Van Gaal’s only option is to attack

March 12, 2015 Tags: , Reads 11 comments
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Manchester United has succumbed to a second season without silverware after defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup on Monday. At most clubs, this might not be a big deal, where each trophy earned is cherished. The fact that United is in the midst of such tumult says much more about the club. Few clubs have enjoyed such a prolonged period of excellence as United did under Sir Alex Ferguson. Supporters’ expectations must now be tempered with that detail firmly in mind, and yet Louis van Gaal has the resumé to reasonably forecast the start of another glorious era.

Despite Monday’s cup defeat the Reds, albeit perilously, still remain fourth in the Premier League, although a difficult run of fixtures stand in the way of Champions League qualification. Disappointing results notwithstanding, Van Gaal is as good a manager as any to see the club through a difficult period. The word “hope” is indicative of desperation; it is not yet the time to invoke such sentiment.

Van Gaal’s philosophy is now clear even if the lack of overall strategy is obvious. Despite perception to the contrary, the Dutchman’s tactical manoeuvres have generally been reasonable this season and aimed at solving significant problems in the squad. Van Gaal has not yet produced a solution to every challenge – and United faces a difficult end to the campaign – but he is addressing each in turn.

The record summer spending has exacerbated the public perception of United’s current predicament, but the Reds had an unusually subpar squad to begin with and a lavish summer was never going to fix all the problems in one go. The addition of Ander Herrera and Angel di Maria has at least addressed midfield, an area of weakness for past five seasons or so, and afforded Van Gaal the leeway to experiment.

United’s weakness in defence – particularly at full-back where Antonio Valencia is only a passable option – has ultimately ruined Van Gaal’s attempt to use back three and diamond-based formations this season. Swansea City, for example, successfully stretched United’s diamond with a diamond of its own and United has since lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation that seeks to shield the flanks, while relying on Marouane Fellaini to support Wayne Rooney up front.

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It is a system hardly suitable for Van Gaal’s philosophy that is centred on creating overloads. United’s full-backs can overlap, but Fellaini’s presence leaves little space for the right-footed Ashley Young to cut into. Meanwhile, di Maria’s forays in-field also put Herrera in an awkward position.

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Against Arsenal, Van Gaal tried to resolve the problem by asking his wingers to attack the touchline and his full-backs to cut infield. While this idea has worked to a degree in a 3-4-1-2 or 4-4-2 diamond this season, the presence of wingers leads to congestion. In addition, Young and di Maria are ‘wrong-footed’ – relying on them in a traditional sense of the winger’s role is tantamount to self-negation.

On Monday, meanwhile, the issue of Herrera not having a clear role was ‘fixed’ by brining on Michael Carrick who sat deeper and engaged the wide men much better.

One, and perhaps only, positive of Van Gaal’s original game plan against Arsenal was the effective pressing that garnered United 56 per cent possession in the first half. Carrick’s deployment, however, left a gap in advanced midfield areas, below, previously occupied by Herrera and United’s pressing organisation broke down completely. This would not have happened had Van Gaal not persisted with a Fellaini-led attacking plan.

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Van Gaal’s track record so far at Old Trafford suggests another shift in tactics is on the horizon. At this point solidifying defence by sacrificing the offensive threat makes little sense. The agricultural approach has not worked and probably never will. Nor does United have the pace to reliably counter-attack. It makes sense, therefore, that Van Gaal looks to bolster his attack, even if it means sacrificing some defensive balance. The former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich “trainer-coach” could do so by seeking to play quick passing football.

The biggest challenge with Fellaini is his clumsiness with the ball at his feet. The Belgian may receive the ball in advanced areas, but the former Evertonian’s inability to turn significantly hampers United’s tempo. Rooney, hardly a technical player himself, has often been forced to come deep to move the ball forward.

One simple solution could be a switch in Fellaini and Rooney’s positions; essentially a traditional big man/small man combination. Rooney is a far better number nine than the former Everton midfielder, nor will the Englishman improve United’s tempo by starting deeper – a half season’s worth of evidence supports this thesis.

Another genuine, and achievable, solution is a switch to a 4-3-3 formation, by pushing United’s wingers higher up the pitch. This strategy enables United to create overloads, with more room available in the middle. The system is a Dutch favourite and Van Gaal should be more than familiar in drilling his side.

One further problem facing Van Gaal is to find a partner for Herrera. Juan Mata is a poor choice in a 4-3-3 – the Spaniard boasts the technique, but his tendency to slow down play would complicate matters. Indeed, Mata’s exile is mostly due to this facet of his play – at least Fellaini offers brawn. Mata enjoyed two great seasons at Chelsea – a side that essentially deployed three number 10s at the same time. It’s an approach that is very hard to replicate in modern football, and impossible at United.

Di Maria, below, might be a more natural choice to partner Herrera in that he has fulfilled a similar role at Real Madrid. Meanwhile, Adnan Januzaj has not progressed markedly from last season, but he is two-footed, which is an asset if Van Gaal persists in his puzzling concept of asking Valencia to cut inside. Di Maria is, of course, suspended against Tottenham Hotpsur and his form is another matter again.

