Perhaps a push for the Premier League title is a step too far this season, but a place in the top four appears an achievable goal after Sunday’s draw with Chelsea – it leaves Manchester United only three points off the coveted fourth spot. Not least because Southampton and West Ham United are unlikely to sustain their excellent form, while Arsenal and Liverpool are nearing the point of permanent self-destruction.
The normally rampant Chelsea side was comfortably held by United at Old Trafford on Sunday, despite the Reds requiring a late equaliser, with seven yellow cards speaking to how desperately the Londoners defended at times. Indeed, much of the tactical battle was won by United manager Louis van Gaal. Cesc Fabregas was silenced by Maroune Fellaini, while Daley Blind and Juan Mata pressed high up the pitch forcing Chelsea to play long more often than is typical.
More interesting, perhaps, was Robin van Persie’s role, with the Dutchman dropping deep to create space for Fellaini to exploit. In fact, Van Persie, who started the season poorly, had an excellent game, which was capped by that dramatic late goal.
Previously, this column has identified the importance of shots per game and take on attempts as two key indicators of a striker’s goal tally. The Dutch striker’s shots per game ratio has dropped sharply from 2012/13, and so has interceptions per game.
Players stationed deeper are more likely to intercept opposition passes so the figure is a good indicator of a player’s position on the pitch. The numbers suggest that Van Persie’s isolation upfield has been causing the Netherlands captain to shoot less.
Van Persie has lost the pace of yore and perhaps the aging process has also caused the 31- year-old to become more of a poacher. With no ‘big man’ to play off, Van Persie needs runners around him to ‘ghost’ into the box. As the most advanced player, Van Persie has to hold up the ball and lead the line – something that the former Arsenal player can no longer do as effectively. Van Persie enjoyed a fine game against Chelsea, ironically, because he was further away from goal.
Curiously, United frequently resorted to directing the play wide against the Londoners. True, Angel Di Maria is the most creative player in the squad, while the youthful Adnan Januzaj offers genuine pace, but a more central approach could theoretically have been more fruitful. With Fellaini providing a physical presence, Van Persie might have made more out of through balls than aerial battles. And, terrible recent form notwithstanding, Mata was also marginalised as result of the strategy. Note that United’s reliance on the flanks has been almost Moyesian of late.
Take for a moment the following thought experiment. With David de Gea initiating a United attack the Spaniard has an option to go wide or central. Choose, for example, Di Maria on the left and the Argentinean can cross, or pass to his central midfield colleague, with the latter more likely to attempt a through-ball. In our example, had de Gea picked out Ander Herrera the new Old Trafford arrival can attack the opposition box or release Rafael da Silva down right for the Brazilian to cross.
This decision is a matter of risks and rewards. A sideways pass is relatively safe – connecting typically more than 75 per cent of the time. Threading the ball through to a forward is hard, but much more likely to yield dividends in terms of chances created than crossing into the box, especially given that the Reds don’t have a towering striker. Assume, respectively, success rates of around 15 and 10 per cent.
Suppose further that United players are indifferent between passing sideways and vertically – about half the time each. Logic dictates that the Reds are slightly better off taking the central route by 0.7 percentage points.
Despite the meagre difference, the figure is significant. Given the amount of creative talent in the middle, and Van Gaal’s tendency this season to field a number 10, the central approach will be far more productive in creating chances than the theoretical 15 per cent. Further, with United lacking the brawn to make the most of crosses the supposed success rate of 10 per cent is likely a very generous estimate. Therefore the gap between success through the middle or from wide areas is likely to be much bigger.
So why has United been so focused on playing down the flanks?
Mata and Wayne Rooney’s failure to shine at number 10 could be an issue, but a much more likely reason is the Reds’ leaky defence. When United concedes possession in central areas, the opposition has the entire width of the pitch through which to conduct play. Lose the ball out wide, however, and United can contain the danger to that flank and adjacent areas – sweeping passes to the opposite flank is more likely to end up in the stands than a good attacking situation. From a defensive point of view, keeping the ball wide is the safer option.
Put succinctly, van Gaal has likely sacrificed some attacking flair for defensive solidity. United has been playing this way all season – it follows that Van Gaal has been concerned with United’s defence from day one.
The famous Latin phrase Quad Erat Demonstrandum is rarely used to conclude a proof on the grounds of pretension. Mathematicians, instead, draw a little square to end proof – and square passes are the keys in unlocking the van Gaalacticos.
A runner down the left flank will benefit by having a midfield to offload the ball to. In the middle, a player must always have safe options to relieve pressure in order to progress with United’s defensive structure intact. As the newly assembled United squad assimilate to playing with each other, there should be more central – therefore more creative – approaches fostered.
Van Gaal has talked the talk of upholding United’s attacking tradition. When will he start walking the walk? It has already been three months.