With Louis van Gaal at the helm, the 2nd half of the season was supposed to be when the new and improved Manchester United would show that they have well and truly embraced and mastered the Dutchman’s philisophy. However, a dip in form has seen a few questions raised about the tactics used. Rahul Natarajan explores the conundrums faced by the experienced manager.
Over the course of his managerial career, Louis van Gaal has earned labels such as “autocratic” and “obstinate”. In many ways, these labels are accurate and deserved: high-profile clashes with superstar players and powerful board members have occurred on multiple occasions. These disputes, while not entirely caused by van Gaal, certainly weren’t helped by the Dutchman’s insistence on doing things his way.
With Netherlands at the World Cup, however, we saw a new, pragmatic Louis van Gaal. Without key midfielder Kevin Strootman, van Gaal changed the Oranje’s system from the traditional 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2. More surprisingly, van Gaal prioritized defensive solidity and ruthless counter-attacking, deviating from his philosophy of attacking, possession football. His tactics invited criticism from Dutch analysts and former players, but despite their unpopularity, they led the Netherlands to a credible 3rd place finish.
Which Louis van Gaal could Manchester United fans expect to see? The former Ajax, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich manager continued his use of the 3-5-2 with the Red Devils. This seemed the ideal formation, as it fit in Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, and Juan Mata in their favored positions and accounted for the lack of world-class center-backs. The back three saw success in the pre-season tour of the United States, and was retained for the opening day of the Premier League against Swansea. It lasted just 45 minutes though before van Gaal shifted to a 4-3-3 after halftime. The 3-5-2 saw Manchester United pick up just 2 points from their first 3 (4 if you include the MK Dons debacle) games of the season, scoring just two goals in the process.
Van Gaal changed the system again and implemented a 4-4-2 diamond against QPR, which resulted in an impressive performance against less than impressive opposition. Many expected that to be the end of the 3-5-2, especially as the 4-4-2 still allowed for van Gaal to fit his best attackers into their preferred positions. But then came the injuries. The amount of injuries Manchester United have suffered this season has bordered on the ridiculous. It has resulted in the early promotion of academy products Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair and the conversion of Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to wing-backs. With injuries to Rafael and Luke Shaw, van Gaal was forced to return to the 3-5-2 to make up for the defensive liabilities of Valencia and Young. Since returning at the Emirates in a smash-and-grab win against Arsenal, the 3-5-2 has been van Gaal’s formation of choice. This victory was part of a long unbeaten run, but the lackluster performances were masked almost entirely by the positive results. United somehow won away at Arsenal and Southampton despite being outplayed for the majority of the game and struggling to create meaningful chances. Victory over Liverpool was deserved, but the points were only secured by a superhuman performance by David de Gea. For the time being, the 3-5-2 survived.
However, cracks began to appear starting with a draw at Aston Villa that began a five game run where van Gaal’s men only picked up a solitary victory. Once the unbeaten run was snapped by Southampton, the critics were out in full force, condemning the 3-5-2. And this is where the question of van Gaal’s stubbornness comes into play. With the performances unconvincing, the attack pedestrian, and the results unimpressive, why hasn’t van Gaal reverted to a back four?
The obvious answer would be increased defensive stability. The presence of an extra center-back gives added protection to De Gea’s goal. Manchester United have conceded the third lowest amount of goals this season; in games with the 3-5-2, United have conceded at less than a goal a game (0.8), as opposed to 1.2 goals per game with a back 4. Undoubtedly, the numbers are skewed because of the anomalous result at Leicester, which featured a back four, but overall the back three has offered more defensive cover than the back four.
Aside from the presence of an extra center-back, van Gaal’s defensive system has utilized the strengths of the 3-5-2 to provide added cover. The Dutchman has attempted to drill into his players a specific pattern of defensive movement. One of the key components of his system is the wing-backs. When the opposition full-back gains possession, van Gaal wants his wing-back to engage the full-back high up the pitch. The 3-5-2 allows for this defensive movement, as the other defenders shift and form a conventional back four to cover for the wing-back. The midfield and forwards proceed to squeeze space, cut passing lanes and look to intercept misplaced passes.