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Playing both Daley Blind and Carrick is an option as well, although not one blessed with speed. Meanwhile, Van Gaal’s use of a 4-2-3-1 system is also possible, with Herrera deployed at 10. Robin van Persie’s return may be accommodated by shifting Rooney into the hole in lieu of the Spaniard. This observation leaves a switch to 4-3-3 as Van Gaal’s most likely move, since two holding midfielders will hardly improve United’s laboured tempo.

This rests on a change of strategy though. United’s defence has failed to deal with quick attacks throughout the season and Van Gaal has already been mindful of counter-attacks. Enough, even, to go route one with Fellaini leading the charge. The “hoofball” experiment has failed though and a return to more technical football is a must if United is to qualify for Europe. It has been a long time coming – late era Ferguson sides were hardly Barcelona-esque either.

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Shoayb Adam - March 12, 2015 Reply

LVG has killed the creativity n flair out of United by being too obsessed with possession football n cautious tactics

Jetson-gospel - March 17, 2015 Reply

When you have a back two of Jones, Evans and Smalling, I would rather be cautious . None other than LVG could have got this side to concede less than 18 other teams in the league.

Drew - March 12, 2015 Reply

Interesting article Jay. I completely agree with the final formation you’ve concluded the piece with being the best option, but I don’t see it happening. Going off that post on redcafe’s forums (I’m not sure if you saw it or not?), van Gaal needs 4 ‘defensive’ players (excluding full-backs). The reason Fellaini plays (apparently) is that Herrera is not deemed good enough at the defensive side of his game, and therefore can’t provide the ‘balance’ that van Gaal values so highly. In the final formation you’ve landed on, United would only have 3 ‘defensive’ players (Carrick and the 2 centre halves). Like you say, however, the defensive players he’s tried to shoe-horn in harm United going forward, so we’re left with an incredibly frustrating scenario where we can see a potential solution, but because of the stubbornness of the manager it’s unlikely to be put into practice. Personally, I think he may revert back to 3-5-2 at some point and maybe put one of Carrick and Blind in defence and the other in midfield to try and resolve our inability to cross the half-way line. 3-5-2, though, complete buggers Di Maria and Januzaj, our 2 most exciting players. Essentially, I can’t see it getting any better until next season, a season which will likely be without any Champions League games to enjoy.

Jay Shon - March 12, 2015 Reply

Thanks for your interesting response.

I’ve actually never been to redcafe.

The “4 defensive players” bit used to be true. We man-marked and needed the bodies to commit to attacking opposition players. We’ve moved away from that. LVG isn’t bound by that “rule.”

Instead the balance he seeks is in terms of zone and space. As far as defensive structure goes, he has key areas covered by having at least two men in each area. Now pushing wingers up may spread the distance between wingers and full-backs but each flank would still be covered by two men.

In a 4-3-3, that extra distance can be covered by the two central midfielders. It’s a far more dynamic, and therefore riskier approach, but I don’t think LVG has a choice at this point as I argue in the piece.

Jetson-gospel - March 17, 2015 Reply

You probably will have to read the post. Let’s be honest, LVG’s formation varies but the bottom line never does – 4 defensive players, 4 offensive players – United don’t have the defense to support his style of play. Next season we will be world beaters

Dead red - March 12, 2015 Reply

Where on earth do you get the idea that the signing of Di Maria and Herrera has addressed our midfield problems? The midfield is still a shambles, both Blind and Fellaini aren’t good enough and way too slow, Mata too lightweight and the jury is still out on Herrera who hasn’t shown much at all. I expect at least 2 midfield signings in the summer, hopefully with power and pace otherwise nothing will improve next season. Fellaini shouldn’t even be in Manchester never mind old trafford. Possibly the worst signing the club has ever made and there’s been a few of them recently!

julian - March 14, 2015 Reply

I’m afraid you are right. We need a dynamic ball winning midfielder – someone like Strootman who unfortunately is unlikely to be signed now. We need a right back and a centre back and probably, if truth be told, two strikers to replace Falcao and RvP. The latter is finished I think but Falcao may have one last chance to prove himself in these last 10 games. I wouldn’t put any money on him doing it though as he just doesn’t suit the system, whatever that is, or vice versa. So you are looking at 5 new players who wont come cheap. It’s almost as if last summer’s splurge in the transfer market never happened.

NazManUnited - March 13, 2015 Reply

@datarant The option, the reason, the result does not appear to matter all LVH cares about is his idiotic Philosophy!

Emmy - March 14, 2015 Reply

Thanks Jay for a great piece!

My opinion; He deploy a 4 2 3 1. Carrick and Blind at the base with Hererra in the hole and Di Maria and Young/Januzaj on the wings and Rooney as lone striker. Having Carrick and Blind at the base would give the front 3 freedom to move more and interchange play leading to more chances. Rooney would thrive with that movement behind him. Both Blind and especially Carrick’ range of passing would make up for their lack of pace. Their great positional sense would also help shore things up at the back.

What do you think Jay?

Arewa - March 15, 2015 Reply

Great idea. Carrick and Blind can seat deep and let the front three perform their magic. Rooney can come deep and Mata will also have a chance to play. Infact that formation suits everyone

Stev - March 22, 2015 Reply

Liverpool played much better with 10 players and Mata goals was awesome.

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