Van Gaal faces critical tactical choices in the weeks ahead

May 4, 2015 Tags: , Reads 9 comments
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José Mourinho believes possession can be dangerous; his biographer even asserted that the Portuguese manager sometimes instructs his team to get rid of the ball. The argument is that a team with the ball is more likely to make fatal mistakes by being lulled into complacency or frustration.

Over the past 20 years Manchester United has never been a possession-minded side – at least not to the degree preached at Arsenal, for example. Even this season Louis Van Gaal has often been criticised for playing a long ball game. United has boasted a strong average possession throughout the season but the 80 per cent recorded against West Bromwich Albion is freakish – even Barcelona in its tiki-taka heyday rarely reached such a figure.

Van Gaal is certainly a manager who understands the dangers of an unhealthy fixation with possession. After all, the Netherlands stormed into the 2014 World Cup semi-finals by punishing teams on the break. It is certainly an over-reaction to argue that United has become ‘Arenalised’ – not least because any side can have an off day and West Brom left Old Trafford with three points thanks to a lucky deflection.

Still, breaking down sides sitting deep has been a consistent problem for the Reds this season. The classic solution is to push a big man upfront and Maroune Fellaini has enjoyed a starring role this season because for this reason. On Saturday, Van Gaal went to an extreme, deploying Fellaini as alone forward, with Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie forming a highly unorthodox midfield duo looking to burst into the box – as below.

Figure 1

The gamble – deploying a striker in central midfield can only be categorised as such – could have worked had the United wide men put in some good crosses. Under little pressure, substitute Angel di Maria attempted three poor crosses in a row, while Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia on the right are not particularly noteworthy crossers.

The lack of quality delivery from wide areas may be addressed in the summer, but recruitment will be made all the more difficult should United fail to qualify for the Champions League.

Michael Carrick’s return will make a significant difference, but it is unclear when the English midfielder will be match fit again and Van Gaal’s side is running out of games. After all, Ander Herrera is simply not capable of performing to the same level as a deep-lying midfielder.

In fact, the Spaniard’s deep positioning has significantly slowed United’s tempo in the attacking third. In the first half Saturday’s game, for example, Van Persie made numerous runs into the box only for Fellaini or Rooney to shift the ball wide. In his usual position Herrera could have made a decisive difference.

Without Carrick, Van Gaal has few options to call upon. Daley Blind has failed to convince observers as the deepest central midfielder in a 4-3-3. Blind, however, performed well as a holding midfielder in a 4-4-2 diamond. In a staggered formation the former Ajax player has more breathing room.

In fact, Van Persie’s return does allow United to return to the 4-4-2 diamond should Van Gaal choose. If 4-3-3 is untenable without Carrick, deploying Herrera in a more advanced role, at least on paper, makes more sense than blindly pelting the box with crosses.

In fact a number 10 would make a world of difference. All of Van Gaal’s strikers lack pace and deploying a player in the hole will connect the attack and midfield far better. That said the Reds’ full-backs’ tendency to be exploited on the break has led to Van Gaal abandoning wingerless formations in the latter stages of the campaign.

Given the manager’s options a 4-2-3-1 system makes a lot of sense – it forces United’s wingers to share the load of providing width, while providing cover in defensive phase. It is a role that allows the number 10 to support a lone forward while the two deeper central midfielders share holding duty. Had di Maria and Adnan Januzaj showed even a semblance of consistency then 4-2-3-1 would have likely been the default this system this season.

Breaking down teams that park the bus still remains a key issue. Upcoming games against Crystal Palace and Hull City may see a repeat of recent matches – and United still needs two wins to secure fourth place. Van Gaal has enjoyed excellent results against ‘big sides’ this season – so a win against Arsenal at Old Trafford is firmly within the realm of possibility. Realistically though, away games against Palace and Hull will decide United’s fate.

Ultimately, Van Gaal lacks the players with pace to run in behind and feed off Fellaini. Wilson may be an interesting proposition though far too much of a risk given that the Englishman has not played in the Premier League since February.

Yet, another issue is that there is no conventional winger or a ‘correct footed’ wide player in form. Tempo has been killed by wingers cutting in before whipping in the cross. In this sense, midfielders arriving from deep will present a greater threat to the opposition.

United cannot set up to make the traditional target work – it does not make sense on paper nor has it worked previously this season. On the other hand, moving the ball quickly through the centre whilst retaining an option to recycle the ball with midfielders coming from deep does sound promising given the circumstances United is facing. This means deploying Rooney and/or Fellaini deep with Herrera at number 10, as below.

Figure 2


Alternatively, below, Rooney can engage the flanks or play a simple pass to Herrera; the Spaniard can release Van Persie and Fellaini or combine with Mata on his right. And if the central approach is unfeasible or fails Blind and Valencia can put long balls or crosses directly into the box or Young and Mata can cut in then put the ball in with Fellaini and or Rooney rushing into the box.

Figure 4

Of course, this discussion is moot if Carrick can quickly regain match fitness. This in and of itself is a problem. There is no understudy to the 34-year-old nor are deep-lying playmakers of Carrick’s class, or better, plentiful on the market. Whatever happens this season a radical change in approach likely awaits United next season.

