Louis Van Gaal has been criticized of late for his insistence on possession-based tactics. Manchester United fans have become disenchanted by the perception of dull football and some have even taken to accusing Van Gaal of having lost touch with the fanbase.
Perhaps, in the peak days of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Van Gaal might have gotten away with being obsessively possession oriented by citing a trend. The so called tiki taka ethos can be soporific and requires a player in the mould of Lionel Messi to shift gears – the Spanish national team, for example, never reached the heights of Barcelona.
United doesn’t have such a player either. Memphis Depay is having a hard time acclimatizing to the Premier League, and 19-year-old Anthony Martial is the only player in the squad with the requisite pace and skill to play such role. In that sense the boos that accompanied the substitution of Martial in the CSKA game was an implicit recognition of that fact by the Old Trafford crowd.
Van Gaal’s 4-2-3-1 system is peculiar in that the number 10 is not a playmaker in the classic sense. Van Gaal has always seen the position as a “second striker” and the players who have been deployed in the holeare charged with attacking the right channel, often causing the system to mimic a more traditional 4-4-2.
The former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager’s tactical philosophy aside, there is a practical reason for the number 10 to play as a forward. Juan Mata, deployed on the right, does not have the pace to quickly move into the attacking third so the number 10 – Ander Herrera or Wayne Rooney – needs to provide a body in the right channel.
Jesse Lingard’s incorporation into the first team proper is Van Gaal’s attempt to mitigate this problem. The English winger has often replaced Mata during games to provide thrust on the right flank. Lingard, however, is not a long-term solution. The assist against CSKA aside, Lingard’s wastefulness and rough edges were plainly evident on Tuesday. Some also doubt whether the 22-year-old has the innate talent to be a United starter over the long-term.
Curiously, Matteo Darmian has been substituted at half time twice this season. The Italian full-back has lost form recently, but right-back is not usually a priority area for managers. In the current system, however, the right-back is critical for the same reason Dani Alves was so important during tiki taka era Barcelona.
With Mata tucking in, the right-back needs to provide width. Darmian, so far, has not been able to do so convincingly. More specifically, Darmian has been conceding a lot of space behind him – perhaps not used to being the sole provider of width – and has been culpable for dangerous defensive moments, particularly against Arsenal at the Emirates. Antonio Valencia at least has pace and strength to make up for his lack of positional awareness.
Last season, the performance of United’s right-backs, as measured by Squawka ratings, was not at all related to the overall team performance, also measured by Squawka ratings (below). Note that only games post United’s 3-0 victory against Tottenham Hotspur, when Mata was first deployed as “false winger”, are considered in this analysis.
This season, however, the relationship has become non-trivial (below). United’s problems upfront may be more obvious, but the data suggests that the right flank has been also culpable for the misfiring Reds.
One easy solution to this challenge could be reverting to the 4-3-3 successfully deployed towards the back-end of last season. With a dedicated holding midfielder allowing two central midfielders to move into more advanced areas, reliance on the right-back to provide width is lessened. In fact, 4-3-3 has become Van Gaal’s ‘plan B’ this season and the manager has often shifted system by bringing on Maroune Fellaini.
Once again, the issue of Rooney raises its ugly head. Martial’s deployment upfront against CSKA suggests that Van Gaal now considers number nine to be the former Monaco striker’s best position. In this scenario it becomes unclear where Rooney fits into the system given his “special privileges.”
It is obvious to state, but dropping Rooney would solve a lot of United’s problems. Indeed, using a 4-2-3-1 system may even be an attempt to use one more forward so that Rooney can play. For reasons that are unclear, the United and England captain has kept his place despite worsening form. Assuming that the status quo remains as it is, 4-2-3-1 will continue to be the default United shape.
There are other modifications that Van Gaal could make though. Switching the roles of his central midfielders may prove beneficial. Bastian Schweinsteiger has been deployed as the left-sided central midfielder – and the more attacking of the central pair. However, the German would offer better support to Mata and therefore provide more of a presence on the right flank.
Another added benefit in this move would be to afford United’s left winger more space to attack the centre. Schweinsteiger has sometimes moved out to the left to allow the nominal winger – Memphis Depay or Martial – to cut inside, although United’s left-sided full-backs tend to attack, forcing Schweinsteiger to move vertically.
The impact is important: it has encouraged United’s left winger to hug the touchline. Despite being inside forwards, both Depay and Martial have often received the ball on the touchline, attacking the opposition full-back rather than the centre. Indeed, this role apes more classical wingers and may be one reason why Depay has struggled to make impact this season.
Of course, there is a reason why the a defensive midfielder, in Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin, has been deployed to the right of Schweinsteiger – Van Gaal does not trust Mata’s defensive contribution. Mata has tackled and intercepted more this season, but the improvement is marginal and it is reasonable to pair the Spaniard with a ‘proper’ holding midfielder to maintain the defensive structure.
Van Gaal is perhaps myopic in this – enabling the right-sided central midfielder to shoulder more of the offensive burden will relieve some of the right-back’s need to contribute in the attacking phase. In addition, United’s reliance on the left flank might also be lessened. Paradoxically, United might become a more balanced side, both defensively and offensively, by taking more risk.
United has become one of the best English sides in maintaining possession this season. In fact, so good that the Reds can certainly afford to show a little more bravado. Switching the two central midfielders is not all that risky a move, certainly compared to some fans’ demands, and something Van Gaal should seriously consider. If only to justify playing Rooney every week.