Van Gaal’s quest for balance

February 4, 2015 Tags: , Reads 8 comments
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Ushered in by a chilly January, snow finally hit Manchester this week, though Manchester United finally warmed up by winning two games on the trot. The Red Devils washed off the “bitter taste” of Leicester City’s 5-3 victory last September with a thumping 3-1 at Old Trafford last Saturday. It marked the return of the 4-4-2 diamond. And on Tuesday night Louis van Gaal’s side comfortably saw off Cambridge United in the FA Cup fourth round replay using the same formation.

After United’s drab FA Cup draw at the Abbey Stadium, Louis van Gaal fielded a 4-4-2 for a second consecutive match, although to much better effect against Leicester with United putting the game to bed before the whistle had blown for half time. It couldn’t have turned out better for Van Gaal, who fielded the same formation that had his “ass twitching” when United got crushed 5-3 at The King Power Stadium last September. Saturday’s victory will go some way to putting an end to the Dutchman’s affliction.

When United played Cambridge the week previously Van Gaal’s registered few shots on target. For a change it wasn’t the Reds’ chaotic defence to blame for a poor result, but attacking inefficiency in the final third. United’s 4-4-2 at Abbey Stadium was far worse creatively than the supposedly ‘safe’ 3-5-2 used for much of the season. Van Gaal’s midfield trio of Adnan Januzaj, Mourane Fellaini and Angel Di Maria mustered little from Michael Carrick’s distribution.

Yet, Van Gaal stuck with a midfield diamond at the weekend – this time formed of Daley Blind, Wayne Rooney, Januzaj, and Di Maria, with Falcao and Robin van Persie up front. At the back the Dutchman again fielded Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia. It paid off, with the Reds pretty close to the high tempo passing game that Van Gaal demands.

The change has been a long time coming. Many supporters have long believed that this is the formation that will bring out the best from United’s squad. Van Gaal is concerned that a diamond is defensively weaker than a three-man defence, but results this season point to the folly of playing it safe and scoring fewer goals. In fact, the long list of draws is already weighing heavily on United’s top four ambitions as the chase for Champions League places tightens at the top end of the table. United may well have to win almost every game from now until May if Van Gaal’s side is to make sure of a top four finish. The weekend’s result surely confirms that a 4-4-2 system can bring the much coveted balance for which Van Gaal has searched all season.

The quest for this balance is not fully resolved, especially after witnessing the bizarre range of tactics on show against Cambridge. Yet, Van Gaal’s back four appears to be settling down, with as Rojo and Jones cementing places at centre-back in recent weeks, albeit with changes made on Tuesday. Each is comfortable on the ball and better in distribution than Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling. Meanwhile, at full-back Shaw and Valencia seem to be Van Gaal’s go to men with Rafael da Silva rarely fit, and not fully trusted, and Young only starting to make a comeback from a month-long injury with a late substitute appearance on Tuesday. Victory over Cambridge also brought the best out of Paddy McNair, who is maturing into a versatile defensive player. McNair has grabbed the opportunities thrown his way this season, with Van Gaal clearly impressed. The Irishman may well be United’s right-back solution to the season’s end.

Back in midfield, the diamond is a creative engine. At the base, with Carrick out, Blind is performing with the grace of his vice-captain. The Dutchman’s match winning performance against Leicester will help the former Ajax midfielder establish his place in the team, at least until Carrick is back. At the other end of the diamond the first choice behind United’s two strikers is currently Rooney, with Van Gaal reluctant to use his captain up-front for the time being. Rooney was deployed wide against Cambridge at Old Trafford and in both matches the Scouser’s poor distribution and – at times embarrassing – cheap loss of possession reinforce the belief held by many that he is a striker by trade. Rooney’s mediocrity at 10 only serves to highlight Juan Mata’s talent – a player who remains United’s most creative midfielder and a flamboyant goal scorer too. It’s a trait the Spaniard proved yet again on Tuesday.

Di Maria and Januzaj played on the right and left of the diamond against Leicester, both showing glimpses of what they can offer, but neither working to their full potential. Di Maria, who was the only United player to feature in the FIFA World XI this year, is an automatic pick despite a mixed season. This is not the case for Januzaj, who matched his more illustrious midfield partner for quality at the weekend. Januzaj’s youth means that game time is critical though – a scenario that is challenged in either of Van Gaal’s preferred systems. Time will tell, but United could perhaps have responded with a ‘yes’ when Everton came knocking for a season-long loan earlier this week.

