Januzaj’s departure suggests tactical changes ahead

August 31, 2015 Tags: , , Reads 12 comments
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Amid the transfer market noise it is almost easy to forget that Manchester United was consigned to the club’s first defeat of 2015/16 Premier League on Sunday. Louis Van Gaal’s side twice lost to Swansea City last season and slipped to another defeat in Wales at the weekend prompting thoughts that the Welsh side is the United’s ‘bogey team’, just as Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides of the late noughties struggled to beat Middlesbrough.

Still, the match at Liberty stadium once again demonstrated the Reds’ propensity to turn heavy possession into few goals, with Louis van Gaal resorting to sending Maroune Fellaini on late in the game as a desperate last resort.

United started brightly though, with Ander Herrera deployed in place of injured Adnan Januzaj at number 10 in an otherwise familiar shape:

Figure 1

The difference between in the Spaniard and the Belgian’s movement, below, was one of major factors in, if not the cause of, why United struggled to break down a stubborn Swansea defence though.

One factor is how often Januzaj hits the flanks – far more regularly than Herrera. Herrera may create more chances – he created four at Swansea while Januzaj failed to create any against Newcastle United – but the Belgian’s movement compensates for Juan Mata’s lack of presence on the right flank. Januzaj vacates central space for Memphis Depay to cut in and shoot. Herrera’s more classic interpretation of the number 10 role prevented this at Liberty stadium:

Figure 2

Januzaj vs Newcastle

Adnan Januzaj vs Newcastle

Herrera vs Swansea

Ander Herrera vs Swansea

Where United failed, credit goes to Swansea manager Gary Monk, whose switch to a 4-4-2 diamond following Mata’s goal won the home side the game. United’s shape, with essentially no right-wing, has allowed the Reds to dominate the centre of the park in pervious matches, but the Swansea manager negated that advantage by opting for a narrow formation.

In fact, using two strikers as well as an attacking midfielder, was a particularly effective way of testing United’s makeshift central defensive partnership of Daley Blind and Chris Smalling. It was a shrewd tactical move on Monk’s part.

Van Gaal’s response – bringing Ashley Young on in place of the goalscoring Mata – made perfect sense too. The 4-4-2 diamond is highly vulnerable to being stretched across the field, and introducing a hardworking traditional right-winger is a textbook move to combat the formation, as illustrated below.

Figure 3

Michael Carrick’s concurrent introduction in place of Morgan Schneiderlin was also a wise move on Van Gaal’s part in the context of United’s shift to a 4-3-3 formation. Recall that United’s best football last season was in this system with Carrick holding. Carrick’s superior range of passing means that he engages the flanks much more effectively than Schneiderlin and is therefore well suited to work the inherent weakness of 4-4-2 diamond.

More controversial was Van Gaal’s decision to swap Herrera for Fellaini – and then using the giant midfielder at number nine. With United a goal down the decision to push Fellaini into the Swansea box could have been useful. Indeed, Swansea brought on a third centre-back just to follow the Belgian around the pitch.

Perhaps the braver move still would have been to introduce Fellaini in place of Wayne Rooney, who again struggled to get into the game as he has in each Premier League match this season.

Still, the Herrera-Fellaini substitution was the right call. Again, Rooney works the flanks better than the Spanish midfielder. ‘Lumping it to the big man’ was an option, but another – perhaps primary plan – was to allow Memphis, who had been quiet, to come into the game more. Rooney sat to the left of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the Scouser, who has always displayed a tendency to drift towards the left, makes for an ideal central midfield partner to Memphis.

Tactics aside, the game highlighted some clear problems with some personnel. Sergio Romero reinforced the opinion of some that the Argentinian is not a reliable goalkeeper for a side aspiring to compete on all fronts. David De Gea would have made a better fist of saving Swansea’s first goal, while most Premier League ‘keepers would have stopped the second.

Meanwhile, the major problem caused by Rooney is that he does not ‘lead the line’, nor can he hold up the ball effectively. This allows the opposition defence to creep up the pitch and squeeze Memphis and Mata out of the game.

In theory, Fellaini might perform effectively at number nine. The Belgian could force the opposition into a catch 22 situation where they cannot push up – the traditional defence against a target man – lest Fellaini act as a focal-point for midfielder runners such as Memphis, the now departed Januzaj, and Mata. Nor can they defend deep given Fellaini’s aerial presence.

Still, Memphis, Januzaj and Mata had started to build an understanding with one another before the Belgian’s departure on Monday. Januzaj’s roaming to the flanks allowed Memphis and Mata to cut in – and the three have shown flashes of just how devastating this combination could be. This observation, and Rooney’s tactical indiscipline, could be incorporated into a strikerless formation.

