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As we move into the new club football season, Outside of the Boot will be publishing regular Tactical Previews of the sides from across Europe’s top seven leagues. This one is of Premier League giants, Manchester United, led  by Louis van Gaal. Arnab Ray takes a look at their basic formation, analyses their tactics, key player and their potential key young player of the 2014/15 season.


As Louis van Gaal’s unfancied Dutch team made it all the way to the semi-finals of the World Cup, the Oranje fans weren’t the only ones excited. The enigmatic Dutch manager had of course been confirmed as the new Manchester United manager prior to the showpiece event. Van Gaal has already made his presence felt at the club both off the field and on it. For the first time in my living memory, United look set to consistently play with 3 centre-backs at the heart of defence.

Formation | How will they set-up?

Made using Tactical Pad

Made using Tactical Pad

The 4-3-3 has been the cornerstone of the many successes orchestrated by Van Gaal but as he did with the Dutch during the World Cup, he has opted for a 3-4-1-2 ( or a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 or even a 5-3-2 depending on your formation nomenclature style ). Regardless of what you call it, the system is one with a focus of condensing space. The 3 centre-backs form the last line of defence which is supplemented by wing-backs on either side. The wing-backs are expected to patrol the length of the pitch balancing their contributions to both defence and attack. The 2 in central midfield have to maintain a similar balance and also have an important role to play off the ball as will be shown later. Ahead of the duo is the number 10 who has a free role. Upfront there is room for 2 strikers, another factor which has led Van Gaal to opt for this system given the number of strikers United can call upon.

Analysis | What can we expect from them tactically?

Off the ball: United’s basic strategy off the ball mirrors that of the Dutch side in the World Cup. As mentioned above the underlying philosophy is to restrict the space for the opposition. There is an element of energetic pressing as soon as the ball is lost in higher areas of the pitch as the focus is on recovering the ball quickly and not getting caught out in transition. However if the opposition has the ball in the third close to their own goal then the focus shifts to the maintenance of positions and trying to force the errant short pass or a more direct long ball.

To expand on the above principle, consider the scenario in the recent pre-season game against Liverpool denoted by the graphic given below. One of the first things you’d expect from a team off the ball is that the strikers press and harry the opposition centre-backs to force a mistake. This is not so in the case of United. Instead the opposition defenders are often afforded time and space on the ball as can be seen below with Sakho. The 2 strikers, Rooney and Hernandez, denoted by the 2 circles occupy positions in the left and right channels respectively. This starting position blocks off the angled pass to the full back on Sakho’s side of the field and also allows them to cover a more central position if required to do so. The number 10 of the system i.e. Mata is responsible for picking up the midfielder who drops deep to take the ball off the centre-back.

The roles of the attacking players off the ball

The roles of the attack and midfield off the ball

The 2 midfielders behind the attacking trio have more dynamic roles. They have the obvious benefit of seeing play unfold in front of them. The base positions of the 2 midfielders is in the gap between the number 10 and one of the strikers. The players though aren’t shy of following their opposition midfielder if he drops deeper albeit up to a point. If the opposition midfielder drops much deeper, then the midfielder retreats to his base position once again and plugs any gap that may have been formed. In the aftermath of the above graphic, Fletcher does just that. The wing-backs have similarly measured roles in trying to maintain a balance in between cutting off space and not being dragged out of position. The centre-backs are responsible for the marking of the opposition strikers including the license to follow their men up the pitch at times. This point will be further discussed in the next section devoted to the coordination between the defenders.

Defensive coordination between the back 3: One of the main challenges of the new system is the need of the defenders to adapt to the 3 centre-back formation. The outside centre-backs follow their men up the pitch from time to time as can be seen in the below graphic.

Above: Below:

Smalling steps up to follow Icardi (Above) Jones does the same with Sterling (Below)

In the first case, Smalling has followed Icardi up the pitch to pressurize him. It is to be noted that Jones has to make the necessary adjustment as well covering the runner and making sure that he doesn’t get in behind. The same is seen once again although this time it is Jones who has stepped up.

United’s pre-season may have been successful but there’s no doubt that the defence, or for that matter the system, is definitely a work in progress. This was particularly apparent in the early games against LA Galaxy and AS Roma. The fact that the 2 midfielders are usually hover around the half line, the defence will naturally step up to decrease the space in between the lines. The back 3, or back 5 when the wing-backs drop deep, generally maintain a high line as shown below.

