Tag Tactics

Tag Tactics

If it’s ‘for the fans’ then Van Gaal must listen to their feedback

November 1, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 35 comments
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“Such a strange style to bring to England,” noted one observer at Old Trafford recently. Even stranger to bring it to Manchester United, he should have added. On Saturday, with United racking up a third successive scoreless draw, the Reds’ raucous away support spontaneously chanted Paul Scholes’ name. It was a none-too-subtle rebellion by 3,500 travelling United supporters, many of whom are now deeply frustrated at the side’s lack of expression – let alone the inconsistent results.

The triumvir of bore draws over the past week was the first time that United has achieved that particular feat in more than 10 years. Nothing to be proud of there. And while inconsistent performances are, perhaps, to be expected from Louis van Gaal’s post-Ferguson transformation, results over the past week are very much symptomatic of a greater ailment. The Dutchman’s tactical caution has eased little since his appointment in July 2014.

It is, says Van Gaal, “a process that takes three years,” although supporters are cognisant of the difference between winning trophies and playing with flair. The latter certainly doesn’t take three years to establish – and Van Gaal is seemingly blind to accumulation of terrace disgruntlement.

Van Gaal reacted aggressively to Scholes’ comments in the past week, with the former United player frank about the Reds’ creative deficit under Van Gaal. In the wake of yet another moribund performance this weekend, Scholes is entitled to feel a sense of vindication.

“There’s a lack of creativity and risk,” said Scholes last Wednesday. “It’s a team now you wouldn’t want to play against because they’re tightly organised, but it seems he doesn’t want players to beat men and it’s probably not a team I’d have enjoyed playing in.  The hardest thing to coach is scoring goals and creativity. I played with some brilliant centre forwards and I don’t think they could play in this team.”

In turn, the Dutchman accused Scholes, who made 718 appearances for the club, of not being “responsible” and speaking out because he is “paid by the BBC or Sky.” It amounted to a low blow against a player who has earned the right to voice the opinion held by many supporters.

Notwithstanding this week’s spat, it says much that supporters camped in Selhurt Park’s Arthur Wait Stand should spend time in the second half urging the team to “attack, attack, attack.” Fans waiting to be released after the game declared that “we’re Man United, we want to attack.” It is a message falling on deaf ears.

Post-match, Van Gaal remained on the defensive, suggesting that fans have “the right” to protest, but that “maybe they shall sing at the next match another way.” Perhaps so, with the club facing a series of winnable games over the next month. Van Gaal’s side faces CSKA Moscow and West Bromwich Albion at home next week, followed by a trip to Watford. Games against Leicester City, West Ham United and PSV Eindhoven follow.

United should pick up points from many of those fixtures, although it is rare indeed that Van Gaal’s side wins with style. Indeed, there are perhaps less than half-a-dozen games in which the Dutchman’s side has achieved that goal: versus Liverpool and, perhaps, Everton this season, together with games against Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool last year.

The lack of attacking ambition is born out in some data. This season United ranks first for possession, but 16th for total number of shots taken. To put that in context, when it comes to shots taken, United’s total of 110 is more than 100 fewer than Arsenal’s. Inside the penalty area only West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland have taken fewer shots than United.

More damming still is the side’s inability to create chances, hampered it seems by the manager’s tactical straight-jacket. This season United ranks 11th for assists, last for key passes, and 15th in terms of dribbles. Van Gaal’s requirement for ball retention also means that his side has played more backwards passes than any other team in the Premier League, and ranks second in sidewards passing. No other team makes more passes per shot or chances created than United.

Perhaps, for all the Reds’ careful possession, the team’s ability to ‘walk the ball into the net’ is not aided by the manager’s insistence on deploying a largely ineffective and tactically ill-disciplined striker. Wayne Rooney, who has scored just twice in the Premier League this season, ranks 29th for shots taken. At Selhurst Park, Rooney’s penchant for wandering out of position, meant that the 30-year-old failed to touch the ball in Palace’s box even once.

Style is, of course, more than the numbers alone – although a team replete with players able to take on an opponent, or chance an arm at shooting once in a while, obviously quickens the pulse. Van Gaal’s terrace accusers can point to a lack of ambition that, at times, is far from ‘the United way’. On Saturday, with Crystal Palace pressing for the win, the home side was far the more ambitious of the two.

