Much has been spoken about who would be the privileged one to spearhead Manchester United’s attack this season. With Robin van Persie slowly letting time catch up to him, youth academy product James Wilson having a go, loanee, Radamel Falcao being the inbound big name this past summer and captain Wayne Rooney also a part of the cards, the Dutch manager has quite the decision to make.
The most recent and well documented debate surrounding Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United is that of systems and how van Gaal’s decision to persevere with 3 central defenders has, in the eyes of many, contributed to the recent poor performances with many having a lasting dislike for the 3-4-1-2 system dating back to the very beginning of the season. With the exception of a short spell, where from the West Brom game away on the 20th October, up until the Palace game on the 8th November, United played a 4-3-3 formation, playing with two strikers, whether in a 3-4-1-2 or 4-4-2 diamond, has been the norm this season. This has seen many combinations of strike partners, some with greater success than others.
Robin van Persie – 22 appearances (all starts), 9 goals, 2 assists (Premier League only)
On an individual basis, van Persie’s season echoes that of the team as a whole; flashes of brilliance, but yet to really catch fire. Whilst a match winning performance against Southampton and another exemplary display against Liverpool the following week stand out, there have been times where van Persie has been questioned and written off this season due to an inability to recreate his irrepressible form of two seasons prior. van Persie currently registers 2.6 shots per game (via whoscored.com), the second best in the team, a fairly low figure, showing that 9 goals represents a decent return for the amount of supply he is provided. van Persie is a highly technical striker, capable of holding the ball up well and playing through balls or accurate crosses to set up his teammates, meaning that his 1.10 chances created per 90 minutes average (via squawka.com) is relatively poor. However many fans have pointed to the fact that the 3-4-1-2 system, (the most played this season) limits the amount of time the strikers spend on the ball and this could be a contributing factor. van Persie has been United’s first choice No.9 this season, tasked with holding up the ball to bring others into play and finish off chances, completing the 90 minutes on 14 occasions. The recent win over Leicester was a perfect example of what is expected tactically of van Persie, his goal (although marginally offside) showing how he is primarily positioned alongside the centre backs, ready to run onto passes over the top or down the sides. However, van Persie instinctively drifts to the right when contributing to the build-up play and thus, him lining up as the right sided central striker allows for this. His involvement in the second goal also demonstrated a strong aspect of his game, where he took the ball on the chest, surged into the space, dribbled past an onrushing defender and laid the ball off to Di Maria who was running ahead of him. Whilst being no slouch, van Persie is not the quickest of strikers, particularly with the ball at his feet and so having runners to lay the ball off to supports his style of play effectively.
Radamel Falcao – 10(5) appearances, 4 goals, 3 assists
Falcao is a player many United fans have taken to their hearts despite things not going quite as expected. A mixture of injury, adjustment to the frantic hustle and bustle of the Premier League and inconsistent selection has meant Falcao has not added to his fabled reputation in United red as yet. However this is not to say he has not made a positive contribution, with each of his goals so far proving crucial in United obtaining at least a point, whilst he also seems to be building a good understanding with van Persie and Di Maria in particular. Falcao has also played far fewer minutes than van Persie 1805 vs 863, yet his 123 minutes per goal/assist ratio betters that of van Persie, at 164 minutes. Falcao has made a career out of being a lone front man, where the team use him as the focal point to finish off chances and so adjusting to playing in a front two and altering his runs is something he has had to adapt to, meaning he deserves credit for his averages. He also averages more shots per 90 minutes, 3.02 and has a better shooting accuracy at a respectable 63%, than any other United striker. His physical style of play and desire to attack every cross into the box is the polar opposite of van Persie, thus giving United a different option. However, Falcao is more of an old-fashioned No.9 with less emphasis placed on tactical discipline and chance creation. This could potentially be one of the reasons Falcao has not had as many minutes nor starts as he would have liked, with van Gaal preferring strikers who on paper at least, offer a more creative element despite Falcao averaging more chances created per 90 minutes than van Persie at 1.25 vs 1.10 (via sqwauka.com) as well as more assists, 3 vs 2. When played as a pair with van Persie, Falcao has often been the one asked to play slighter deeper and come short to receive the ball from throw ins, thus meaning he more often has players ahead of him to pass to, rather than being on the end of the moves. As yet, Falcao hasn’t scored as many as expected, yet has assisted more than in the previous two seasons combined. Another key component of van Gaal’s philosophy is for his players to play with the brain, rather than acting on instinct, which is perhaps not Falcao’s forte. This is not to say he isn’t an intelligent player, with him often making fantastic runs without being picked out by teammates still adjusting to each other, but that he thrives more on freedom to play his natural game, rather than fulfil specific tactical instruction.
