Tactical Rant: three issues behind United’s impotent attack

January 24, 2016 Tags: , Reads 15 comments
featured image

“Attack, Attack, Attack” – a frustrated imploration of Manchester United fans that has echoed around the stands, pubs and living rooms with monotonous frequency in recent months. Although branding Louis van Gaal’s United as ‘boring’ and ‘unwatchable’ has progressively evolved into a media caricature, it is inarguable that the Reds’ style of football under the Dutchman has become increasingly impotent. His is a team characterised by pedestrian ball movement, lack of penetration in the final third, and a dearth of goals. Although Van Gaal is often commended for his supreme intellect and tactical acumen, there are at least three glaring tactical deficiencies in his system that have facilitated not only an uninspiring brand of football, but also, more worryingly, unprecedentedly poor results in recent weeks.

Midfield Shape

Van Gaal’s United invariably features a defensive midfield axis. Generally, this axis is formed by two of five players – Bastian Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin, Marouane Fellaini or Ander Herrera. Although a defensive midfield duo has proved extremely effective in a number of modern, counter-attacking, 4-2-3-1 systems in European football, significant issues emerge from Van Gaal’s use of this strategy at United.

Principally, the majority of United’s partnership permutations are too slow and inoffensive, often isolating the number nine and 10 and facilitating short, safe and square passing across the midfield. Although this ensures United retains possession effectively, Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Carrick are neither adept at or willing to get ahead of the ball in attack, each preferring to dictate attacking play from a deeper position.

The result is that United often finds it difficult to move the ball quickly and effectively enough in dangerous areas to create numerical overloads and exploitable gaps in the opposition defence. This is particularly problematic when United’s opponent is content to defend deep, narrow and in numbers. Although the more dynamic Herrera is ostensibly the perfect complement to one of Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin or Carrick in the double-pivot system, the Spaniard is rarely given attacking license by Van Gaal in this position and, although tenacious, lacks the defensive acumen of his colleagues to play as a deeper midfielder.

"Further, in addition to his lack of ball-playing ability, Fellaini is too ill-disciplined and tactically incompetent to play deep and central in a 4-2-3-1. Consequently, it is both puzzling and frustrating that Van Gaal has seldom opted for an inverted midfield three consisting of one defensive midfielder and an advanced eight and 10."

This midfield shape is synonymous with fluid, dynamic attacking football in a possession-based 4-3-3 system and proved to be an important structural feature of United’s attacking enterprise during the spring of 2014/15. Although this system will only accommodate one of Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Carrick at its base, it would provide United with central midfield numbers in more advanced positions, without detracting from the potential for ball retention. It would facilitate dynamic, effective and penetrative ball movement in the middle and attacking third.

Moreover, a 4-3-3 allows Van Gaal to play Fellaini in a more natural position. In contrast to his extremely limited utility as a defensive midfielder, Fellaini proved a surprisingly effective asset on the left-hand side of an inverted midfield triangle in the second half of last season. 

Fullback Woes

At the beginning of the season, United had a genuine claim to possessing the two best attacking fullbacks in the Premier League. However, Luke Shaw’s season-ending injury, in conjunction with Matteo Darmian’s gradual but palpable decline in form, has forced United to rotate full-back personnel. Ashley Young’s injury against Liverpool threatens to compound this problem.

One attacking advantage of Van Gaal’s 4-2-3-1 is that the midfield double-pivot, providing defensive cover, releases the full-backs to overlap the narrow, attacking midfield three and occupy advanced, wide, attacking positions when United is in possession. The full-backs’ potential to stretch the opposition defence by providing width in attacking areas is crucial for United to engineer space in which to move the ball.

It is noticeable that United’s better attacking performances in the last few months – for example, away to Watford in late November – have coincided with dynamic, effective attacking play by Young from right-back.

However, since Shaw’s injury, United has been unable to consistently maximise the attacking potential of Van Gaal’s 4-2-3-1. For several weeks, injuries and form have forced the Dutchman to field vastly inexperienced, defensive-minded or incompetent players at full-back. Moreover, the Darmian’s deployment at left-back – a position in which he frequently turns inside or back onto his stronger right foot, nullifying attacking potential in advanced positions – has exacerbated United’s attacking impotence. Without consistent and dynamic overlapping attacking threats from both right- and left-back, United’s attacking play is often insipidly narrow and predictable. Consequently, many teams have been able to successfully nullify United by sitting deep and sliding in a narrow, forty-by-forty defensive square.

