It may surprise some, but against West Bromwich Albion last Monday Manchester United attempted 42 crosses. While not quite approaching a Moyesian figure, the number is quite significant given that Louis van Gaal is primarily known for passing football. Ashley Young made only a brief appearance in the Midlands, while Antonio Valencia was nowhere to be seen; most of United’s crosses came from Angel di Maria and Rafael da Silva. The quality has therefore improved from last season even if United still does not have a towering centre forward to take advantage.
Despite the large number of crosses against the Baggies’ there has been a noticeable change in how the Reds play since the new manager took helm in July. Defenders are now encouraged to take part in the build-up, while United’s tempo has been upped significantly. The debate over United’s central midfield style continues, but there is a greater emphasis on build up through midfield than in the past. after all, most of United’s engine room wasn’t with the club at this time last year.
Di Maria and Ander Herrera are more than capable of playing through the middle, while Juan Mata has several seasons’ worth of experience in a creative role in the Premier League. It is worth recalling that Jose Mourinho sold the Spaniard, part at least, for being too slow. Still, there remains a question mark over the Spaniard, especially given his disappointing performances in Wayne Rooney’s absence.
Mata’s distribution is short and he seeks to work the ball into the dangerous areas. Yet, the essential criticism of the Spaniard’s style is that with two strikers ahead of him, the Spain international needs to release Ramadel Falcao or Robin van Persie quicker. There is little need to deploy two up top if the team is going to play patiently around the centre.
Mata slows the game down to the extent that United has tended to cross from deep, albeit adroitly done by di Maria. The former Chelsea Player of the Year is then frequently called on to recycle the ball from advanced areas. Take Mata’s performance versus QPR as an example.
Rooney, on the other hand, has characteristically sought to quickly and directly engage the flanks. The Englishman is also far more direct – he has attempted 2.17 runs per game while Mata has done so barely once every two games. Rooney’s other qualities, including his defensive contribution, have been noted and it seems that, even from a stylistic point of view, Rooney fits the Van Gaal philosophy more closely than Mata. Here is Rooney’s performance against Leicester City.
It is also worth noting that Mata naturally takes up space in the hole, where Rooney does not. van Persie has often been shunted out wide in search of space while the energetic and creative Herrera faces clutter as he pushes forward with his compatriot in the team.
Perhaps, dispatching Shinji Kagawa instead of Mata during the summer was an error? After all, Kagawa has been well-schooled in ‘heavy metal’ style at Borussia Dortmund. Rooney, for all his many shortcomings, is tailor made for a high-tempo approach.
In Van Gaal’s midfield diamond the ‘number 10’ is essentially an attacker, with playmaking shared amongst three deeper midfielders. And while there is no denying that the Englishman sometimes slows down the play due to his lack of technique, he is prepared to run at his man and work hard for the team. Rooney offers an aerial target as well and his ability to play as a number nine opens up all kinds of interesting opportunities once he, Falcao and van Persie click. It seems that Kagawa had a home to return to and Mata didn’t.
Then there is Adnan Januzaj. His first start of the season ended disastrously, but then again few Reds left the Hawthorns with credit. It is also worth noting that only Rafael supported the Belgian regularly with Marouane Fellaini and Mata offering little in terms of ‘vertical’ support. Januzaj offers pace and, for now, his lack of playmaking maturity matters little in Van Gaal’s thinking. It could very well be that Januzaj, rather than Mata, is Rooney’s deputy at number 10 as the season progresses.
Yet Januzaj’s versatility is also worth considering. Van Gaal has often noted that Januzaj is one of his forwards. All signs point to the Dutchman trying to set up a fluid front three and the 19-year-old’s education as a ‘false nine’ in the reserves could come to feature heavily.
Van Gaal has already abandoned the diamond for a 4-1-4-1 system against West Brom – the 4-4-2 diamond is very thin on the flanks after all. The former Bayern Munich coach is also, along with Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez, one of pioneers of the 4-2-3-1 very much in vogue in the Premier League. The system he settles will say much about the roles of Mata, Rooney and Januzaj.
At Bayern, Van Gaal paired the physically robust Van Bommel with the more technical Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield. In Herrera, Michael Carrick, Daley Blind and Fellaini the new United manager can set up a variety of holding midfield combinations.
The 63-year-old’s deployment of the energetic Thomas Müller at Bayern might suggest Mata will struggle to fit in at United, but it puts Rooney and Herrera as prime candidates for a role at number 10. Januzaj, meanwhile, could also fulfil the roles played by Arjen Robben and Franc Ribéry should van Gaal return to his German system.
It is interesting that Van Gaal’s philosophy has become increasingly focused on the attacking third. Perhaps due to his successful counter-attacking side at AZ Alkmaar and with the Netherlands, he has developed an apprehension for opposition breaks and the manner in which United has conceded goals this season will be weighing heavily on his mind. It leads to the conclusion that Van Gaal is no longer a fan of stroking around passes in the attacking third – lest a lucky interception leads to concession of the ball. It is not a good observation is you are Mata.
It seems that in Van Gaal’s brain the number 10 is an attacker. Rooney is one and so is Januzaj; Mata is a midfielder and a patient, albeit highly creative, one at that. There is another left-field option though: given the Dutchman’s history, Mata might very well emerge this season as a number four. Schweinsteiger, after all, was a winger until he was 26.