Tag Tactics

Tag Tactics

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.

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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

Above all a team

February 15, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 7 comments
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Outclassed, out-passed and creatively out-imagined at home by a side struggling to break out of the relegation zone –  last Wednesday Old Trafford witnessed Sean Dyche’s Burnley outplay Manchester United in almost every way. Yet, amazingly, it was Louis van Gaal’s side that earned three points at the end of the night to leapfrog Southampton back into third.

Burnley was the latest in a series of unlikely results this season, with United on a run of 18 matches that includes just a single defeat. It’s a series that includes United’s 2-1 away triumphs at the Emirates and St. Marys, and home victories over Everton and Burnley. None of which United deserved to win. Add shocking results at Leicester City and Milton Keynes Dons and it becomes clear that Van Gaal’s side deserves far less than it has achieved this season. Perhaps Van Gaal did sign something far more valuable than another player in his £150 million summer shopping spree: Lady Luck.

If anything, the lavish summer spree has been more of a hindrance than a positive. The purchases of a range of attacking talents has seemingly thrown the team into disarray and Van Gaal looks incapable of nailing down anything close to a cohesive XI after eight months on the job. Truthfully, the Dutchman has not even been able to draw the minimum expected from huge talents such as Angel Di Maria, Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj. That trio is now reduced to playing the roles of square pegs in round holes.

That said, United’s formation is at least something Van Gaal seems to have settled, with the Reds now playing a 4-4-2 diamond regularly. But the misguided use of personnel contributed much to the miserable show versus Burnley last week – a performance Van Gaal described as “shocking.” United’s defence was a shambles once again, with Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans flapping at centre-back, the latter proving once again that he is a player that barely deserves to make the reserves let alone Van Gaal’s first team. Luke Shaw’s suspension left Marcos Rojo at left-back, and although he made a decent job of it, the Argentinian was sorely missed at the heart of United’s defence.

The night was not helped by Jones’ early injury, which will put him out for the next two weeks – another setback for United. But the injury had one benefit by placing Chris Smalling in the equation. The man-of-the-match performance included a goal within 20 seconds of his entry – the fastest goal by a substitute in Premier League history. He went on to play one of the best games of his time at United, with a headed brace that gave the home side a 2-1 lead at half-time. And there was one more defensive positive against Burnley – at right back, McNair is beginning to make himself a mainstay in the defence, again performing better than his counterparts in the position.

Chris Smalling’s goal scoring proved a lesson for Van Gaal’s forwards, who again struggled in the final third. It is a pattern across the entire campaign. The team boasts more than a fair amount of possession every game, yet there have been matches this season when United registered zero shots on target. The obvious conclusion is that United’s strikers are underperforming. For further evidence Falcao was again nowhere near his potential last Wednesday, with the Colombian struggling to find his first touch for most of the game. Meanwhile, Van Persie is only slowly recovering after more than 18 months of intermittent form.

Perhaps, though, the actual problem lies elsewhere. In United’s previous fixture, away at West Ham United, the Hammers pressed well through Diafra Sakho and Ener Valencia and Van Gaal’s side was unable to get the ball past their half-way line for long periods. United’s back-four struggled to find an outlet and was often left without an but to miserably hoof it up the field. Or to passing it all the way back to David De Gea who did the same. It was a game riddled with back-passes and ‘no other option’ long balls as if United was playing without a midfield at all. It is the story of United’s season – the absence of a proper midfield engine, with players such as Rooney and Januzaj trying to create, but sticking out like sore thumbs in central areas.

At least part of United’s problem lies in the systems played this season, whether a 3-5-2 or the 4-4-2 diamond. Each uses a compromised form of width that does not play to the squad’s strengths. In the former, Van Gaal asks his wide men to double up with added defensive duties at wing-back; the latter utilises attacking full-backs. In truth United is short of both. The failure of makeshift wing-backs Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young in part contributed to United’s return to a 4-4-2 diamond, where Van Gaal has tried to overcome weaknesses at full-back by deploying Di Maria and Januzaj on either side of the diamond. It compromises two talent players; neither manages to gain a fair share of the ball within the narrow diamond, nor create from wide areas.