Consider the below graphic. In the 3-5-2, Ashley Young, the left wing-back, aggressively closes down the opposing full-back. The left center-back shifts into the space left by Young, and the back line now resemble a traditional back four as Blackett (the LCB) takes up the left-back role and Lingard drops in at right-back. This systematic pressing forces the opposition’s full-back to pass backwards to his center-back.
The same happens on the other side. Lingard and Jones anticipate the ball being switched to the opposition’s left-back, and the right wing-back Lingard mirrors Young and closes down the full-back. Jones shifts to right-back, and again a back four is created. Once again, the opposition full-back is forced to go backwards, especially as Manchester United have squeezed the space in midfield and cut out passing options.
Even if United do not gain possession, the opposition are forced to rebuild. In many ways, van Gaal’s philosophy neutralizes the opposition. In practice, however, the defensive setup has come undone, as players are still trying to grasp van Gaal’s system. Teams like Arsenal and Liverpool who had the players and the ability to move the ball quickly broke through United’s system and carved open the defense; they couldn’t get past De Gea however. Regardless, the 3-5-2 constricted the opposition and limited the number of chances the Red Devils conceded.
In contrast, the 4-4-2 diamond lacked the necessary balance to execute van Gaal’s system of limiting space. United were exposed in two ways with the diamond. Opposing teams were able to carve out more chances as United’s midfield was unable to efficiently cover space in the way van Gaal wanted. Therefore, the entire team needed to work much harder to make up for the diamond’s liabilities; as a result, United began to fade drastically past the hour mark in games, setting up nervy finales. The difference in the two formations was seen against QPR as van Gaal started with the 3-5-2 before switching to the diamond after the 56th minute. Although United instantly became more dangerous offensively, they allowed QPR to create more opportunities as well.
A statistic that stands out from the QPR game is that Manchester United enjoyed 68% possession with the 3-5-2, and only 50% possession after the formation change. While this drastic shift can be attributed a certain extent to QPR’s need to attack after falling behind, the 3-5-2 does provide van Gaal’s team with more possession and control of the game. However, Manchester United have failed to make this possession count as they have struggled to carve out meaningful chances in the 3-5-2. There are obvious problems with United’s build-up play; even though they usually dominate the ball, van Gaal’s men have serious problems in possession.
Let’s start with the center-backs. Manchester United have struggled to move the ball quickly and efficiently from the back this season. Opponents have let United’s center-backs have the ball, but they have set up in such a way to cut out passes into midfield. Time and time again, United’s center-backs have been forced to move the ball from side to side before aimlessly hoofing it up-field. Shockingly, for a manager like Louis van Gaal who preaches the importance of possession, Manchester United have played the highest number of long balls in the top 5 leagues this season (1460!). This problem is only amplified when the 3-5-2 is used as it removes an option in midfield. One can see why van Gaal is reportedly interested in bringing in a player like Mats Hummels, as none of the current Manchester United center-backs have the ball-playing ability to thrive in this system. The Dutchman has used Michael Carrick at the heart of the defense to try and solve this problem, but the Englishman is needed further up the pitch as well.
As a result, United’s build-up play in the 3-5-2 has been far too slow, with too many sideways passes. Even when the ball is moved into midfield, the lack of urgency allows the opposition to sit deep and negate Manchester United. No other team in the league has made as many sideways passes as the Red Devils. Van Gaal’s team simply isn’t incisive enough. There is no doubt that the Dutchman wants to instill a passing, possession brand of football at Old Trafford. At this present moment, his philosophy hasn’t translated onto the field. Part of the blame lies with the players. Despite the attacking quality United possess, the current crop of midfielders have so far been unable to move the ball with enough precision and speed. Furthermore, the attackers have failed to move into and properly exploit the space in the final third. Despite the world-class attackers in the lineup, Manchester United have struggled to create chances as they have problems in possession. In the 3-5-2, United have struggled to move the ball around quickly. One of the main issues is the inability to exploit space, as seen below. As Mata gains possession, Manchester United players should be in the area enclosed by the blue circles to continue building the attack. Instead, Mata’s only options are backwards passes or a sideways pass to Young, who is closely marked. The lack of movement is one of the reasons Manchester United’s build up play has been extremely slow as the lack of options has resulted in a large amount of sideways and backwards passes.
