United’s switch to the 3-5-2 formation has been much talked about by fans and critics alike. One of the major reasons for Van Gaal’s backing of this system is that it seems to suit his attacking personnel and enables him to pick the trio of Mata, Rooney and Van Persie. This has meant that the wingers have had to adapt and Luke Regan examines the impact on Adnan Januzaj.
Last season, under David Moyes, Manchester United football club experienced what must surely go down as their worst campaign during the modern era. Following many hapless defeats to teams that in the past would struggle to trouble United, the Manchester outfit finished in 7th place in the Premier League, with Moyes losing his job before the end of the season as a direct result.
Perhaps the only bright spark for United fans last season was the emergence, and performances of Belgian starlet Adnan Januzaj, 19. Januzaj’s performances for the Red Devils, particularly in league football, gave the fans an exciting peek at the vibrant player who may well go on to be a key player in the future of the football club.
Therefore, in theory, the appointment of Dutchman Louis van Gaal as the new manager of United is a positive thing with regards to the development of Januzaj, with Van Gaal being famed for his ability to nurture and aid the development of young footballers. After all, Van Gaal is often credited with, and rightly so, playing a major part in the careers of Thomas Muller and Xavi Hernandez (among others), both of whom have both gone on to win major honours.
During the World Cup, in which Holland finished 3rd, Van Gaal operated almost exclusively with a 3-5-2 formation, a system which is certainly new to Manchester United, where historically, the 4-4-2 formation, with flying wingers is popular.
Last season, in United’s 4-2-3-1, which is a variation of a 4-4-2, Januzaj operated on either flank, terrorizing many top level full backs, scoring four goals and three assists in 27 appearances, just 15 of which were starts. Whilst Januzaj is capable of playing in the wide areas- with a license to roam, it is understood that his favoured position, and the one that he impressed in for the United youth teams was that of the central attacking midfielder. Just through watching Januzaj last season, from the wing, it is clear that he has the guile and imagination to excel as a number ten, with the Belgium international showing exceptional poise when in possession of the ball.
However, as Van Gaal pointed out during the early stages of his tenure at United, the squad depth varied by position, with the Dutchman saying that ‘We have four No. 10s, so the selection is not balanced in my eyes. ’ It is thought that the players that Van Gaal was alluding to initially in the statement were: Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa, Wayne Rooney and Januzaj. It’s fair to say that Januzaj is actually fourth choice to play in his favoured number ten role, with further competition for the role potentially being in the form Ander Herrera, the £29m signing from Athletic Club.
The fact that United appear to be operating with the 3-5-2 shape Van Gaal used with Holland means that Januzaj’s ‘second role’- on the wing, will simply not be used, with wing-backs being utilised to provide width instead. While Ashley Young has managed to convert himself into a makeshift wing-back, and so may get game time, it is difficult to see Januzaj completing such a conversion, with his lack of stamina and defensive diligence surely counting against him.
Furthermore, other roles that Januzaj could possibly fit into within the 3-5-2, although unlikely, could be that of one of the central strikers, or in the central midfield. Having played as something of a false nine previously for both Manchester United youth teams and during friendly matches; it would certainly remain an option for Van Gaal. Furthermore, Januzaj does boast some of the attributes to play in central midfield, particularly his imaginative passing and the ability to evade challenges, as Van Gaal opted to use the young Belgian in that position from the bench against Sunderland. However, due to other players within the squad who are more suited to the roles mentioned (and the signings made), the possibilities alluded to appear unlikely.
Of course, the 3-5-2 shape clearly didn’t work out during United’s opening game of the season, in which they were defeated 2-1 by Swansea, and also during the 1-1 draw away at Sunderland. The recent 0-0 draw vs Burnley, a 4th consecutive disappointing result for United, again saw a similar formation, and again young Januzaj was restricted to a substitute appearance. Perhaps then, Van Gaal will eventually change shape, perhaps to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, two systems that would certainly suit Januzaj. However, given the infamously stubborn character that Van Gaal carries, it would seem unlikely that he would be so willing to go back on his initial thoughts and switch formation.
To conclude, this season may well end up being something of a frustrating one for Adnan Januzaj, with first team opportunities appearing, from an outsider’s, to be very sparse, both in his favoured position of the number ten, and out wide. Whilst the new Manchester United number eleven is going to go on and become a star, it may be unlikely that this season is his real break-through.
Written by Luke Regan
Read all our articles in the Manchester United Team Blog, “The Devil’s Advocate”.
- Louis Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 doesn’t bode well for Adnan Januzaj - August 31, 2014