Rooney at Nine

Van Gaal’s 4-2-3-1 arguably requires the most mobile, dynamic and tactically-disciplined number nine of all orthodox modern systems. In the vast majority of matches this season, Van Gaal has opted to field Rooney, rather than Martial, at number nine. Although Rooney is arguably United’s best finisher, particularly from range, his heavy first touch and inability to hold the ball up effectively has inhibited the fluidity and dynamism of United’s passing game. Rooney’s poor control and attacking play in tight areas has rendered it extremely difficult for United to create overloads in attacking areas and play effective, penetrative passes in the final third of the pitch.

Further, Rooney’s poor and undisciplined movement, particularly when running the attacking channels, has deprived United of an effective ‘release ball’ from full-back, as an alternative to short-passing build-up play through the defensive midfield axis. In addition, Rooney’s declining pace and ability to beat his man, evinced by Kolo Toure’s straightforward marshalling of the England man during United’s counter-attacks against Liverpool – deprives United of the option to play through opposing defences.

Although Rooney’s tendency to drop deep, to collect the ball and dictate play, is not an inherently undesirable trait for a number nine in a 4-2-3-1, Rooney does so far too often; ostensibly oblivious to the fact that United does not possess a number 10 that is willing to break ahead of play and occupy the attacking position he vacates in doing so.

Although the abysmal results appear to have abated in the last few weeks, uninspiring victories against Swansea City, Sheffield United and Liverpool, together with Saturday’s defeat to Southampton, indicate that United’s endemic tactical issues endure. Although it is difficult to argue that the Van Gaal experiment has been an unqualified failure, given the extent to which he has renovated the squad and guided United to a top-four finish in 2014/15 , United fans should not hold their breath for the triumphant homecoming of fluid, attacking football whilst the Dutchman preserves with the current system.


The Rookie - January 24, 2016 Reply

Good article. Early on Saturday Herrera had a chance to run with the ball into the box but instead he stopped and passed the ball back. I agree with your assessment of Flingin’ elbows Fellani. Even Moyes could see big F was very poor as a DMF. There seems to be no partnerships on the field, where as last season Shaw Big F Blind had a good understanding on the left.

Did Memphis ever warm up during the match yesterday? They didn’t show him doing so on TV. I was hoping OT would s start chanting his name to get him on. Why wait till 80+ minutes to bring Januzaj on?

I like the new look of the website Ed.

J Walker - January 24, 2016 Reply

loving the new website Ed! The identity may need to grow on me a little though, as I was rather attached to the old one 😉

Subterranean Steve - January 25, 2016 Reply

An excellent article with thoughtful analysis and a bit of cheeky wit.

I’m assuming the following reference is cheeky wit,
‘…….. Van Gaal is often commended for his supreme intellect and tactical acumen….’.

Got to be the funniest thing I’ve heard so far this year.

Opti - January 25, 2016 Reply

Very interesting and well-written!

Surprised we did not see Mempis or Adnan earlier… but would it have mattered? Perhaps: Memphis has a tendency to force the issue… and shoot on goal *GASP*

Nice looking site too! A bit slow loading… but it was the first time.

Ralph C - January 25, 2016 Reply

good article. Wish the media would do more of this and less Van Gaal out bandwagoning.

Still, the fact that it’s not working offensively is blindingly obvious. What I want to know is how he fails to see this and not tweak something since the shocking draw (yeah.. I said draw.) with Sheffield United.. How he keeps playing Fellaini is a sackable offence on its own.

Still hope Van Gaal comes good, but with every non-performance, the patience wears thin.

Opti - January 25, 2016 Reply

I am with you on hoping… but in these must-win games, his approach is entirely non-winnable… he got lucky at Liverpool, but I’ll take it. But the performance against Southampton was abysmal. Not just the players, but the tactics and subs. I cannot stand up for him if he keeps making me look like an idiot… LvG out, pleasE!

Fusilli Jerry - January 25, 2016 Reply

“..given the extent to which he has renovated the squad..”

The dictionary definition of “renovate” is “restore to a good state of repair”. Which doesn’t, in my book, involve the de facto deployment of players out of position e.g. wingers and centre-backs in the full-back positions. And does instead involve keeping faith with reserve players in their dedicated positions when the first team players in those positions get injured. Rather than giving the Borthwick-Jacksons of this world a game in September, forget about them, then give them a game in January, and claim to have “brought young players through” when what you’ve really done is revert to your philosophy of square pegs in round holes at every given chance.

