession and the passing in midfield was a joy to watch. The lack of in-form wingers prompted this system change and it suited the likes of Cleverley and Carrick perfectly and gave Ferguson an opportunity to have his three best attackers at the pitch at the same time (Rooney, Welbeck, van Persie). The team was very fluid and the players moved around freely in possession to create problems for Newcastle who just couldn’t deal with Ferguson’s team.
When building play from the back, the centre-backs Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans split wide and Carrick dropped in between them to basically create a back three, with Rafael and Evra pushing on down the flanks. A bit similar to van Gaal’s back-three and wing-backs.
Of course, the system wasn’t only a success. At the start of the second half of the Newcastle game and in the Champions League game against Braga, United struggled to stop the opposition on the flanks. Playing this system you’re most likely happy to allow the opposition to just attack on the flanks instead of through the middle but in the Premier League where many teams play a lot of crosses it can be a problem. Against Braga, United were 2-0 down very early, although they still managed to win 3-2, but the diamond was then absent for the rest of the season. The main problem was that the likes of Anderson and Kagawa, who both used to play the right-sided role, were too poor defensively to help the full-back out when defending.
van Gaal’s possible diamond
Ferguson abandoned the diamond quite quickly despite seeing the effects of it, dominating possession and controlling games in midfield. Louis van Gaal is a very possession-minded coach who wants his team to win the ball back quickly. That haven’t been seen yet by his defensive 3-5-2 system, but with the new signings he has got all the attributes to play a successful diamond system. While the 2012/13 United lacked the players who could close down space both centrally and in wide areas (except from Tom Cleverley, who thrived in the system), the 2014/15 squad seems to have all the attributes needed. Rafael and Luke Shaw are two very attacking full-backs and in this system they would be asked to attack as often as possible to provide width, this role would be very similar with the one Shaw played under Pochettino for Southampton as he was responsible for the width on their left side as Jay Rodriguez drifted inside. If United can keep Rafael fit and he can resume the confidence and form he had under that final Ferguson campaign then United will have one of the best right-backs in the league. Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Jonny Evans would compete for the two centre-back spots.
In midfield, new Dutchman Daley Blind would be the holding midfielder, the role Carrick played under Ferguson. Carrick would be a very good understudy and mentor for the still relatively young Blind, and Darren Fletcher would also be an option. Ander Herrera and Àngel Di Maria are perfect for the positions either side of Blind as both have the required energy and work rate to defend, but also the skill and creativity to be important when attacking. Di Maria in particular would be perfect for the role, as it would be quite similar to the one he played for Real Madrid last season. In front of them, Juan Mata is the obvious candidate for the number 10 position. He is a better option than Wayne Rooney as he is more creative and has better touch and ball retention than the United captain. Rooney would be better in away games against the big clubs, as he is much better defensively than Mata. Adnan Januzaj would also be an option here, and he would also be capable of playing in the front two and, possibly, in the two wide midfield positions.
Up front, Falcao is a certainty as he is better than both Rooney and van Persie. He is also more dynamic and is a good presser, as developed during his time at Atlético under Diego Simeone. Then it would be up to Rooney and van Persie to fight it out for the remaining striker position, and on form that player should be van Persie. While it does seem unlikely for van Gaal to drop his newly appointed captain, but the fact is that Juan Mata is a better number 10 than Rooney, and that Falcao and Robin van Persie are better strikers. So the captain certainly has a fight on his hands to just get into the team now, and it remains to be seen if he rises to the challenge or if his form continues to deteriorate.
Louis van Gaal’s new signings are impressive, some of them world class footballers, and he will do all in his power to accommodate them into a team that will win games by exciting attacking football, but also with the right defensive balance. To do that, he should consider switching to a midfield diamond system (4-3-1-2). We have recently seen the success enjoyed by Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers using a similar system and it would make sense for United given their current group of players to at least try it. If van Gaal needs help to put the system in effect, he would do well to give Sir Alex Ferguson a call. Ferguson’s 2012 experiment wasn’t used for long then, but it could well be now.