Rooney’s movements to the right could be interpreted as the England captain covering for Mata, but acquiring a strong right-winger could also solve a number of United’s problems. Indeed, this column previously failed to identify a striker that would improve United significantly, while a right-sided forward – such as Gareth Bale or Kevin Volland – would make up the goalscoring numbers and, theoretically, have the same impact as acquiring a new striker.

Using Young or Januzaj on the right does not really solve this issue. Memphis has quickly established himself as an important weapon in United’s arsenal and the Swansea game has demonstrated that a ‘traditional’ number 10 significantly hampers the former PSV player’s game. Mata, Rooney, Fellaini and Herrera simply are not as comfortable as Januzaj on the flanks and Januzaj had to play at 10 in a 4-2-3-1 if Memphis was to shine.

In this analysis the ideal scenario is that a classy right-winger replaces Mata on the right. Still, with Pedro not deemed good enough, it appears unlikely that a classy right-winger will join United before the transfer window closes. Januzaj’s departure also suggests a more permanent move to a 4-3-3 system, below.

Figure 4

This formation will leave room for Memphis to cut in. If Mata is chosen ahead of Young on the right, with Januzaj now at Borussia Dortmund, the Spaniard at least formed a fruitful relationship with Herrera last season. This shape is aided by Matteo Darmian, who has started the season strongly.

The shape is narrow, but this is not a major problem with three players in central midfield allowing Luke Shaw and Darmian to bomb forward. This is not unlike the system Van Gaal used in United’s convincing victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City last season. United, of course, now has better players.

United’s defeat at Swansea demonstrated just how vital Januzaj is to making a 4-2-3-1 system work. With Januzaj now departed, the need for a ‘proper’ right winger lingers. It appears that a 4-3-3 formation is now the only feasible option going forward. Indeed, Van Gaal said he will use “more or less 4-3-3” this season. It is now time to live up to those words.

Diagrams from sharemytactics.com
Statistics and illustrations from squawka.com


Christopher Robin - August 31, 2015 Reply

Great analysis. This is soo much better than the silly stuff papers usually talk about. I love the professional approach to the game when it comes to sports journalism. Hope too see more in the future.

What tactical impact do you think Anthony Martial can bring to United?

The Rookie - September 1, 2015 Reply

Great article Jay.

You saw Januzaj ‘s contribution in a whole different light than I did.

I actually think Young may be back to starting on the left if Memphis doesnt improve his all around play and decision making. Did he put in a single cross against Swansea? I know with just Rooney in the box there isn’t a lot to aim for, but with mata and Memphis only ever cutting in and Rooney not running behind the back line we are fairly easy to defend against. Even when Rooney does make a good run into space nobody passes to him, perhaps because our midfield has lost faith that he wont take to many touches and get tackled. I am a little disappointing in Memphis not forming a better partnership with with Shaw. If Memphis isn’t going to beat a man on the flank or out pace anyone, then get the ball to Shaw!

Keep up the good work Jay!

augustine - September 1, 2015 Reply

question: how was the starting lineup that was used yesterday so effective against brugge? is it just because brugge is a weaker team? it seemed when januzaj last started and was swapped for herrera at 10, the offense really opened up and we were more fluid in attack. how was the situation so different? this starting outfield with januzaj out, herrerra in, and mata, and depay in, really in my opinion the best outfield 11 we have. sure there is a way this combination can work as it did in the ucl qualifiyings?

Dazza2501 - September 1, 2015 Reply

Interesting article, I believe Martial can play wide right of a front three, so perhaps he is the option, with Januzaj able to develop some experience in Dortmund and hopefully come back ready for the first team. In attack I still don’t think the “balance” LVG craves is there. Januzaj is considered too raw, yet Martial is only 19. Rooney is in decline & Mata lacks pace to play wide. Why hasn’t Reus been bid for ? Surely he has pedigree & experience to have immediate impact if Bale is a non runner. Also if you need a central striker to make runs in and behind a defence, why hasn’t James Wilson been given a run, a genuine speed merchant with an eye for goal. After the positive action reinforcing midfield, the indecisiveness since Di Maria left is poor, with Ed Woodward acting as an additional agent , securing various megastars improved deals at their existing clubs. United are the biggest club in the world, not a bargaining chip for others.

Subterranean Steve - September 1, 2015 Reply

The conventional wisdom is that a club needs a big squad if it is seriously chasing domestic and European honours.

Van Gaal is paring our attacking options back to the bone and whilst you might refer to ‘tactical changes ahead’, who knows what’s going to happen when United gets the inevitable injuries, loss of form and suspensions.