The new manager (please God not Giggs on a permanent basis) will only stand a chance of reversing our club’s decline by pursuing a squad building policy of 2 players for every position – not 2 positions for every player.

Bruce Mallan - January 25, 2016 Reply

the biggest issue is @waynerooney . The sooner he pisses off to the MLS and we get a proper striker in the better for us all.

Opti - January 25, 2016 Reply

TheWayne to bait Everton into letting us raid them? Stones, Barkley, and Lukaku for Wayne Rooney + 50 million?

Denton Davey - January 26, 2016 Reply

This is a ludicrous idea – why would Everton trade three prime, youthful assets for a guy who sucks up huge weekly wages and is, quite frankly, past-it. From a financial point-of-view, I think that UTD would have to give Everton rather more like 150 million quid to take TheWayneBoy off its hands – I think that Everton would not be overly greedy in valuing each one of them at about 50 million in the increasingly inflationary transfer market as well as offering some kind of “sweetener” to cover Rooney’s massive wages.

On the other hand, 150 million would be a not unreasonable sum for UTD to spend for a ready-built renovation of the current squad and the EvertonTrio – it could be argued – each addresses an area-of-need in the current UTD squad. But, still, 150,000,000 ! “NOT UNREASONABLE” ??????

More to the point, what is the fascination with those three – Stones, Barkley and Lukaku ? If I’m not wrong, Everton are even worse than TheLads this season AND this trio are the cornerstones of their team. Really, how good are they ? Aren’t they just “flavours of the moment” ?

The only logical destination for TheWayneBoy is as “the face” for the Miami Beckhams in the North American League. He could assume a missionary position in the USofA in a city that he would find OK (as opposed to Shanghai !) and keep his weekly wages while making a more-or-less face-saving exit from the EPL.

DayusDred. - January 25, 2016 Reply

Good article. Even though LVG can’t be totally absorb of blame, injuries and players inconsistecy have not help matters. Damian, Memphis, Mata, Heriera and Rooney have all performed poorly this season. So for those call for LVG’s sack should know our problem goes beyound coaching.

IXD - January 25, 2016 Reply

1) LVG 2) LVG 3) LVG ????

Emmyleo balbao - January 26, 2016 Reply

Why are we trying to be bias, my goodness,@least d big belgian have more impact than d wanye boy…and u don’t really have to blame those guys,they were never a united Galaticos from d onset,just some panic buy and mangerial flaws…to all d pundits,blog writers trying to protect wazza away from d crisis of d club is just like pouring water inside an ocean,am sure if fergy use 1 more season back then,he wud av throw him out….and d wanyeboy stay in united is long overdue,300k weekly with how many goal and assist,we don’t have to celebrate mediocre,wazza is past his prime,we don’t need to shift role for this guy again,let him go have fun @d indian league,how much is suarez,neymar,messi,Ronaldo etc wages who deliver week in week out…statistically messi cover more distance and influence on pitch dan our flat-legged wanyeboy,pls tell those backing rooney to forget d past,barca didn’t look back b4 messi was brought to limelight,they part way with Ronaldhino,Deco and Eto….mind you,those players where not in decline then,as u can remember one of them score a lovely hattrick again our darling team not very long ago,but Barca knew what they want,and they moved on…that’s a quality of a champion and a true winner…fergie did same,he let Roy kane,Becky,VanNisty etc leave b4 it turns fishbone in the throat….. In my conclusion,let the philosophy One return to his home,and let Mr woods step aside or just continue with d commercial aspect of d club,and let d club appoint a new Sporting Director,a former player or someone who have the passion and love for United and d game….and let d wanye300k be put to bed

Dazza2501 - January 27, 2016 Reply

Too much is wrong, with no signs of progress. LVG & Woodward share the blame. LVG has to take the blame for the tactics , style of play and bizarre treatment of the squad. He complained the squad was imbalanced , binned every experienced striker bar Rooney. That’s fine if you replace them, but United were left with Martial & Wilson as cover, with the latter sent out on loan despite a lack of numbers. Woodward and LVG also have not delivered a reliable partner for Smalling. Sadly for the club as a whole the Glazers Woodward and LVG all are linked to the other, and admission of failure by one part of these 3 parties means failure for all.

Add your comment