Sunday, 22 February 2015

Shapeshifters, Long-Balls and Diamonds: Van Gaal's United

There can be no questioning Louis van Gaal’s reputation or what he’s achieved in the game. League and cup doubles with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, a Champions League win with Ajax in 1995, a Dutch league title with relative minnows AZ in 2009 and most recently a run to 3rd place at the World Cup with Holland, missing out on a final spot in a penalty shoot-out to Argentina. The man is a winner in the same way that David Moyes was simply an achiever, a man capable of delivering results on a budget but not exactly the man to lead a title-winning charge.

Thus far, the Dutchman's career at the helm of Manchester United has not exactly reached dizzying heights or even threatened to do so. United are worse off in terms of points than this stage last year under Moyes and only boast a higher league position due to the significant drop off in performance from both Merseyside clubs. Van Gaal brought with him to Manchester the 3-5-2 formation that had carried Holland to moderate success in Brazil during the summer. The formation has never brought about much success in Premier League history, champions and just about every successful teams down the years have always played four defenders. The popularity of the formation at the 2014 World Cup led to several English clubs beginning the season with it. Along with Manchester United, Hull City and QPR both began the season playing formation with Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool embracing it mid-season, by which stage QPR and United had ditched it in favour of the more traditional four at the back.

3-5-2 didn’t work at United because they neither had the players to suit the system and the players they did use looked generally confused as to their roles, particularly the back three. On the opening day at home to Swansea, United played Jesse Lingard, a central attacking midfielder, at right wing back and Ashley Young, not normally renowned for his defensive abilities at left wing back. Added to that, the players looked uncomfortable in the system, unsure of exactly what their roles, particularly among the back three, and Swansea ran out deserved winners at Old Trafford.

Six months later and United have just lost to Swansea again. Van Gaal looks nowhere nearer to having a title winning team. Results have been average, performances have been poor and unrest amongst the fans is beginning to grow, not just with the toiling efforts against the likes of West Ham and QPR week after week but with the style of footballing they are seeing and particularly the new prehistoric tactic of launching the ball at Marouane Fellaini and hoping something good comes of it.

The Diamond

Having gone winless in the opening three games (Swansea, Sunderland and Burnley) and with a wealth of fresh talent at his disposal, Van Gaal abandoned his 3-5-2 formation in favour of a diamond in midfield. The diamond is an interesting and one I’m a fan of when used correctly. There are two such cases in recent Premier League history of successful diamond midfields. Chelsea in 2009/10 and Liverpool last season. Chelsea’s quadrant of Mikel, Ballack, Lampard and Deco/Malouda/Joe Cole was employed to great effect, particularly in the first half of the season. Last season  Liverpool’s diamond structure of Henderson, Gerrard, Coutinho and Sterling helped them on the march to an impressive second place finish.

The common theme to both these successful diamonds is that both quartet’s consisted of three central midfielders and a number 10, aided by attacking full backs. United’s recent diamonds have consisted of Daley Blind (played left back for Holland at the World Cup but defensive midfield suits him just fine) two wingers in Di Maria and Januzaj and a striker in Wayne Rooney. The key in a diamond formation is that the width is supplied by the full backs. The guys in the diamond should run the show from the middle of the park. Trying to employ wingers will leave you over-run in there. Even asking Di Maria and/or Januzaj to play a more central role is ill-advised as both are natural pacey wingers and do have a tendency to drift wide and try run at players. Neither are particularly disciplined defensively either. United don’t exactly have a wealth of central midfielders at the moment. If Van Gaal does want to persist with the diamond, the best option would be to employ:
  1. An anchor man – Blind or Carrick could do this.
  2. Two box-to-box central midfielders – Herrera is the best United have at this, Blind probably the other but Di Maria did play on the left side of a diamond for Madrid last season but that was against teams so preoccupied with stopping Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema up front that the attention the Argentinian received was almost minimal. Spanish football is different to English and that role doesn't suit Di Maria here.
  3. An attacking point – Mata or Rooney. Probably Mata with Rooney up front.

United's best diamond using the current squad
Of course this means £56m man Angel Di Maria is confined to the sidelines, begging the question as to why his transfer was approved by Van Gaal during the summer if he had this formation in mind. Toni Kroos and Cesc Fabregas, both ideal fits for the central roles were both vetoed by LVG.


Van Gaal has always prided himself on being a ‘4-3-3’ coach but that formation has not seen much action at United this season. He did employ it during Rooney’s suspension in October and persisted with it for the big games against Chelsea and Man City, neither of which times United disgraced themselves.