Here Rooney has become a significant inhibitor to United’s attacking evolution. The former Evertonian is by no means the only player to stand accused of poor-form this season, but is unable to provide the kind of pacey fulcrum required of a modern number nine. Nor does the Scouser hold up the ball with any quality. Worse still, Rooney’s seemingly sub-par conditioning means that he is no longer sharp over 10 yards – evidenced by the way the Scouser was unable to latch on to Anthony Martial’s fine first-half through ball against Palace.

In deeper roles Rooney is unable to affect the tempo of United’s attacking play at all, let alone put up the numbers that justify his selection. The Englishman has proffered no assists in 12 Champions and Premier League games this season, and made just 12 key passes. Deployed at 10, Rooney has scored once, taken just four shots, and made just three chances for his team-mates. Rooney’s first touch, long a barometer of the player’s form, continues to ensure his second is the proverbial tackle. He has become a significant barrier to United’s attacking ambitions.

The required change is seemingly obvious to all but Van Gaal, with Martial offering a range of skills and pace at number nine that completely changed United’s attacking outlook through September. With Memphis Depay having benefited from a spell out of the limelight, Ashley Young fit, and Ander Herrera a positive contributor at 10, there are fewer reasons than at any point to retain Rooney. Once unthinkable, few now doubt that dropping the captain will aid United’s attacking verve.

But if Van Gaal has fully retrenched into a conservative outlook, then neither is United’s manager able to affect a game from the dugout. When change comes, Van Gaal falls back to like-for-like substitutions, or those pre-determined through sports science. On Saturday, while Rooney struggled on for the full 90, Van Gaal once again withdrew United’s most creative midfielder – Juan Mata. It was followed by the now inevitable Marouane Fellaini-Bastian Schweinsteiger job share substitution. All too predictable; all too lacking in ambition.

It leaves Van Gaal under increasing pressure: to deliver not only the results that keeps his employers happy, but at least a modicum of entertainment for supporters expecting more.

“I know that if I lose and lose then I will be finished, I know that,” admitted Van Gaal. “But I shall do everything for this club and these fans, who are unbelievable.”

Starting, it must be said, with just a touch more attacking ambition. The fans demand it.

Capitulation at Arsenal – why Van Gaal got it so wrong

October 5, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 28 comments
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Every now and then we all make a huge mess of our jobs. Something that is second nature falls into a vacuum of complacency. Ultimately you get bitten on the backside. Manchester United did this on Sunday against Arsenal, turning up to the office in dress-down clothes, while everyone else came suited-and-booted.

Sunday bore witness to how a philosophy can get in the way of actually playing football, and how tactics can make a World Cup winner look lost and misplaced. Louis van Gaal’s decisions didn’t just lose United the game against Arsenal, but highlighted his natural limitations—despite being a world-class coach.

Van Gaal decided the way to snuff out the Arsenal threat was to play high up the pitch. The Dutchman appears to have noted Arsenal’s predilection for not ‘getting in behind’ very often, opting instead to play the ball to feet. In response Van Gaal offered up huge areas of space to Arsenal to make his plan work.

His strategy spectacularly backfired.

Bastian Schweinseiger has been asked to bomb up the field and close down the opposition’s defensive midfield and centre-backs in each game he has started. Michael Carrick played the role earlier in the season as well. It’s a strategy that works against Liverpool: a team who want to play the ball out of the back, but are so bad at it that the manager gets sacked.

This high press is also typical on the continental; Barcelona has used it for years. Pep Guardiola’s best teams pushed high up the pitch, wining the ball in midfield, and then killed the opposition. But there is also a reason why teams do not use the high press on Barça in reaction – because vacating space enabled the Catalans to thread the ball through an eye of a needle and create chances.

Sir Alex Ferguson noted this in his many European battles, and forced his teams to be more conservative against such opponents. This is also why he had great success when facing Arsenal.

Van Gaal gave Wenger everything he needed to win the game in a small window of play, and as expected, United then made Arsenal look like Barcelona.

In fact, the Gunners didn’t do anything extraordinary on Sunday—they simply went through the motions and played the natural Arsenal game. But there is a reason why they have failed to win the title in a decade. Teams have learned that if you sit deep, and pack the midfield with hardworking players, and use the counter attack, you will have success against them.

It seems that Van Gaal didn’t do his homework or believed he could deconstruct Wenger in a less industrial manner.

United set up in a conventional 4-2-3-1, but within this two players were playing “false” positions: Schweinsteiger and Wayne Rooney, who consistently swapped territory in the first half. It prompts the question: why?