Meanwhile, his fellow Belgian, Fellaini, has finally become the dominating figure in the middle of the park that United requires, although not a creative talent who will provide the clever passes in the final third that is sometimes missing. After all, someone needs to feed the collection of world-class strikers Van Gaal now boasts. It’s an observation that also posts a question: why has Ander Herrera been ignored by Van Gaal for most of the campaign? The Basque has started just six games this season and impressed in recent matches. After all, Herrera offers a balance of creativity, passing and energy that is not found elsewhere in Van Gaal’s squad.

Then there is Van Gaal’s forward line, which has come under heavy criticism in the past few weeks. It is a unit seemingly unable to score the volume of goals that is expected of such high quality players. The simple fact remains, however, that if the team provides then these strikers will surely deliver, as both Falcao and Van Persie did at the weekend.

Still, Van Gaal must find the balance if United’s campaign is to end in success. Tough choices lie ahead, especially when it comes to some of United’s star names. But this also points to some hope – if the Dutchman can get his talented squad playing close to its potential, with a consistent and balanced side, the quest for a top four finish will fall into place. Perhaps even more as United roll on in the FA Cup.


Michael Wood - February 4, 2015 Reply

Good read

denton davey - February 4, 2015 Reply

“the Reds pretty close to the high tempo passing game that Van Gaal demands.”

Not yet.

Too much long, cross-field shape-shifting and not enough incisive give-and-go, especially in the attacking zone.

That said, Paddy McNair was far, far superior to AV25 and – yet again – my opinion that Daley Blind was the most important acquisition (not necessarily the best acquisition but the most “important”) in that he provides excellent movement, on and off the ball.

My other opinion is that while TheWayneBoy is often lost in his new midfield role, this change makes a lot of sense if you see that what LvG is doing is laying the groundwork for “his” team, which is going to be the result of a lot of experimentation this year, a big, big outlay in the summer, and then we’ll see what his “philosophy” amounts to.

Rooney-and-ten-others. That’s the key to understanding what’s going on with all the experimentation and shape-shifting.

Patrickson - February 4, 2015 Reply

Well it seems like the diamond formation is better than that of 3-5-2… So it is better for our coach to use 4-4-2 system of football

Alsipius - February 5, 2015 Reply

For me the best formation given the players in the squad would be 4-2-3-1. (Ignoring Carrick’s injury) Pick a back 4, probably Shaw, Rojo, Jones, Valencia (although there are many options) the put Carrick and Blinds in front of that. As the 3, Di Maria, Rooney and Mata (and all of the Sub options available there) and then 1 striker. LVG has already said he can only play 4 flair players, so there you have it, you can use the full backs in attack, shield the centre backs, get the ball out quickly from defense to the 2 and on to the 3. Rooney playing central allows him to overlap right or left with Di Maria and Mata, and defensively he can come back and help the 2 as a shield. I think this is a formation that would give both balance and speed in attack.

Tom Parkinson - February 5, 2015 Reply

The main reason Herrera isn’t getting the game time is because he’s not as good as Mata at no 10, he’s not as penetrative as Di Maria through the middle, and Rooney is the Captain Leader Legend Highest Earner(TM) and has to play every game – despite not being good enough to play in his actual position. Herrera can’t play DM. If Rooney got injured I think Herrera would play in this diamond formation. Fellaini is also preferable when we need the physical presence, but at home Herrera hands down. It’s tricky, he’s clearly a good player, but van Gaal doesn’t can’t quite fit him in. It’s no different for Januzaj either.

It will be interesting next season where Rooney fits in to be honest. If we go for a specialist CM that is his role gone, yet as Captain Leader Legend Highest Earner(TM) he will have to play, so who drops out? Can only be Mata, which is a disaster as Rooney is a terrible no 10. Van Gaal clearly doesn’t fancy him as a striker – he hasn’t played upfront since the start of the season.

Plenty of positives from the Cambridge game – despite the opposition being incredibly inferior. Good tempo to the play, good penetration. Getting some balls into the box when we have a big man in there (Fellaini).

McNair was excellent throughout the game, and it would be good to see him lining up at RB again at the weekend with a tougher test in the Premier League. If we could have the next Wes Brown in him, what a bonus that would be!?

Rojo looking better – I didnt fancy him at all at first, but he’s winning me over. Great tattoos as well.

Looking forward to the weekend game!

The Rookie - February 6, 2015 Reply

Well said Tom, I think you summed it up well in your first paragraph.

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