4-3-3 would probably involve playing Rooney out wide or in midfield. The alternative is dropping Robin van Persie which is not an unthinkable option right now given his recent form. Rooney is a brilliant number 9, something he often doesn’t get credit for. I would like to see him lead the line a bit more. This formation would allow United to operate with wingers, as the club traditionally has. Di Maria on the right and Young on the left as inverted wingers would be an option. The much-maligned Young has come in for his share of criticism in the past but has been very impressive this season, particularly considering he’s often been played out of position as a LWB. Alternatively Januzaj could be used here as he was during the brief tenure of this formation in the late Autumn.

4-3-3 is a popular formation but I don't think United have the options in central midfield to quite pull this off. Fellaini is not mobile enough to be anything other than a giant battering ram or target man up front. Rooney could do a solid job in a central midfield role but this leaves the shockingly out-of-form van Persie up front on his own. His diminishing speed and dynamism makes him not quite the menace to centre halves he was a few years ago. I don't know if he can play up front on his own anymore. Falcao? No. Just no.

Van Gaal’s System

It’s somewhat of a buzzword the manager has mentioned over and over again this year, referencing his ‘system’ and how players must buy into it in order for it to work. Thus far this season United have used three different formations and not demonstrated a particular style of play. On occasions they’ve spent games trying to pass the ball through, other games attacking down the flanks and lately employing the tactic of playing long balls and hoping the attackers feed of Fellaini’s knock downs.

Sam Allardyce’s labelling of United as a ‘long-ball team’ after the 1-1 draw at Upton Park, whilst hypocritical and very tongue-in-cheek, was on the money. United have played more long passes than anyone this season. The only teams with similar statistics are Burnley and QPR, two newly promoted teams. So little is the confidence in the midfield’s creativity than the preferred option is often just to bypass them entirely and launch the ball straight to the forwards.

For all the talk of a system, their does not seem to be one. United seem to be mixing it up from one game to the next and switching between formations like it’s nobody’s business. United haven't played with a particular style or any sort of flair. I've seen fans comment that they preferred watching the team "lose with style" under Ferguson than labour to wins under Van Gaal. This reflects poorly on a manager who has spent almost £100m on attacking talent in the summer. The defense has stopped leaking goals, the 5-3 collapse against Leicester in September has not since been repeated so that's one thing he's accomplished. Van Gaal's team lately have been hard to break down but find it equally hard to break other teams down, the result are a series of rather dull matches. That's his next challenge. Make them team as irresistible going forward as they were under Sir Alex.

Obviously, new signings are needed to do this, the right signings for the team rather than throwing money at expensive players that are simply available (Di Maria, Mata). The key is to identify exactly what type of players United need and go after them. Obviously not everyone will be available for purchase but there will always be options if the net is cast wide enough. There isn't a need to throw massive amounts of money at players. Who and what do United need?
  • A dominating centre back is a priority. United have been incredibly lightweight at the back this season. Smalling and Jones are qualified flops. The defence has shored up a bit lately  but it needs more of a dominating presence about it. Think a Nemanja Vidic esque figure. Rojo is a suitable deputy, but not quite the leader they need.
  • A right back. Dani Alves is going on a free so I’d be shocked if there isn’t at least an attempt to bring him in. Van Gaal is clearly not a fan of Rafael who himself is injury prone and erratic. Antonio Valencia is not a natural full-back.
  • Similarly lightweight is the central midfield area. Here United need a destroyer. Nigel de Jong has been strongly linked. However I don’t think he’s of sufficient calibre to be the marquee central midfield signing United need. Sami Khedira would be ideal but looks set for Bayern Munich. Kevin Strootman has been injured for the best part of a year now, the club should learn from the Falcao chapter.
  • Another striker. Falcao will not be made permanent. Van Persie’s recent decline may be permanent and he’s entering the final year of his contract. James Wilson is probably not ready to be a 20+ goal a season striker, the time might be right to splash out on a big name. Karim Benzema may be available. Madrid haven’t moved for a striker in a while so may bring in a big name and ship him out this year. That’s what they tend to do.
It's not been an easy start for van Gaal and things have not progressed as much as United fans had hoped. The team have been solid and haven't lost as many silly games as they did last season (West Brom, Stoke, Newcastle) but are struggling to break teams down. Draws away to Aston Villa, West Brom and West Ham are testament to that. 

For this season, United have to finish in the top four. Failure to do so is unthinkable. The club will struggle to attract big names during the summer whilst facing the prospect of a second consecutive season of no Champions League football. The concept is very real now. Liverpool have looked impressive since Daniel Sturridge returned and Arsenal look a lot better going forward than United. Even Spurs look in better shape than United at the moment, as do Southampton who won at Old Trafford six weeks ago. The FA Cup is still a possibility but right now I don't see United getting past Arsenal in the last eight. Priority though, should be a Champions League spot. The squad once again needs massive investment in the summer and the calibre of players they would be able to attract would be much higher were they playing in Madrid on Wednesday nights rather than Giurgiu on Thursdays.

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