Manchester United have been quite heavily criticized, and rightly so, for their boring style of play over the last two months. Louis van Gaal has always described his “philosophy” as a way of playing attractive as well as winning football. So far in his time at Old Trafford, we’ve seen the winning part at times, particularly during the six-game winning run in November and December, but very rarely have the performances been enjoyable to watch if you sat down expecting attractive and exciting attacking football. Despite the possibility to call on attacking players like Angel Di Maria, Robin van Persie, Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata, Radamel Falcao and the captain Wayne Rooney the football has been rather subdue and hardly edge-of-the-seat-stuff. So what is the problem, and how can it be fixed? In this article I will take a look at the three systems used by van Gaal as well as present a solution for the future.
The most used system under van Gaal, and without doubt the most discussed subject around United this season. For starters, van Gaal’s 3-5-2 is a defensive, reactive system. Unlike Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool’s 3-4-3, it’s very slow and predicatble. Fittingly, the best performances in this system for United has been at home to Rodgers’ side and away to Arsenal, two games where the opposition wanted to play on the front foot and attack United. That suited United who could drop back and counter-attack to great effect and earn themselves two confidence-boosting wins against difficult opposition.
Other than those two wins, performances have been dull. United have been slow and predictable in their attacking play and very rarely managed to get some pace in to the attack. Yes, there have been a lot of possession, but hardly aggressive, penetrative possession but instead mainly meaningless.
The three centre-backs has often been to slow to shift the ball between them as well as inept at running with it in to the space that most teams have vacated for the two wider centre-backs. Also, the use of Michael Carrick as the deep-lying playmaker has meant two players in a space where only one is needed as both Carrick and the central centre-back has been getting into each others space. This has especially minimized Carrick’s influence as he’s not getting on the ball as much as he would like, or crucially as early. Obviously you would rather Carrick dictating your build-up play than McNair, Smalling or Jones.
The crucial position in this system of the wing-backs has also been a failure. While the preferred two, Luke Shaw and Rafael, has been injured on a consistent basis, and both of them not looking comfortable in the roles when playing, two of the squads most limited players have been made key men for United. Ashley Young has relished that responsibility and has had his best season since his debut fall in 2011, but Antonio Valencia has been very frustrating to watch. Generally, all four of them (and Daley Blind when he has played) has been in way to advanced starting positions which has resulted in them becoming pressed easily and forced to turn back to their centre-backs. Simply, the wing-backs aren’t working for United attacking-wise.
In the attacking positions there have been one major issue and that is the lack of a natural position for Angel Di Maria, the best player in the squad. He’s been played up front alongside Robin van Persie, most often, and while it worked at Arsenal when United defended ultra-deep, it hasn’t worked at all in other games and Di Maria’s influence that was so huge at the start of the season has faded. The idea is easy to understand though, as a front two of Falcao and van Persie has proved to be way to slow and immobile. With van Gaal preferring Wayne Rooney in midfield alongside Juan Mata and Carrick, there has been a lack of pace up front and therefore the experiment with Di Maria up there. However, the Argentinean is way to good, and crucially wasn’t signed, to play the Chicharito-role of stretching defences with runs in behind the defence.
In conclusion, the 3-5-2 has proved to be a decent go to move in tough away games to help increase the solidity of the defence, and the wins against Arsenal, Southampton and Liverpool as well as the draw at Tottenham highlight the success, but in terms of attacking football, it’s been a failure. Of course, van Gaal has preferred control over excitement, but as I will demonstrate later on, it’s possible to achieve both.
In September, I wrote a piece suggesting that van Gaal should take a look at Sir Alex Ferguson’s old experiment with a 4-4-2 shape with a midfield diamond. The Dutchman agreed, and United played some great attacking football in those games. 4-0 against QPR, the first hour in the ridiculous 5-3 loss at Leicester, and also beat both West Ham and Everton at home before van Gaal abandoned the experiment. He revisited it for the home games against Hull and Stoke, and United won 3-0 and 2-1, and against Hull they put in an excellent performance. Just 10 days ago, a second half shift to the diamond from a 3-5-2 at QPR rendered a shift in mentality and result, as United won 2-0. While the results are impressive, the games has been much more open than when in the 3-5-2 shape. The magnificent form of David De Gea has been key in certain games to keep the team winning. However, there is no debating the fact that the results are significantly better in this system.
The main thing that is better than in the 3-5-2 is that key players play in their natural positions. From back to front, the centre-backs are more comfortable in a back four than in a back three, and Luke Shaw as well as Rafael are both excellent full-backs. Without natural wingers they are allowed to bomb on down the flanks, and are not stuck in the high starting positions as when they play wing-backs.
In midfield both Michael Carrick and Daley Blind are comfortable dropping in between the two centre-backs when they split to get on the ball and start attacks. Also, Angel Di Maria plays in the left-midfield position where he is involved a lot more than when playing up front. Ander Herrera has been impressive in the right-midfield position and Juan Mata is excellent in the 10 role and has also shown that he can be very effective in one of the two deeper roles either side of Carrick/Blind. Wayne Rooney can be used in all three of the more advanced midfield positions as well as up front. However, neither Falcao nor van Persie has impressed consistently up front in this shape, again highlighting their lack of mobility as they are forced wide quite often.
A massive positive in this system has been the amount of players linking up centrally, and the negative has been the inability to deal with the wide areas outside the midfield diamond ahead of the full-back, however this shouldn’t be a problem with the mobility and energy of Herrera and Di Maria if they are instructed correctly.