Wayne Rooney – 20 appearances, 8 goals, 4 assists
Increased responsibility has been placed upon Rooney’s shoulders this season after being anointed as captain in the summer, a role which he has grown into impressively. Rooney is a player who divides opinion and one recurring question has been, “is he better as a midfielder or striker?” Personally, Rooney should be competing with the likes of Mata for the No.10 position, where United’s now vast midfield options mean he is not required to play there as a make do, stop gap. Rooney’s best qualities are his creation and finishing, as demonstrated by his 4 assists (second highest in the team) and his position as second top scorer with 8. On the contrary, despite having a fantastic range of passing, Rooney possesses an erratic first touch and can sometimes be caught on the ball, not qualities you would associate with midfield masters such as Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos. Rooney is also a good No. 9 and so offers van Gaal the opportunity to drop either van Persie or Falcao, and use Mata, depending on form and tactics. Some of van Gaal’s team selections have left fans bemused, where Di Maria, who thrives on driving into space with the ball, has been played up front, left to battle with centre backs and in his place, the more physical and clinical Rooney has been asked to operate as a box to box midfielder. Despite having the engine for the role, it is not his best position and limits the influence of two of the best players in the team. More recently, United have reverted back to the 4-4-2 diamond, but it has not meant a return to the No.10 positon for Rooney, where Di Maria and Mata have instead been used, with Rooney left in midfield. van Gaal has spoken constantly about the need for balance in his team and this decision is likely made with this in mind. Rooney is more combative, defensively reliable and stronger than the aforementioned two, and so having him in the engine room frees up Mata and Di Maria to concentrate more on causing damage in the final third. This has come at a cost though, with Rooney failing to record a goal or assist in his last six matches and a drop in his performance level. This demonstrates that although Rooney is one of the more versatile players in terms of being able to cover a number of positions, playing in midfield is a role he is not fully comfortable with, allowing for mixed results where goals and assists from midfield against Liverpool and Newcastle can be placed against poor performances against Southampton and Leicester. In eyes of many fans, United would be better served with Rooney playing higher up, which would see Ander Herrera, a more orthodox playmaker, reinstated.
James Wilson – 2(9) appearances, 1 goal, 0 assists
Despite only recording his first goal of the season against QPR, Wilson has made good progress this season and built on his outstanding promise. Blessed with break neck pace and strong dribbling ability, Wilson offers a directness not afforded by his more reputable peers. In his first start of the season at home to Stoke, he showed a willingness to work the channels and run at the opposition, creating space for the more creative players in the team and came close with a brilliant solo run. van Gaal has managed him well so far, providing him with a taster of the first team in 9 appearances from the bench and two starts, most notably against Liverpool, thus making him feel comfortable in the first team, whilst keeping him hungry for more. Wilson has a remarkable record in youth football with 22 goals in 28 games for the U18’s, U19’s and U21’s in 13/14 (via manutd.com), displaying fantastic ability to finish off moves whilst also scoring exceptional individual goals and the hope is he will transmit this to the first team in time. As with all young players however, he has areas to work on, particularly his hold up play and creativity where he has only created one chance for his teammates in 327 minutes of football (via squawka.com). Given he has only made two starts so far this season as well as his age, it is too early to tell whether he will be developed more in the mould of van Persie, able to carry out tactical instruction to the letter, or remain more similar to Falcao, thriving on instinctive goal poaching and not wholly comfortable with linking the play.
United’s best partnership
A major problem with the current United squad is a lack of genuine pace and injecting more is something that will be high on a list of priorities in the summer. This is particularly evidenced up front and has meant that teams have been able to sit deep, making it difficult for United to break them down without a threat in behind. This is why van Gaal attempted the failed experiment of deploying Di Maria as a striker. Wilson is the quickest of United’s strikers yet his inexperience mean he will not often play instead of Falcao, Rooney or van Persie. For this season at least, United’s strongest front two is Falcao and van Persie, who have on occasion, linked up well and showed good movement in tandem with each other. This was evidenced in particular against Newcastle on Boxing Day, where for the first goal, Falcao and van Persie ran diagonally across each other, switching positions, allowing Falcao to set up the goal. With physical pace not currently available in abundance, United’s movement of the ball and the runs made by players is the best way to break the opposition lines and create openings. In Falcao and van Persie, United have two of the best players in the world at making dangerous runs of the ball and so finding them more often has to be the aim between now and May.
Written by Tom Chambers
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