With the Germany captain pushing up and vacating midfield, the England captain should have dropped back to the halfway line, filling the space between Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil. That didn’t happened. It is incredulous to believe Van Gaal asked his side to vacate the midfield completely against a team who are one big midfield with no strikers!

Schweinsteiger was clearly following orders, but it seemed the flaw in the system was Rooney and Memphis Depay’s positions.

For whatever reason in those first 45 minutes United’s attack and midfield simply didn’t do its job correctly. To stretch the analogy: they turned up at the office in flip-flops and a bermuda shirt.

It was clearly evident on the manager’s face as the half progressed he was shell-shocked. This led him to profess after the game it was the worst he had seen them play under his tutelage, but he should have reacted quicker than he did.

“When you start like that you can never win a game, we lost every duel, every second ball, not tight on their midfielder, and they can play they are a fantastic team when you let them give them that space it is difficult,” Van Gaal claimed. “That was the worse United have been under me, we were not able to give a normal performance. I have never seen that of my team, that is the question I put to my players.”

The second half was much better from United, retaining 72 per cent possession after bringing on two ‘less technical’ players in Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia. Rooney and Schweinsteiger were pushed into wider areas, choking the Arsenal supply line, leaving the home team with only a much more direct ball to Theo Walcott. If you are Daley Blind it is so much easier to defend when you are facing the traffic.

Memphis made way after 45 minutes because he simply isn’t showing the mental application to be a United player at present. He is undoubtedly talented, but he looks like Raheem Sterling did for Liverpool last year—fully aware of the expectation, but not quite happy to do the defensive part of his job.

Memphis is built like an ox and shouldn’t have issues with the physical nature of the Premier League, so it can only be presumed that the problem is in his head, with a skewed idea of what it takes to be a top professional. This isn’t the Eredivisie.

Luke Shaw’s injury has forced the manager to play Ashley Young at left-back – and while Blind and Chris Smalling look solid together there is no case to move the Dutch player to full-back. But if Young is to be a success in a defensive role, Memphis needs to adjust his game fast, or Van Gaal has to drop him. The alternative is to move Matteo Darmian—who is suffering a bad spell after a fine start—to left-back, and allow Antonio Valencia—who was poor against Wolfsburg—to play at right-back.

Neither of these are ideal scenarios, but the issue lies further up the pitch, and not in a defence that has – up until Sunday – conceded few goals this season. Smalling continues to look like Rio Ferdinand’s heir apparent, but it was United’s defending as a team was the issue at the Emirates.

The most peculiar fact of Sunday’s defeat was the omission of Morgan Schneiderlin, who would have pressed and tackled Cazorla better than anyone else at the club. The Frenchman was bought to break up play and dominate central midfield – it is odd that Van Gaal decided to leave him on the bench and trust a core of 30-somethings instead.

Van Gaal is not far away from having a very good team, but the manager has to find a plan B and C to back up his A game. The Dutchman can mix it up, as he did in the second half, but it is his failing that he didn’t start the game in this manner.

Anthony Martial continues to look like a hero-in-waiting in a United shirt, but if Rooney and Memphis do not fulfil their function, Van Gaal’s team will drop more points.

All is not lost and the club is not in a panic just yet; Van Gaal’s side just needs to wear a suit and tie to that next meeting.

Januzaj’s departure suggests tactical changes ahead

August 31, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 12 comments
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Amid the transfer market noise it is almost easy to forget that Manchester United was consigned to the club’s first defeat of 2015/16 Premier League on Sunday. Louis Van Gaal’s side twice lost to Swansea City last season and slipped to another defeat in Wales at the weekend prompting thoughts that the Welsh side is the United’s ‘bogey team’, just as Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides of the late noughties struggled to beat Middlesbrough.

Still, the match at Liberty stadium once again demonstrated the Reds’ propensity to turn heavy possession into few goals, with Louis van Gaal resorting to sending Maroune Fellaini on late in the game as a desperate last resort.

United started brightly though, with Ander Herrera deployed in place of injured Adnan Januzaj at number 10 in an otherwise familiar shape:

Figure 1

The difference between in the Spaniard and the Belgian’s movement, below, was one of major factors in, if not the cause of, why United struggled to break down a stubborn Swansea defence though.