However, against Burnley Van Gaal was forced into substituting Daley Blind near half time, resulting in a very rare Ander Herrera appearance as the Dutch midfielder went down with a knock to the head. United shifted to a flat four across midfield in the second half, which made a huge difference, with more players deployed in their preferred roles. Rooney initially pushed higher up the pitch, supported by the excellent Herrera. In turn, Januzaj and Di Maria set up as wingers, enabling each to whip in crosses and penetrate a tired Burnley defence. It was noticeable that Di Maria improved as the game went on, running at Burnley’s players and working back well when United had to defend.

Yet, it was a game that raised more concerns about Van Gaal’s time at United. The Dutchman came to Old Trafford on the back of success at the World Cup with a much-discussed 3-5-2 system. It has taken more than six months for the Dutchman to realise that it doesn’t work well at United. And now, with the “mathematically ingenious” 4-4-2 diamond, he is trying to fit in players into a system who are finding it uncomfortable, while others warm the bench. Players perhaps more suited to the new shape.

It’s an observation that asks a question – is it time that Van Gaal stopped trying to reinvent players and instead play to their strengths? It might mean that the manager has to start dropping his favourites to make a system work regardless of price tag and pedigree. After all, how long can a team depend on individual brilliance to win games? Lady luck does not last forever. Ultimately, above all, it is the team that matters most.

Long Ball United

February 9, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 14 comments
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Strange times these. Not only is Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United side every bit as insipid as that presided over by David Moyes last season, but the Dutchman has seemingly taken on board his predecessor’s predilection for long-ball tactics. It’s in the data you know. And while statistics can tell many stories, for the moment it is enough to draw observation from United’s game at West Ham United on Sunday. One in which the Reds’ agricultural tactics secured a late point.

For much of the fixture United toiled in east London, second best to West Ham at every turn, and seemingly willing to cede the impetus to Sam Allardyce’s side despite the vast difference in quality available. In the end Daley Blind’s low drive in the 93rd minute secured a point for Van Gaal’s men that they barely deserved.

Not for the first time this season, too often in truth, it was a performance of scant ambition and even less cohesion from Van Gaal’s team. Indeed, much in common with many games since November, it was the Dutchman’s expensive attacking line-up that failed to click at Upton Park. In Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, and Robin van Persie, United employed more than £150 million worth of attacking talent. Not that it showed.

Yet, in adversity Van Gaal has reverted to a back-to-basics approach, with United employing a direct game in the final 20 minutes at Upton Park that bordered on total desperation. It is an odd reaction from a manager schooled in Total Voetbal.

Whereas Sir Alex Ferguson might have used an ever riskier attacking approach as the clock ticked down, the Dutchman has taken to deploying Marouane Fellaini within a very specific game-plan. Against Cambridge United in the FA Cup Fellaini started from the left, with United launching long diagonal passes at the Belgian. And again at West Ham a similar approach, although to the manager’s credit was pivotally involved in United’s equaliser on Sunday.

The contrast with Ferguson is relevant though. The Scot remained a gambler to the end, even as his tactics regressed into greater pragmatism during the sunset of his United tenure. Van Gaal, by contrast, has quickly retrenched into a rudimentary percentage game this season. More than the lack of attacking accord between talented forwards, it is the Dutchman’s Plan B that ought to shock. After all, in 20 years at the sharp end of European football, it is hard to recall many times that Van Gaal has so readily been reduced to, essentially, hoofing it. His Netherlands side at last summer’s World Cup, where the Oranje played over 100 more long balls than any other team, being one notable exception.

There is, of course, a temptation to dismiss one game, albeit where United launched 89 long balls from 452 passes at near enough 20 per cent of the total. But the truth comes into sharp relief when Allardyce delights in pulling up his opposite number for resorting to agricultural tactics. Sam Allardyce! Strange times indeed.

“In the end we couldn’t cope with Long-ball United. It’s not how you normally see United play, but it got them a goal in the end,” said Allardyce in the aftermath of United’s late equaliser.

“You might just criticise Louis Van Gaal for playing long balls as much as I’m sometimes criticised for being direct. In the end it’s paid off for them so you can’t knock it.”

Fair enough, perhaps, although the Midlander’s observation comes without the full context – that after Van Gaal spent around £150 million last summer, some of it on United’s wealth of attacking talent, supporters might be entitled to enjoy just a little more flair. And a lot more ambition.

Indeed, there is one sense in which Van Gaal’s Plan B is bleeding into his principal strategy: the Dutchman’s side has played more long balls than any other team in the Premier League this season aside from Burnley. 1,862 to be precise. While, in percentage terms that number places United near the foot of the long-ball league table, it comes as no surprise that most of United’s rivals for European football next season play more of their football on the ground. It is food for thought next time Fellaini’s number comes up as a late substitute.