The players are reluctant to make the risky, penetrative pass, and the midfielders aren’t helped by the static movement in front of them. As a result, they are resigned to moving the ball around midfield, in front of the opposition.
At the same time, some of van Gaal’s decisions have to be questioned. Angel Di Maria enjoyed a blistering start to English football after his move from Real Madrid. Utilizing his pace and dribbling prowess, Di Maria’s mazy runs from deep were unstoppable. Combined with his vision and his passing ability as well as an engine that allowed him to run for days, Manchester United finally had a world-class midfielder in their midst. Once United shifted to the 3-5-2 however, di Maria was shunted up front into an unfamiliar role. His replacement in midfield? Only the player who will likely go on to become both Manchester United’s and England’s record scorer. Over the years, there have been calls to shift Wayne Rooney into midfield as many believed the former Everton man could fill the substantial hole left by Paul Scholes. Rooney has the ability to play in midfield; he is tenacious, tireless, and well-rounded. But United’s play is suffering due to the confusing switch in positions of Rooney and Di Maria.
The comparisons to Paul Scholes have arisen from Rooney’s ability to make that eye-catching switch of play from midfield to Valencia on the right wing. Impressive, yes, but Rooney in midfield slows Manchester United’s play drastically. Wayne Rooney doesn’t lack energy or creativity; however, with teams sitting deep against Manchester United, the team needs someone in midfield who can move the ball quickly and then continue the attack with dynamic movement. Players like Ander Herrera and Di Maria have this extra spark, but in contrast, Rooney seems to dawdle slightly on the ball. On multiple occasions this season, Rooney has broken down a quick passing move by delaying the pass or by ignoring a runner. He can switch play impressively, but this doesn’t carve open defensive teams who have the time to shift in order to deal with the switch of play.
With goals against Liverpool and Newcastle created by late runs into the box, there is a case for Rooney playing the Lampard role for Manchester United. But Rooney’s best position has always been upfront. Regardless of what the media would have you believe, Wayne Rooney is still a brilliant player and an exceptional finisher. Earlier in the season, Manchester United saw great success through fluid attacking play created by Di Maria and Herrera and midfield with Rooney up top or in the hole. Van Gaal put Di Maria up front to bring pace to the front line. However, his speed is more needed in United’s engine room. With the sluggish nature of United’s current build-up play, shifting Di Maria back into his preferred position would undoubtedly inject much-needed pace and dynamism to Manchester United’s midfield. The chances would flow, and United’s captain would be there to finish them.
One of the lasting impressions from Manchester United’s nightmare under David Moyes was the uninspiring style of football the Scot had brought to Old Trafford. Even as results were poor at the start of van Gaal’s tenure as United’s manager, there was a consensus that the Red Devils were finally playing better football. As the summer signings began to integrate and the Dutchman’s philosophy began to take hold, Manchester United began to play a fluid, attacking style of football that hasn’t been seen since the days of the dangerous Ronaldo, Rooney, and Tevez partnership. Since the win at the Emirates, however, United have begun to regress in terms of free, flowing football. The team has been grinding out results after uninspiring performances. With United recently beginning to again drop points, van Gaal’s tactics have to be questioned. The Di Maria/Rooney conundrum is easily solved, and Di Maria did drop into midfield in the second half against QPR and against Cambridge United in the FA Cup. The formation debate is a little trickier. While Manchester United fans were chanting “4-4-2” at halftime against QPR, van Gaal is right in pointing out the flaws in the diamond system. United have leaked chances and faced late pressure using the 4-4-2, which according to van Gaal, has left him “twitching his ass” on the bench. There are pros and cons to both systems, and Manchester United fans around the world can only hope Louis van Gaal makes the right decision as the race for the top 4 has suddenly begun to heat up.
Written by Rahul Natarajan