One factor is how often Januzaj hits the flanks – far more regularly than Herrera. Herrera may create more chances – he created four at Swansea while Januzaj failed to create any against Newcastle United – but the Belgian’s movement compensates for Juan Mata’s lack of presence on the right flank. Januzaj vacates central space for Memphis Depay to cut in and shoot. Herrera’s more classic interpretation of the number 10 role prevented this at Liberty stadium:

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Januzaj vs Newcastle

Adnan Januzaj vs Newcastle

Herrera vs Swansea

Ander Herrera vs Swansea

Where United failed, credit goes to Swansea manager Gary Monk, whose switch to a 4-4-2 diamond following Mata’s goal won the home side the game. United’s shape, with essentially no right-wing, has allowed the Reds to dominate the centre of the park in pervious matches, but the Swansea manager negated that advantage by opting for a narrow formation.

In fact, using two strikers as well as an attacking midfielder, was a particularly effective way of testing United’s makeshift central defensive partnership of Daley Blind and Chris Smalling. It was a shrewd tactical move on Monk’s part.

Van Gaal’s response – bringing Ashley Young on in place of the goalscoring Mata – made perfect sense too. The 4-4-2 diamond is highly vulnerable to being stretched across the field, and introducing a hardworking traditional right-winger is a textbook move to combat the formation, as illustrated below.

Figure 3

Michael Carrick’s concurrent introduction in place of Morgan Schneiderlin was also a wise move on Van Gaal’s part in the context of United’s shift to a 4-3-3 formation. Recall that United’s best football last season was in this system with Carrick holding. Carrick’s superior range of passing means that he engages the flanks much more effectively than Schneiderlin and is therefore well suited to work the inherent weakness of 4-4-2 diamond.

More controversial was Van Gaal’s decision to swap Herrera for Fellaini – and then using the giant midfielder at number nine. With United a goal down the decision to push Fellaini into the Swansea box could have been useful. Indeed, Swansea brought on a third centre-back just to follow the Belgian around the pitch.

Perhaps the braver move still would have been to introduce Fellaini in place of Wayne Rooney, who again struggled to get into the game as he has in each Premier League match this season.

Still, the Herrera-Fellaini substitution was the right call. Again, Rooney works the flanks better than the Spanish midfielder. ‘Lumping it to the big man’ was an option, but another – perhaps primary plan – was to allow Memphis, who had been quiet, to come into the game more. Rooney sat to the left of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the Scouser, who has always displayed a tendency to drift towards the left, makes for an ideal central midfield partner to Memphis.

Tactics aside, the game highlighted some clear problems with some personnel. Sergio Romero reinforced the opinion of some that the Argentinian is not a reliable goalkeeper for a side aspiring to compete on all fronts. David De Gea would have made a better fist of saving Swansea’s first goal, while most Premier League ‘keepers would have stopped the second.

Meanwhile, the major problem caused by Rooney is that he does not ‘lead the line’, nor can he hold up the ball effectively. This allows the opposition defence to creep up the pitch and squeeze Memphis and Mata out of the game.

In theory, Fellaini might perform effectively at number nine. The Belgian could force the opposition into a catch 22 situation where they cannot push up – the traditional defence against a target man – lest Fellaini act as a focal-point for midfielder runners such as Memphis, the now departed Januzaj, and Mata. Nor can they defend deep given Fellaini’s aerial presence.

Still, Memphis, Januzaj and Mata had started to build an understanding with one another before the Belgian’s departure on Monday. Januzaj’s roaming to the flanks allowed Memphis and Mata to cut in – and the three have shown flashes of just how devastating this combination could be. This observation, and Rooney’s tactical indiscipline, could be incorporated into a strikerless formation.

Rooney’s movements to the right could be interpreted as the England captain covering for Mata, but acquiring a strong right-winger could also solve a number of United’s problems. Indeed, this column previously failed to identify a striker that would improve United significantly, while a right-sided forward – such as Gareth Bale or Kevin Volland – would make up the goalscoring numbers and, theoretically, have the same impact as acquiring a new striker.

Using Young or Januzaj on the right does not really solve this issue. Memphis has quickly established himself as an important weapon in United’s arsenal and the Swansea game has demonstrated that a ‘traditional’ number 10 significantly hampers the former PSV player’s game. Mata, Rooney, Fellaini and Herrera simply are not as comfortable as Januzaj on the flanks and Januzaj had to play at 10 in a 4-2-3-1 if Memphis was to shine.