Long Balls

The counter-point to this observation is that United has played more passes in the Premier League than any other side bar Manchester City. In fact, United’s average possession this season of 59.3 per cent is also second only to City, while the team’s pass success ratio is 84.8 per cent. Second, again, to the Blues. United may play the long ball game, but Van Gaal’s side is pretty accurate with it.

Yet, it is the efficacy of that passing that concerns most, aside from the questionable aesthetics. Van Gaal’s side generates fewer key passes per game that almost half the Premier League, leading to just 12.7 shots per match on average, with 4.6 hitting the target. Here the comparison with Moyes is again relevant – the Scot’s side created more chances from less possession last year.

Drill down into the data further and the performance of key individuals is also questionable. Juan Mata remains United’s most careful passer, completing more than 89 per cent of the time, although it is tempting to conclude that Van Gaal does not fully trust the Spaniard. Nor has he been United’s creative saviour – providing just four assists this season at an average of 1.4 key passes per game. As ever Michael Carrick and Daley Blind also retain possession nine times in every 10, but with little end-product.

By contrast Rooney squandered more than 20 per cent of the ball against West Ham, launching repeatedly ineffective sweeping passes from left-to-right as is the Scouser’s predilection. It is not as if the England international is creating chances with it either – he has just four assists to his name all season.

In the data there is a greater point; that Van Gaal’s philosophy is at heart essentially pragmatic. Stuck between two stools of a defence that he does not fully trust and an attack lacking in pace, the Dutchman has though – and failed – to find a wining balance between the two. At West Ham Van Gaal deployed Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj in an attempt to injectpace and drive through midfield. It came at the expense of tempo, craft and a short passing game.

Yet, whenever Mata is deployed and the Reds use the ball more effectively, United’s becomes too ponderous for the elite level. Too predictable to break down organised defences.

Elsewhere, Van Gaal has made other compromises that are yet to bear fruit. It is tempting to conclude that the Dutchman’s decision to crowbar Rooney into midfield is the conflagration of Van Persie’s relationship with his manager and Falcao’s vast expense to the club. With it the manager has seemingly – and perhaps permanently – sacrificed Ander Herrera, the only United midfielder who offers a balance of craft and energy currently lacking.

Just one more curiosity in a season that may yet bring Van Gaal his only possible saving grace: Champions League qualification. It is the metric by which all others are measured, and the only possible justification for ‘Long Ball United.’

Van Gaal’s quest for balance

February 4, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 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.

In defeat Van Gaal’s philosopy takes shape

January 15, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 7 comments
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Manchester United’s performances with three at the back have rarely been good this season and the 1-0 loss to Southampton at Old Trafford at the weekend may be one poor showing too many in the formation. With Ashley Young now the only player in Louis van Gaal’s squad now injured the Dutchman has both the personnel and motivation to switch back to the 4-4-2 diamond that has brought excellent performances to date. The question is will he and should he?

One major problem with United’s use of a back three is that when either wing-back has the ball there are no players ahead of him. It’s a challenge that forces United to play through the middle and slows down the Reds’ attacks. Against Southampton, as with other matches, the Dutchman’s side failed to created chances.

Yet, it is also a problem that will not be fixed by reverting to a 4-4-2 diamond. Nor does Van Gaal have very many alternatives, with Adnan Januzaj not yet trusted by the new manager and Angel di Maria the only top-class winger in United’s squad. Barring an unlikely acquisition during the winter transfer window United will be stuck deploying narrow formations for the rest of the season.

However, narrow systems have held up well defensively this season; only Southampton, Chelsea and Manchester City have conceded fewer goals. It is hard to categorically argue that a back three is more solid than a back four simply by the virtue of having one more centre-back, but an additional player in midfield or attack certainly aids United’s high pressing game. The the extra firepower may also push back opposition teams more and grant United’s fragile defence some breathing room.

It is worth remembering that United’s two finest performances this season came when deploying a 44-2 diamond – against minnows in QPR and Hull City. There is no guarantee that the system will hold up against stronger opposition.

Theoretically, a back four with a diamond midfield eases United’s current inability to transition from defence to attack by deploying a man in defensive midfield and another in the hole. The transition through the middle can be quick given that there is at least one man every step of the way.