There will come a time during the season when van Gaal will struggle to have the resources to implement much of a ‘plan A’, never mind any other alternatives (please don’t mention the ‘F’ word).

logan gungan - September 1, 2015 Reply

It’s time for Dictator L.V.G. to go. He is destroying the harmony and camaraderie amongst a very good bunch of players. Unhappiness amongst the players will never make our team a great one. Do it now.

denton davey - September 1, 2015 Reply

“the game highlighted some clear problems with some personnel. Sergio Romero reinforced the opinion of some that the Argentinian is not a reliable goalkeeper for a side aspiring to compete on all fronts.”

How was Romero “at fault” for the first goal ? Indeed, how was he “at fault” for the second goal ? From my position on the couch in Toronto – watching multiple replays – both goals came as a consequence of UTD getting caught with Shaw bombing forward and the left flank being completely under-manned. While it might be argued that Romero could have – should have ? – blocked Gomis’ shot, the larger part of the build-up to that goal was the wonderful, curled pass into his path (who picked him up ?????) which meant that the shot was a six-footer that squirmed past the keeper.

The negativity directed at Romero – let’s not forget he was his national team’s # 1 when it went to the WC and Copa America finals – is stunning to me. The guy conceded two goals as a result of sloppy defending – maybe one might say, poor defensive team-play; but let’s ignore the fact that he is the new boy, he doesn’t speak English, and was thrown into the fire without much preparation.

Yeah, yeah, I know – DDG would have saved UTD’s bacon: sure ! More to the point, the complete screw-up with the DDG transfer is comedy gold. AND, according to some reports Navas’ transfer away from Spain is kosher – it’s just the in-coming transfers that had to be registered before midnight. I sure hope that the source of the problem was UTD’s front office playing silly buggers – the situation for RM and DDG is kinda like the old definition of alimony – “a fucking you get for a fucking you got”.

pelican.tangerine - September 1, 2015 Reply


I always like your posts, even though I think you’re a bit cuckoo with the player names!!! (No offence meant), but I didn’t realise you were in Toronto (although why would I?). Anyway, Toronto is (hopefully) a vacation destination for me soon so if I make it, I’ll need some recommendations for drinks, eats, sights, fleamarkets and…..hookers. I expect you to be my virtual tour guide.

Is that cool?


Ed - September 1, 2015 Reply

Jay didn’t say fault, he said reliable. In any case it’s bloody obvious, and was before he joined, that Romero is a significant downgrade on De Gea. There’s almost always a series of errors that lead to a goal conceded and there were with United’s two, but Romero not getting near enough to the first and then being beaten at his near post for the second, has nothing to do with language, or being the new boy. He’s 28 and as you point out an international player. Just not a very good one. You’re only pulling the wool over your own eyes on this one.

denton davey - September 2, 2015 Reply

I know that we disagree on a lot of things – here, too.

In my view, there is OTT belief in DDG’s messianic qualities – I know he’s a great, reflexive shot-stopper but he’s simply not a commanding keeper. So, yeah, perhaps he might have saved the shot from Gomis – but I’d imagine that he would have done so with “a kick-save and a beauty” rather than having to reach down for it. In that regard, Romero should have “made himself big” and dropped to his knees which would have given Gomis a smaller window.

That said, the real issue was not Romero’s inability to stop the shot so much as the UTD defenders being caught at-sixes-and-sevens for the second time in five minutes. Ironically, UTD lost the plot because they were too attack-minded and they lost their shape/balance.

However, the real key point about that match for me was the inability of TheWayneBoy to covert two gilt-edged chances as well as Juan Mata’s poor effort when presented with an opportunity not dissimilar to the one that Gomis converted. For all the grumbling about LvG’s possession-game, this was one match where there were a lot of really good chances and only one was converted. DDG’s return won’t change that – nor will Romero between the posts – because the inability to convert chances was a plague that afflicted TheLads last season, too.

bobbynoble - September 2, 2015 Reply

Turns out it was a September Fool’s joke and young Martial is actually young Memphis in disguise. Include Ashley Young and that’s three right-footed left wingers. Add the four goalkeepers and that’s seven players for two positions.

What did LVG say about balance?

Opti - September 2, 2015 Reply

One of the best articles in a while on Man Utd! Nice job!!!

Can you clarify Mata role in Post-Januzaj XI? Will he finally be moved center behind Rooney with Depay/martial on either wing?

Also, I did a quick calculation of rough numbers, and does it sound right that United are saving about £500,000/week in wages with the current team vs. last year? That’s 25m/year which is just about half of our net spend. This aligns with early-Glazer statements of 25-30m/year available for transfers…

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