In this analysis the ideal scenario is that a classy right-winger replaces Mata on the right. Still, with Pedro not deemed good enough, it appears unlikely that a classy right-winger will join United before the transfer window closes. Januzaj’s departure also suggests a more permanent move to a 4-3-3 system, below.

Figure 4

This formation will leave room for Memphis to cut in. If Mata is chosen ahead of Young on the right, with Januzaj now at Borussia Dortmund, the Spaniard at least formed a fruitful relationship with Herrera last season. This shape is aided by Matteo Darmian, who has started the season strongly.

The shape is narrow, but this is not a major problem with three players in central midfield allowing Luke Shaw and Darmian to bomb forward. This is not unlike the system Van Gaal used in United’s convincing victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City last season. United, of course, now has better players.

United’s defeat at Swansea demonstrated just how vital Januzaj is to making a 4-2-3-1 system work. With Januzaj now departed, the need for a ‘proper’ right winger lingers. It appears that a 4-3-3 formation is now the only feasible option going forward. Indeed, Van Gaal said he will use “more or less 4-3-3” this season. It is now time to live up to those words.

Diagrams from sharemytactics.com
Statistics and illustrations from squawka.com

Van Gaal could go with the defence he has

August 23, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 18 comments

Two months into the summer 2015 transfer window and Louis Van Gaal has certainly strengthened Manchester United’s squad with a quintet of acquisitions. Matteo Darmian is a huge upgrade over Antonio Valencia at right-back and Memphis Depay adds flair and a sense of unpredictability to United’s forward line. Morgan Schneiderlin and the star of United’s transfer window, Bastian Schweinsteiger, provide the Reds with a midfield duo capable of holding its own against high-class opponents.

In defence there is reason to think Van Gaal might just stick with what he now has. Van Gaal’s philosophy revolves around balance being omnipresent in the starting eleven. There is a strong argument that the purchase of a central defender is essential if the Dutchman is to achieve that goal. After all, since the departure of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, United has often lacked a commanding defender to bring calm to the apparent chaos. Yet, Van Gaal showed faith with the options he had last season, providing each defender with a chance to stake his claim. It has paid some dividend.

After being sent off against Manchester City in November Chris Smalling was United’s most impressive centre-back. Smalling’s determined performances were augmented by some crucial goals, including a thunderous header against City to complete his redemption. Especially towards the latter end of the season, Smalling was transformed into a defensive leader, and has carried on this impressive form into the new season.

The former Fulham man was central to victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa. Smalling’s positioning has been exceptional, allowing him to neutralize Harry Kane on the opening day and Villa’s Rudy Gested. The England international’s passing is also more assured than a year ago, although it remains a cause for concern against an opposition that presses. If Smalling continues this rate of development he could fulfil the potential Sir Alex Ferguson predicted five years ago.

Meanwhile, Van Gaal has transformed Daley Blind into a central defender this season, with the Dutch international providing balance on the left. Blind doesn’t boast pace, power or height, but has looked assured in the new role. Blind adds intelligence to the backline and his ability to bring the ball out from the back has instigated several United attacks. The former Ajax player has also formed a good understanding with Smalling.

Still, Blind has been caught out a few times in dangerous areas – alarming considering the Dutchman doesn’t have the recovery pace to make up for shortcomings. It is an observation that means Marcos Rojo could well replace Blind in the starting eleven when fit.

Rojo showed flashes of quality last season and his aggression reminds supporters of the Serbian rock, Vidic. The Argentine’s reading of the game and his passing range must improve if he is to succeed at United though, while Rojo ‘s positional ill-discipline left more than one gap at the back last season. Nevertheless, the former Sporting man has real character and his robust tackling was a strong feature.

Rojo is perhaps the most suitable partner for Smalling and averages a similar number of tackles and interceptions per game. Rojo also boasts an impressive number of clearances.

Phil Jones has always held the potential to be a force for the Reds, but injury problems consistently ruin any momentum. Jones’ injuries persisted last season, with the former Blackburn Rovers man taking part in just 22 games. In keeping with the pattern Jones’ has missed the opening three weeks of this season. He was a member of the starting eleven during United’s best period of football from March to April, where the Reds’ defence conceded just four goals, forming a resolute partnership with Smalling.

Jones started pre-season brightly, although disappointed against PSG in the final tour game. His positional awareness remains a real weakness at times, most notably allowing a Zlatan Ibrahamovic space to slot a home for PSG. It points to a pivotal season, with a high probability of it being his last chance in Manchester.

