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.
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.
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.
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