All diagrams from


Brian McGuinness - May 4, 2015 Reply

that selection logical if we had runners as he held the ball up; Rooney not fit, RVP can’t run, Fell couldn’t hold it!

dannysoya - May 4, 2015 Reply

The move Louis Van Gaal has to make is to take Marouane Fellaini out of the starting line-up. Credit to him for the great April he had but having him in the line-up makes our play so predictable it hurts. Everyone and their grandma knows who we are going to hoof the ball up to so all they need to do is put 203 guys on him and nullify his threat and we become totally useless. For Fellaini to play well, every other player has to change their game significantly to adapt to his strengths. Having him play well takes significantly away from other players who are simply not used to playing hoofball. Also, he is slow and cannot pass the ball at the level required for a club of this stature. Manchester United needs to move the ball much quicker against packed defenses and Fellaini is simply not capable of doing that.

Taking Fellaini out of the line-up would significantly change the way the team plays for the better. First, it would change the shape of the team to a 4-2-3-1. Secondly, It would enable Mata, Di Maria and Young to finally play in their natural positions and would significantly improve the chance creation rate of the team. Third, it would significantly quicken up our play regardless of who is upfront be it Rooney, Van Persie or Falcao and it would mean that we’d have a much better chance of scoring goals. It’s just one change but this change would make a significant difference.

denton davey - May 4, 2015 Reply

“There is no understudy to the 34-year-old nor are deep-lying playmakers of Carrick’s class, or better, plentiful on the market. Whatever happens this season a radical change in approach likely awaits United next season.”

The first point here is very troubling – UTD are a disaster-in-the-making without MC16. The consensus seems to be that Daley Blind is not a suitable replacement; so, who is ? I’d think that young Paddy McNair might be “groomed” for that role – but, perhaps, that’s just wishful thinking (“thinking” is being used very loosely !). Perhaps another solution would be the signing of TheGunDog and deploying him and Ander Herrera in a Barcelona-esque “double pivot” – but who would be “Biscuits” ?

The point about “a radical change in approach” is also very apposite because when I watch TheLads, it seems to me that the only guy who seems to be a guaranteed-lock for a starting position next year is DDG – and rumours suggest that he is going to be off to Madrid in the summer. So, what seems to be staring us in the face is an “unbalanced” squad in which not one of the starting eleven would be first-choice in LvG’s mind’s-eye.

Even TheWayneBoy seems to be a very un-VanGaal type of centre-forward and it has been evident – even to me ! – that he’s not much of a central midfielder; TheScholesRole seemed to be a possible late-career destination for him but his displays this season have put the kibosh on that notion – Rooney is an aging, slowing-down striker and, because he’s the captain, he has to play whenever he’s fit enough.

So, overall, it sure looks like a lot of square-pegs/round holes. A lot of good footballers who don’t fit the very particular job-descriptions in LvG’s “philosophy”. In this way of seeing things, I’m more-or-less in agreement with the rather pessimistic evaluations in the thread started today by Alfonso Bedoya (to which I can’t contribute because I won’t get a Facebook/Twitter account).

Subterranean Steve - May 5, 2015 Reply

Don’t remember Alfonso having much to say apart from,

“Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Iain McCartney - May 4, 2015 Reply

Quite rightly so. Moans about WBA defending. Though he had 2 people watching their previous games? Should have known.

denton davey - May 5, 2015 Reply

This season, United’s win percentage with MC16 is 72% and without him it’s 35%

Fusilli Jerry - May 7, 2015 Reply

Rooney in midfield to make way for RVP ? Fellaini still in the team ? Valencia ?

As Margaret would have said: No. No. No.


KRC - May 10, 2015 Reply

Team Man united is becoming a boring team loosing the matches without a fight, Everton (3-0), Wes Brawn (1-0). Having played well against Chelsea(though lost it) and against MC(winning 4-2), the loss to Everton and Wes Brawn is unforgivable. They won yesterday against QPR very narrowly. QPR should have won since they played a fast attacking game and MU do not have the speed to contain them. QPR wingers were very fast, MU should try to emulate that speed. But unfortunately we have aging W Roony, RVP, and Tiny Falcao, Mata, Tall and lethargic Fellaini who were not in a position to match them.
Attack is not happening thick and fast. They only keep passing in the horizontal direction or back passing to Golie, nothing went forward especially againt WesBrawn. Being free kick specialist themselves Wayne Rooney and Matta, they never tried any long rangers which is shameful thing. Why long rangers are not tried, is DVG is not for it? When opposit defence is tight you should try that.

KRC - May 10, 2015 Reply

MU needs a total revamp. No speedy legs but for Young, Di Maria and Luke shaw. Very poor defence tactics and people in charge of defence. Adnan Januze is speedy and full of tricks with the ball and very young too. But never been groomed by DVG and his preconceived notions. Read yesterday about Alfred Zaha who was not given enough time during the previous gaffers time, but Allen Pedrew has encouraged him and he has become an important man in QPR
and he was dangerous yesterday against MU. DVG should buy in June window, guys with tricks and very speedy legs like Jeremie Vardy of Leichester. Talks on buying Kevin De Bryner from wolfdburg to be concluded in our favour. Falaco can go back since he has not impressed much.

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