Jonny Evans, by contrast, is near an Old Trafford exit. Evans’ alarming regression since Ferguson’s retirement continued in 2014/15. The Irishman is an excellent reader of the game, but is bereft of confidence and looks frightened of the ball. It seems unlikely that he will ever recapture his place at United and a move away from the Old Trafford spotlight seems highly likely for the former academy player.

Meanwhile, youth players Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett were thrown into the team last season as injuries took hold. McNair was a surprise starter against Everton in November and barely put a foot wrong in the months to come. He handled the physical presence of Romelu Lukaku, efficiently nullifying the Belgian’s impact.  McNair’s reading is impressive, although lapses in concentration caused mistimed tackles and unnecessary fouls at times. McNair has some work to do if he is to become a fixture in the United first team, but the Irishman isn’t fazed by the standard in the Premier League.

Blackett, meanwhile, showed promise on the left side of defence, although all momentum was lost after being part of the United horror show at Leicester City. Despite being frozen out of the first team as the season wore on, the Manchester native looked calm and assured when given the opportunity. Blackett is the type of ball playing defender that Van Gaal typically adores. After signing new contracts at the club, big things are expected of both the youngsters in the coming years.

Improvement to individuals suggests that, unless a truly world-class defender becomes available, Van Gaal will stick with what he has. After all, there has been a stark improvement United’s defending this season. The individuals have progressed and the understanding between them has created a strong unit after a full pre-season under the Dutchman.

Rooney central to Van Gaal’s function versus flair dichotomy

August 22, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 11 comments
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How close is Louis Van Gaal to achieving his philosophy? The Dutchman’s side dropped its first points of the campaign against Newcastle United on Saturday — and the Manchester United family wept at the heinous crime that is a goalless draw. United struggled in the final third of the pitch against a resolute Geordie defence, which was happy to park the bus and take a solitary point. The visitors almost stole the match at the death with a rare counter-attack.

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Data Rant: Van Gaal’s obsession with passing

August 21, 2015 Tags: , Data 9 comments
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Despite scoring the match winning goal at Villa Park, Adnan Januzaj was criticized by Louis Van Gaal for “unnecessary ball losses.” In fact, pass completion seems to be the chief criterion by which the Manchester United manager judges performance. Why does Van Gaal place such importance upon the passing and is pass completion a robust enough indicator of team performance? Data Rant investigates… Read More

Van Gaal could ape Barça’s tactical approach

June 16, 2015 Tags: Opinion 6 comments
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Barcelona won everything under Luis Enrique this season: La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League. And yet Enrique’s side is far more pragmatic than Pep Guardiola’s “Dream Team.” Perhaps it is because the current squad, as good as it is, does not match up to Guardiola’s side. Or maybe Neymar and Ivan Rakitic do not quite grasp tiki taka. Whatever the reason, Barcelona no longer shuns counter-attacking football or the occasional long ball and has been just as effective over the past season.

Indeed, during the Champions League final against Juventus 10 days ago Barcelona put on a something of a functional performance. The Catalans’ 4-3-3 formation offered a midfield three that was more concerned with keeping shape and covering advanced players than trying to work the ball through the Italians’ centre.

In wide areas neither Jordi Alba nor Dani Alves looked to overlap with frequency. The Spanish left-back always offered an open outlet for long-balls from the right, while Alves, whose new two-year contract will preclude United from signing the Brazilian, looked to buttress the midfield rather than providing genuine width.

Up front Neymar offered thrust from the left, while Suarez played as a vanilla number nine and Lionel Messi constantly moved into the number 10 position rather than attacking the box. Louis van Gaal calls the role “false winger” – one that Juan Mata played frequently in recent months.

In fact, the Barcelona system in Berlin was highly reminiscent of Manchester United’s recent 4-3-3 formation. Rakitic and Ander Herrera, and Messi and Juan Mata, are interchangeable in terms of role on the pitch, while both United and Barça looked to the left to provide attacking drive. It is also worth noting that Antonio Valencia at right-back was among the most frequent passers at United last season. In the Olympiastadion the game ended with Alves as the player with the most passes to his name.

Of course, no matter how much money Ed Woodward spends this summer, United will not boast a front three on par with Barça’s come August. It is, however, reassuring that Van Gaal’s philosophy can be particularly effective with better players.

