Tactical Rant: three issues behind United’s impotent attack
“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.
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.
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.