With that said, Luke Shaw and Rafael da Silva have been underwhelming so far. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, despite the superficially improved performances, remain mediocre. It means none of the four offer enough threat on the wings to prevent the opposition crowding the centre and negating United’s tactics.

There are other challenges too. Di Maria’s return will help transition from defence to attack, but it will not solve the chronic lack of pace in the squad. Van Gaal’s side is forced to take the patient approach and theoretically a back three has more potential for attacking prowess than a back four if van Gaal’s tactical thinking works out.

On the left, below, is the line-up deployed in United’s 2-1 win against Southampton at St. Mary’s. On the right is the line-up used in the 1-0 loss to the Saints.

Picture vsS Picture 1

There is one crucial difference – Juan Mata was shifted to the right at Old Trafford. At St. Mary’s the left-footed Mata supported Young on the left and right-footed Marouane Fellaini helped Valencia overload the right flank. On the ‘wrong’ side Mata can’t support his left wing-back. This move holds a key to Van Gaal’s thinking.

Consider another way of looking at this formation, below, with a deep midfield with no traditional number 10. Shaw and Valencia can start higher and quickly move into advanced positions. Should the ball move to ‘wrong footed’ Wayne Rooney or Mata they can quickly attack the middle and change the angle. Carrick stays deep while two outer central defenders push wide and support the wing-backs. Van Gaal’s 3-1-4-2 turns into a 4-4-2 during the attacking phase of play.

Picture 2

One cannot do that with a 4-4-2 diamond. Two central defenders cannot easily move into wide areas, leaving central midfield to fill space in the channel, with the onus on numbers 6 and 10 to cover a lot of ground. United simply doesn’t have a midfield that is mobile enough to make this formation work successfully.

In theory a 3-4-1-2, as implemented by Van Gaal, offers much more balance in attack. As things stand, however, United’s version of 3-1-4-2 is easy to counter. With wing-backs so advanced, Southampton simply cut off passing lanes into Carrick then forced Smalling into wasting time on the ball.

Picture 3

It remains to be seen whether the system can endure although perhaps Van Gaal’s philosophy is finally clear. Van Gaal has been happy to deploy wrong-footed wing-backs. Even the correct footed Shaw has just as often moved into attacking midfield as he has gone down the line. Under the current scheme, Shaw’s options are to go down the line or cut in.

Deploying Di Maria up top allows the Argentinian to find space on the left or move across to the right, which he did on several occasion against Southampton. This means that United can overload attacking midfield at any given time with a multitude of possible combinations in the hole. Earlier in the season the predominant theme had been to overload the flanks, which can still happen with Di Maria used up front with license to to roam.

Van Gaal’s tactical outlook is therefore taking shape. In defensive phase he wants his team to press, but let opposition defenders have the ball and make sure defensive structure is in place. The Dutchman wants his team to build patiently to set up the offensive structure. He wants to attack in bursts and with intent if – and only if – an overload has been achieved. Switching to the other flank is the preferred method of initiating an approach. And if an overload cannot be forced, his team is prepared to be direct, to win a set piece or a hopeful shot at goal.

Van Gaal’s philosophy therefore is to maintain possession to create a situation of unpredictability, not for the sake of possession itself. The emphasis is on using moments in an favourable situation – for example the unpredictability brought on by overloads.

This is a philosophy since it is predicated upon a belief – the belief that meaninglessly holding onto the ball can be dangerous and that counterattacks can be more deadly than concerted attacks in open play.

Yet, a football philosophy is meaningless unless it leads to points. Van Gaal’s plays to United’s lack of speed, but it remains a doubt whether the Reds can gain sufficient enough possession to engineer enough favourable situations. United’s contrasting home and away records are a case in point. Just like the man his philosophy is complicated – essentially he wants his team to be reactive to be proactive.

All diagrams from lineupbuilder.com

Van Gaal’s ‘modern’ wing-backs

September 6, 2014 Tags: , , , Opinion 4 comments
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Deploying a ‘wrong-footed’ winger is no longer a radical concept – in fact it is now fully mainstream. Wingers cut inside, vacate space for full-backs to run into, enabling attacking teams to get more bodies into the middle whilst retaining some width. Even lowly Sunderland regularly use inverted wingers these days. More interesting, perhaps, is a corollary now being tested at Old Trafford. Just a little deeper.