United defence maintain a high line against Inter

United defence maintain a high line against Inter

The resulting space in behind is something United will have to be wary of. The game against Roma especially was characterized by a couple of hiccups with Destro reveling in the space in behind. United weathered the storm and eventually prevailed but it could have been a very different first half. For those who fancy a bet or two, putting some money on opposition strikers who like to play on the shoulder of the last defender wouldn’t be the worst idea.

Another area in which work is required is to ensure that the trio at the back don’t leave too big a gap between themselves and also successfully cover the space left behind by the wing-back especially in transition.

Playing out from the back and quick circulation up the pitch: We see that teams with 2 centre-backs often have a midfielder drop in between them to create a similar effect of 3 centre-backs. Thus with 3 centre-backs, there is a natural inclination to play out from the back. The 2 outside centre-backs move apart to their respective touchlines. If the opposition press high up the pitch, then the longer ball option is exercised often from goal kicks aimed at the wing-backs on either side of the pitch.

Much of the possession in this phase is patient as United probe away and look for space to utilize. The wing-backs hug the touchlines and stretch the field while one of the midfielders drop deeper. Once the ball is worked into the midfield area, there’s a marked increase in the tempo of football. The fact that it has just been in pre-season is an obvious caveat but there’s been some excellent football on show by United thus far. Some of the one touch passing along with precise movement off the ball has been a joy to watch. Herrera has impressed with his capability to create space and pick out the forward pass quickly. The game against Inter in particular threw up a couple of great moves involving interplay between the front trio of Mata, Rooney and Welbeck as shown below.

Triangle formed between Fletcher, Rooney and Mata ( Above ) Mata driving into the space created ( Below )

Triangle formed between Fletcher, Rooney and Mata ( Above ) Mata driving into the space created ( Below )

The image on top shows the triangle formed by Rooney coming deeper and acting as one of the vertices of the base of the triangle. Rooney coming deeper opens up the space for the Spaniard to drive into and receive Welbeck’s cushioned first time pass. Another dimension of the link-up play is between the wing-backs and the strikers. The strikers are expected to pull out into wide positions and offer an option for the ball down the line and bring the marauding wing-backs into play.

One of the shortcomings of United last season was the over-reliance on wide play. This has been seemingly addressed already with United chalking up a fair share of final third entries both through the middle and the wings.

Key Player | Who will be the stand-out player for the system?

It is tempting to throw in one of the big name attacking players that United boast of. Ander Herrera and Jonny Evans are other candidates but the player I’d somewhat surprisingly pick is Darren Fletcher. The health problems of the midfielder is well documented and many feared that he would never play for United again, or if he did he wouldn’t be the same. This pre-season has been a breath of fresh air for the experienced Scotsman. The absence of Carrick has seen Fletcher step up and in addition to his all action style, he’s shown he has the distribution to thrive under Van Gaal. He’s also not shy in terms of stepping up to contribute to the attack.

Talent Radar | Who will be the key young player this season?

Luke Shaw: The 19 year-old was a big money signing and it looks like he’ll be first choice left-wing back this season with Ashley Young the only real competition for that spot at the moment. Shaw has already been in the spotlight with Van Gaal questioning his fitness especially for the wing-back role but he’s responded well both off and on the pitch. The youngster definitely has the potential to become United’s first choice left back for the years to come.

Nick Powell: The midfielder enjoyed a successful loan spell at Wigan last season playing in an advanced position. Although he wasn’t part of the pre-season tour or the game against Valencia, he’ll be hoping to catch the eye of Van Gaal in the coming season. With an eye for goal, the Crewe youth product should back himself to get some game time at Old Trafford if he isn’t loaned out.

Adnan Januzaj: One of the few bright spots of last season, Januzaj has only featured once in pre-season after reporting back from his World Cup campaign. Given Van Gaal’s propensity to promote young players, there should be a role for the young Belgian in the coming season. He may not be best suited for the wing-back position but he’s certainly capable of offering something at any of the front three positions.

The above three players have been selected based on position and the likelihood of game time. James Wilson is definitely one to watch. The young striker scored a brace on debut against Hull last season and recently put local rivals City to sword scoring 4 goals in the Manchester Senior Cup final. He’s a player who has great ability to breeze past defenders and find the back of the net. Michael Keane, Tyler Blackett, Reece James, Jesse Lingard, Will Keane and Wilfried Zaha are some of the other Talent Radar eligible candidates who will be looking to break into the first team or go out on loan.

Written by Arnab Ray. Editor on this site.


You can read all our 2014/15 Tactical Previews, and all articles in our The Devil’s Advocate Manchester United blog.

Arnab Ray

Arnab Ray

Arnab is an opinionated Bengaluru FC and Manchester United fan. Always up for a good football discussion/ petty argument.
Arnab Ray

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