Success through replication is a well-trodden path in business as well as sport. Uniqlo and Zara make money by aping pioneering designers. Samsung has become a giant in the smartphone market by following in Apple’s footsteps. Barcelona’s treble speaks for itself and Enrique’s side may prove to be the football equivalent of Thom Browne or Apple to Van Gaal’s United.

It is ludicrous to suggest that Memphis Depay and Ashley Young are on the same level as Neymar on the left, while Mata or Adnan Januzaj may offer only a passable impression of Messi, but most of ingredients are already in place for Van Gaal’s Barcelona-esque system to work at Old Trafford.

Figure AThere is, of course, a difference between Barcelona and United in the midfield composition. Andres Iniesta is technical rather than blunt. Maroune Fellaini will struggle to imitate the Spanish World Cup winner and, if deployed in the same role as over the past 10 months, will crowd out Depay in any case. This issue can easily be fixed though and United is already in the market for a new midfielder. It should also be noted that Angel di Maria is essentially a more adventurous version of Iniesta when deployed in central midfield.

Tactically Barça has evolved this season. Cross-field balls to shift angles have long been a part of total football, but Barcelona’s incorporation of the direct game is particularly telling. Predictable attacks, even as well executed as Guardiola’s tiki taka, can be stopped. The Bayern Munich manager’s failure to get the better of Barcelona and Real Madrid over the past two seasons is a case in point. Possession has proven to be something that may be gained by superiority – not a necessary and sufficient condition for domination.

Figure BThat means taking risks at the expense of possession is a worthwhile endeavour. Long balls, inherently inaccurate and therefore risky, certainly have value in this line of thought. Van Gaal’s first season at Old Trafford was an exercise in exerting control. It remains to be seen whether the current Barcelona template will turn out to be the culmination of the Dutchman’s philosophy or otherwise. The European champions’ willingness to embrace risk should be taken to heart.

If United enjoys a good summer in the market Van Gaal will have more tactical flexibility next season. Barcelona’s relative pragmatism is counter-balanced by extra creativity on the right – Alves and Messi are more than capable of blasting through any deadlock. There is a clear difference between being functional and choosing to be functional. A note for United’s work in the market.

The situation up top is more of a stumbling block for United. As despicable as some find Suarez the Uruguayan ensures that Barça’s system works. Neither Wayne Rooney nor Robin van Persie offers the same guarantee. The England and United captain’s “special privileges” may very well render this discussion moot and force Van Gaal to adopt a new system anyway.

It is reassuring nonetheless that a 4-3-3 system can work at the highest level. The Champions League final has demonstrated a template that can by followed even in the status quo at Old Trafford. It is a default option that can be fruitfully explored should the Dutchman indulge in some tinkering next season. In fact Van Gaal may very well consider the match a vindication of his management last season, although certain philosophical tenets so evident in Berlin should be noted in the campaign to come.

Van Gaal faces critical tactical choices in the weeks ahead

May 4, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 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.

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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.

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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 lineupbuilder.com

Van Gaal’s only option is to attack

March 12, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 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.

All diagrams from lineupbuilder.com

Van Gaal set to unleash width

February 27, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 5 comments
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Manchester United’s 2-1 loss to Swansea City last weekend marked a new low in Louis van Gaal’s tenure at the club. With an unlikely hand from Liverpool, United remained in the top four, but with the Reds dangerously close to slipping out of the Champions League spots, and struggling to dispatch lower league sides, the former Netherlands manager is now under tremendous scrutiny.

Unlike David Moyes, Van Gaal has a history of excellence and titles to fall back on. Even failures at Bayern Munich and Barcelona may be attributed to political circumstances outside his control, although it is worrying that the Dutchman’s management of both European giants was pockmarked with constant rotation and deployment of players in unfamiliar roles. Bastian Schweinsteiger may have reinvented himself as an excellent central midfielder, but deploying Rivaldo and Juan Riquelme out wide did not work. The constant experimentation at Old Trafford may fall into the latter category, with potentially devastating consequences.

United’s Champions League future is far from secure. After all, almost 70 per cent of the season has been played out and it is not uncommon for fourth and fifth sides to swap places in the Premier League from this stage onwards. In 2010/11, 11/12 and 12/13, Tottenham Hotspur sat in the top four having played 26 games, but lost out on a Champions League berth to Chelsea, Chelsea and Arsenal respectively. Southampton, Liverpool and Spurs are all within three points of United and further losses in the remaining 12 games may prove fatal.