Ashley Young has deputised for the injured Luke Shaw at left wing-back this season; perhaps it is a simple stop-gap measure, and a natural one at that, considering Young’s typical role as a left winger. Yet, there is also some evidence that Louis van Gaal is entirely comfortable deploying the ‘wrong-footed’ Young at wing-backs. That it is, in fact, part of his grand design.

Consider United’s match against Swansea City for a moment, when Adnan Januzaj, a left-footed player, replaced Jesse Lingard at right wing-back. Van Gaal held plenty of alternatives to the Belgian; he could have brought Michael Keane into the centre and shifted Phil Jones to the right, or swapped Young and Januzaj’s flanks. Meanwhile, Nani, a genuine right-winger, was left on the bench.

Deploying a left footer at right wing-back seemingly makes little sense. After all, in Van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system, wing-backs are the sole providers of width and must be ready to cross; having to cut back eats up precious time, slowing down attacking play.

Yet, Van Gaal also asks his midfield two to offer some auxiliary width to make up for the lack of wingers in the system. Should a central midfielder vacate the centre to take the ball down the touchline, midfield could look very bare. In this scenario United’s wing-backs are a natural alternative to provide cover and fill the gap.

Wing-backs in 3-4-1-2 formation, for example, are often free to receive the ball and able to cut inside allowing central midfielders space to run into the channels. In this case being wrong-footed helps the wing-back cut in.

During early season matches Darren Fletcher has played a loose holding role, with the Scot’s partner is deployed box-to-box. Notice that Ander Herrera partnered the wrong footed Januzaj on the right in the Swansea game and Tom Cleverley was the left central midfielder near Young against Sunderland. Deliberate rather than coincidental, perhaps.

Reports that Rafael da Silva has been deemed a surplus are puzzling given that there is a dearth of right full-backs/wing-backs at Old Trafford. The lack of recruitment in this area points to the reports being fallacious. Yet, Van Gaal has a track record of retraining players in a new position. United’s back five come December could – as one example – very well include, Januzaj, and Jones, together with Marcus Rojo and Jonny Evans.

Of course, it is easy to read too much into early season developments; the trap of confusing emergency measures with innovation is obvious.

Still, the idea of an inverted wing-back cutting into the middle makes much sense. With Juan Mata deployed at number 10, and Wayne Rooney partnering Robin Van Persie up-front, a central midfielder rushing into the box only adds to the traffic, occupying the forwards’ “zone” as the Dutchman one put it. By contrast, diagonal runs from central midfield to the flank take a marker away and create space for the front three.

The security provided by an additional centre-back in Van Gaal’s system allows a central defender to act as full-back if required. Tyler Blackett, in particular, has been doing so already. Inverted wing-backs, therefore, allow the front three space, backed by a two man midfield, with a fully functional flank as well.

Otherwise there is little to suggest that 3-4-1-2 will be a long-term solution. Herrera is mobile, but lacks the defensive nous to partner Angel di Maria, while Fletcher no longer has the legs. It is hard to see how United will successfully make the transition from defence to attack when the opposition is simply willing to camp behind the ball.

At international level Van Gaal used 3-4-1-2 an emergency measure forced by Kevin Strootman’s untimely injury. At Old Trafford it is to accommodate Mata, Rooney and Van Persie in the same team. Shaw’s return, together will Rafael, will offer some genuine width and ease the transition, but it is still hard to foresee how United will break down teams happy to park the bus.

United’s lack of wingers mean that lone wing-backs can easily be defended by doubling up. Tempo will be taken out as forwards drop deep to move the ball upfield and United’s opponents will have ample time to organise into a solid unit. Shaw and da Silva are better crossers than Young or Antonio Valencia, but Premier League sides are adept at defending balls delivered into the box. Just ask David Moyes.

It is also worth noting that while a draw might well be a ‘half win’ in the World Cup, given the penalty shoot-outs on offer, too many are fatal to top teams’ hopes in the Premier League. The fact that one of Mata or Rooney will have to be deployed wide in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 adds weight to the theory that an inverted wing-back is a genuine tactical innovation by Van Gaal. Though correct-footed, we may see Rafael or Shaw cutting in at will.

Van Gaal certainly has a resumé for tactical revolution. Sir Alex Ferguson, by contrast, was always more of a fast follower than proper innovator. The Dutchman has a Fergusonian ruthless streak though and might very well shoehorn Rooney or Mata into 4-3-3. The thought lingers, however, that United cannot counter-attack its way into the top four. Nor will that extra central defender create or score enough to guarantee Champions League football next season.