Following a string of unconvincing performances and a home defeat to Ronald Koeman’s Southampton, Rich Laverty takes a look at the problems surrounding Manchester United. Why is Louis van Gaal continuing with the 3-5-2 formation, and does he have any alternative?
Sadly, that is the state of things right now. Despite six signings in the summer, further arrivals this month will dictate the rest of Manchester United’s season. It may be appear reactionary given the side have just experienced their first defeat since the Manchester derby at the start of November but despite a superb unbeaten run which included wins against Arsenal, Southampton and Liverpool, David de Gea played quite a part in supporters being able to brag they hadn’t lost in eleven games.
Fans are losing patience, not with van Gaal, given some fans stuck with David Moyes right until the end it would be insane to suggest van Gaal should suffer the same fate given the two comparable CVs and the fact there HAVE been some signs of improvement under the Dutchman. No, the patience is being lost with van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation. But let’s get one thing straight; 3-5-2 is NOT Louis van Gaal’s preferred formation.
In the 1995 Champions League final where van Gaal’s Ajax defeated AC Milan, the Dutch side lined up playing 4-3-3. As van Gaal’s Bayern side did fourteen years later against Mourinho’s Inter Milan side. Most United fans base their knowledge of van Gaal’s tactics and his system off the back of the 2014 World Cup when the manager first came to the attention of supporters given the fact it was almost certain he was taking over from Moyes at Old Trafford.
And what do you know? Holland lined up in a 3-5-2 formation, looked defensively solid if unspectacular up front but marched their way to the semi-finals and but for a penalty shoot-out, van Gaal would have had the chance to take on Germany on the greatest stage of all. But 3-5-2 was forced; it was a reaction to the injury suffered by AS Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman in March. Strootman was key to van Gaal’s plans in his favourable 4-3-3 system, the man protecting a two man defence. Once that was taken away, van Gaal threw another defended into the mix to combat the fact he no longer had a top class defensive midfielder to protect his defenders.
United supporters seem to think they have that player, they don’t. Marouane Fellaini for all his good form this season is nowhere near mobile enough to play that role despite his strength. Daley Blind is a great defensive midfielder but he’s more a utility man than anything. He’s slow but he can pass, he can tackle and can play almost anywhere in defence or midfield. Michael Carrick appears to be the ideal candidate but he’s not a defensive midfielder. There’s a great difference between playing defensive midfielder and central midfielder. Carrick is a dictator, he gets the ball and picks a pass, he’s not one to jump into a tackle and track runners into the box. United have conceded many goals over the years due to Carrick’s inability to track midfield runners on the opposition’s side.
Then comes the third issue. To play a back three, you need the middle defender out of the three to be able to come out from the back and play a pass, Rio Ferdinand-esque. That job regularly comes to Chris Smalling. Against Southampton, he looked more comfortable bringing the ball out but it was followed either by a hoof upfront or a drilled, uncontrolled pass to Di Maria or Rooney and despite their quality; even they couldn’t get a ball passed to them at 100mph under their control. It’s why Michael Carrick has often been favoured at the back, he can pass, but he’s not a defender. United have attempted 1375 long balls this season, more than any other side in the league. That is not down to bad tactics, it’s down to having defenders incapable of passing a ball.
Van Gaal simply can’t play a 4-3-3 formation at Old Trafford, besides the defensive problem, he doesn’t have two wingers good enough. In the two games he tried, Adnan Januzaj was the man chosen on the wing with Angel Di Maria on the other. Both struggled to impose themselves and the only times United have looked truly threatening in an attacking sense was when they played with a diamond system and a back four. They blew QPR away and bar a twenty minute spell of chaos looked brilliantly efficient going forward against Leicester. West Ham was bamboozled early on, as were Everton but the side looked woeful at the back. Leicester tore through them whilst the team were hanging on against both the Hammers and the Toffees.
Leicester would have been the biggest hit for van Gaal, and indeed, the players. It appeared van Gaal lost trust in any of his defenders to play in a back two and at the same time seemed to lose trust in first choice right-back Rafael. Therein lies the first issue, if Rafael doesn’t play, Antonio Valencia does. As a winger, that almost forces van Gaal’s hand into playing with a back three. It would also appear he only has confidence in his defenders to play as a three, especially without Strootman playing in front of them.
“Everywhere you go…always take de Gea with you” is one chant that often rises out of the Stretford End and van Gaal seems to hold the same sentiment for Strootman. The only time United tried a back four again recently was with Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo, and with van Gaal maintaining his stance on having one right-footed player and one left-footed player, Rojo was the key to United playing with a back four. His constant injuries have hampered that, hence the left-footed Daley Blind slotting into a back three yesterday.
Right now, United have no choice to play with a back three and yesterday van Gaal tried to emulate what he did with Holland, with Di Maria replicating the role Arjen Robben played alongside Robin van Persie in Brazil. The time for being clever will come, van Gaal’s not stupid. He knows Di Maria is best in midfield or on the wing, he knows Rooney is a number ten and he knows Daley Blind is a midfielder. If signings don’t come this month, 3-5-2 will surely be here to stay until the end of the season. The manager has recently spoken about being ‘forced’ to play with wing backs, surely a key sign that he doesn’t actually want to?
Undoubtedly, United will look to bring in Strootman either this month or in the summer, he is van Gaal’s main problem right now. If Rafael truly is out of favour (and it appears he is) then links to Seamus Coleman and Nathaniel Clyne are wholly understandable. A centre-back seems to be the key issue this month. Mats Hummels, Diego Godin, Raphael Varane, Aymeric Laporte, Fabian Schar and Ron Vlaar have all been linked.
Several well-respected journalists of late suggest United are preparing another move for Hummels whilst ESPN believe United have been given encouragement to move for Real Madrid man Varane. It seems insanity given his talent Madrid would let him go but Varane could play at his home European Championships next year and needs game time. Laporte is highly-rated too whilst Schar and Vlaar both have contracts expiring, they are now free to talk to clubs regarding joining on a free in the summer if said club doesn’t wish to pay a fee for an immediate transfer.
Van Gaal wants defenders he can trust, if he gets two solid centre-backs he does hold trust in plus a solid right-back, United will revert to 4-3-3 next season. It also makes links to Gareth Bale understandable. For all their hard work and improvement of late, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young don’t hold a candle to Bale and Di Maria. It wouldn’t be wild to suggest van Gaal’s plans rest on a solid back four, Strootman as the holding man, Rooney at the number ten, Di Maria and potentially Bale on the wings with a clinical striker up front.
It will take time, despite the £150m spent United need much more. It seems an obscene amount of money but that is modern day football. When Wilfried Bony is going for £30m it shows how much it will take to build up an entire eleven. United have the freedom of not being restricted by FFP yet. They are one of just three clubs in the world who could go and spend £150m this summer. Next season is crunch time, United SHOULD have a side well capable of pushing Chelsea and Manchester City but until then, the rest of this season hinges on the club’s transfer dealings over the next three weeks.