To put this in numbers earlier analysis in this column revealed that number of “poor streaks” suffered by a club, as defined by consecutive losses and/or draws, is a very robust predictor of a team’s performance over a season. In recent seasons teams could not realistically afford more than four such streaks to reach the Champions League. It is concerning that United has already been through three and is on the cusp of another.

These are seriously worrying signs, yet there are also hints that the outlook may be improving too. Van Gaal’s sides have traditionally started their campaigns slowly and, considering that the Bundesliga includes a winter break at least a month long, a surge in performance may soon kick in if the pattern follows.

Further, van Gaal’s experimentation has always addressed areas of weaknesses while upholding his general philosophy of maintaining possession to create a situation of unpredictability. Assuming that Van Gaal persists with his philosophy it is not unreasonable to believe that United’s manager will evolve his team sufficiently to paper over the most conspicuous cracks between now and the end of the season.

United’s most worrying deficiency is in defence; the Reds’ back-four has suffered the most defensive errors in the Premier League this season. The lack of protection out wide at Liberty Stadium was particularly troublesome. Even placing blame on the narrow diamond system is erroneous given that Swansea matched United’s midfield diamond until late in the game.

There is potentially a quick fix though: lining up with wingers. This could also improve the sterile and predictable attack. United’s second half turnaround against Preston North End, following a switch to a flat 4-4-2, gives credence to the idea.

The Reds lined up in a 4-1-4-1 system in tough games against Chelsea and Manchester City earlier in the season and van Gaal probably will deploy wingers, ironically, to fortify wide areas in coming games. Star performer Angel di Maria is comfortable out wide and Adnan Januzaj – who has frequently featured in systems with wingers – has worked his way back into Van Gaal’s graces.

If the former Bayern manager takes a particularly pragmatic approach Januzaj’s defensive abilities might be questioned by the veteran coach although there are few choices. Juan Mata has often been deployed on the right flank, but the Spaniard lacks the Belgian’s physical presence and is surely down the list of potential options in that role. Ashley Young’s diligence may see the Englishman slip into the side, à la Ji-Sung Park, for his defensive work rather than attacking talent

Van Gaal’s predilection for setting up his team to create overloads means that the Dutchman has always tried to deploy “inverted” wingers. This tendency further supports the idea that Young and di Maria will be used in tandem in coming games. The more difficult part is to guess whether the former Netherlands boss will retain two strikers or further solidify his midfield.

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One major advantage of a two-striker system is familiarity; United has often played in a similar formation over the years. The issue of United’s lack of speed up top is persistent though and one reason why Robin van Persie has kept his place despite the Dutchman’s poor form. The former Arsenal striker’s touch allows him to hold the ball up unlike Wayne Rooney or Radamel Falcao.

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By deploying Marouane Fellaini in the hole, above, Van Gaal is be able to used Rooney as a striker. The Scouser remains United’s most mobile forward. Januzaj can then attack the space behind opposition defences from the left.

There remains a questions around Ander Herrera though. The Spaniard’s exclusion was explain by Van Gaal as the search for “balance” in his team and Herrera’s ability to get from box-to-box, albeit pleasing to fans, is at odds with the manager’s patient philosophy.

On econsequence of Van Gaal’s quest for patience is that United’s current vintage is creating less chances per game than Moyes’ team, although it is offering more assists.

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United must be able to quickly switch angles of attack to abandon the current agricultural approach – hence the view that United will use width more as the season comes to a close.

Once Michael Carrick returns from injury and partners Daley Blind in midfield, below, Antonio Valencia will be able to advance more freely and create the overloads that Van Gaal so desires.

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Van Gaal has instructed his right flank to be more conservative than the left in recent games and the security of having Carrick will allow more liberty. The double pivot will also appease the manager’s concern for creating a foothold in opposition half and even allow Herrera to play at 10 where the Spaniard has often turned out.

In this Carrick’s return is key in United’s remaining 12 games. Van Gaal has more or less been forced into playing wingers in recent games. The 33-year-old will allow the Reds to set up a solid base of attack and his diagonal balls should eliminate the need for Fellaini or van Persie to hold up the ball. United’s current predicament, aligned to Van Gaal’s philosophy, may see United replicate the pattern of late-era Sir Alex Ferguson sides.

All diagrams from lineupbuilder.com