Van Gaal’s self proclaimed preferred system, which has been used surprisingly little. There was a four game period in late October/early November when United used this shape, played well and looked to be on the way to something great. The first game was away to West Brom when United performed horribly in the first half but fared much better in the second where a late equalizer by Daley Blind rescued a point for the Reds. Then followed the 1-1 draw with Chelsea at Old Trafford before the 1-0 loss at City in the derby, where United started brightly and looked in control before Chris Smalling’s idiotic red card left the side with a major struggle. After that followed a 1-0 win at home to Crystal Palace before the international break prior to the Arsenal game we’ve already covered earlier in this article.
Why hasn’t the 4-3-3 been used since then? I honestly have no good answer to that, since it seemed to tick all the boxes for van Gaal; balance in both attack and defense, control in midfield and creativity up front. Let’s revisit that Chelsea game, where United really competed toe-to-toe with the league leaders.
United’s setup was classic van Gaal and classic Dutch. A back four with Rafael to the right, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo in the middle and Luke Shaw as left-back. In midfield the three was Daley Blind as the holding midfielder and Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini ahead of him. Robin van Persie was chosen up front with Angel Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj on either wing.
Here we see the defensive setup with Januzaj and Di Maria dropping back to create a five-man midfield. An interesting part of van Gaal’s game plan was the use of man-marking defending in midfield.
In both the images above I have highlighted how United nullified Chelsea’s midfielders influence on the game. Mata marks Matic, Fellaini picks up Fabregas and Daley Blind is marking Willian. This was a great success in the game. In both scenarios Di Maria presses Filipe Luis who has no choice but to go backwards as there is no option available in midfield. This was probably the worst performance of Cesc Fabregas’ season so far, and the major issue for him was the man-marking from Fellaini he had to endure. In the end, the game finished 1-1 after a set-piece goal each, but United’s performance appeared to signal the team moving in the right direction. That is why it is so puzzling that the use of 4-3-3 has disappeared completely.
As mentioned above, it ticks all of van Gaal’s boxes. David De Gea is the obvious number one in goal, and in front of him the back four used in the Chelsea game should be the preferred quartet. Rafael and Luke Shaw are both excellent, attacking full-backs as well as energetic and aggressive defensively and if they could just stay fit they should be mainstays of the side. Marcos Rojo has consistently impressed in his debut season and is now the first choice centre-back. He combines brilliant passing ability with a ruthlessness to his defending which makes him perfect for van Gaal and his style of football. The second best defender this season has been Chris Smalling for me, who has reacted well after the red card in the derby and has repaid his manager with some very good performances. The Londoner has also established a good on-pitch relationship with Rojo after several games together at the heart of defence.
Michael Carrick is perfect for the holding role in midfield, and should be joined by Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria. Herrera has been very good this season and possess everything you need from a midfielder. He’s combative, energetic, aggressive and presses well from a defensive point of view. The Basque is also creative and tidy in possession as well as having a very good shooting ability, which he has demonstrated on a few occasions this season.
The main reason for changing to a 4-3-3 however, is the fact it will mean Di Maria playing in the same position as last year when at Real Madrid. He’s been used wrongly on way to many occasions and it has minimized his influence on the team.
In midfield he is always involved and his dribbling ability allows him to break opposition lines by running with the ball, which is much harder to defend against than just pure possession. His energy and work rate is unmatched, and with Carrick and Herrera they would form an extremely energetic and flexible midfield three.
The front three would definitely need to include Adnan Januzaj, who performed admirably in the four starts he got in the autumn playing as an out-and-out winger. He’s been criminally underused by van Gaal, especially if you consider is performance against Chelsea where he constantly got on the ball to attack Ivanovic or Luis, played a key part in a few dangerous United counter-attacks and also played a couple of delicious passes to van Persie, including one who set up a one-on-one with Courtois for the Dutchman. In my suggested team he could play on either side, but would most likely start on the left as he’s been combining well with Luke Shaw when they’ve played together, and I’m intrigued to see what he could achieve with Di Maria.
Juan Mata would also be in my side, but on the right. He would not play as a winger, but would instead come inside and link-up with the midfielders and the striker to create chances. With three midfielders behind him, he doesn’t have to worry as much about the defensive side of the game. He’s a beautiful player to watch, with his passing and creativity mightily important to United and their game. His goal-scoring record is also a major asset to van Gaal.
A player not mentioned until now is the captain, Wayne Rooney. His performances in midfield has been very inconsistent, and van Persie and Falcao’s form mean Rooney should be moved up front again. There’s a million differing views on Rooney, but you can’t question his ability to score goals. He always gets goals when he plays up front, and he would be a more mobile and physical option than the other two star strikers. He would press from the front, which would suit the rest of the team.
Suggested XI: De Gea; Rafael-Smalling-Rojo-Shaw; Herrera-Carrick-Di Maria; Mata-Rooney-Januzaj;
Finally, as this article has shown, all three systems have their own strengths and weaknesses. However, playing a 4-3-3 with the right players in the right positions, and it is the shape which would suit the squad best, should make for a faster, more exciting and attractive style of play without losing the defensive balance and the midfield control van Gaal is always seeking to impose. If United can finish third, have a good FA Cup-run and please their fans with their style of play during the rest of the season, van Gaal’s first year in charge will be deemed a decent start to his Old Trafford career. What he then can go on to achieve remains to be seen, but pleasing the bored masses at the Theatre of Dreams at the same time as getting results would be a very good start.
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