José Mourinho believes possession can be dangerous; his biographer even asserted that the Portuguese manager sometimes instructs his team to get rid of the ball. The argument is that a team with the ball is more likely to make fatal mistakes by being lulled into complacency or frustration.
Over the past 20 years Manchester United has never been a possession-minded side – at least not to the degree preached at Arsenal, for example. Even this season Louis Van Gaal has often been criticised for playing a long ball game. United has boasted a strong average possession throughout the season but the 80 per cent recorded against West Bromwich Albion is freakish – even Barcelona in its tiki-taka heyday rarely reached such a figure.
Van Gaal is certainly a manager who understands the dangers of an unhealthy fixation with possession. After all, the Netherlands stormed into the 2014 World Cup semi-finals by punishing teams on the break. It is certainly an over-reaction to argue that United has become ‘Arenalised’ – not least because any side can have an off day and West Brom left Old Trafford with three points thanks to a lucky deflection.
Still, breaking down sides sitting deep has been a consistent problem for the Reds this season. The classic solution is to push a big man upfront and Maroune Fellaini has enjoyed a starring role this season because for this reason. On Saturday, Van Gaal went to an extreme, deploying Fellaini as alone forward, with Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie forming a highly unorthodox midfield duo looking to burst into the box – as below.
The gamble – deploying a striker in central midfield can only be categorised as such – could have worked had the United wide men put in some good crosses. Under little pressure, substitute Angel di Maria attempted three poor crosses in a row, while Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia on the right are not particularly noteworthy crossers.
The lack of quality delivery from wide areas may be addressed in the summer, but recruitment will be made all the more difficult should United fail to qualify for the Champions League.
Michael Carrick’s return will make a significant difference, but it is unclear when the English midfielder will be match fit again and Van Gaal’s side is running out of games. After all, Ander Herrera is simply not capable of performing to the same level as a deep-lying midfielder.
In fact, the Spaniard’s deep positioning has significantly slowed United’s tempo in the attacking third. In the first half Saturday’s game, for example, Van Persie made numerous runs into the box only for Fellaini or Rooney to shift the ball wide. In his usual position Herrera could have made a decisive difference.
Without Carrick, Van Gaal has few options to call upon. Daley Blind has failed to convince observers as the deepest central midfielder in a 4-3-3. Blind, however, performed well as a holding midfielder in a 4-4-2 diamond. In a staggered formation the former Ajax player has more breathing room.
In fact, Van Persie’s return does allow United to return to the 4-4-2 diamond should Van Gaal choose. If 4-3-3 is untenable without Carrick, deploying Herrera in a more advanced role, at least on paper, makes more sense than blindly pelting the box with crosses.
In fact a number 10 would make a world of difference. All of Van Gaal’s strikers lack pace and deploying a player in the hole will connect the attack and midfield far better. That said the Reds’ full-backs’ tendency to be exploited on the break has led to Van Gaal abandoning wingerless formations in the latter stages of the campaign.
Given the manager’s options a 4-2-3-1 system makes a lot of sense – it forces United’s wingers to share the load of providing width, while providing cover in defensive phase. It is a role that allows the number 10 to support a lone forward while the two deeper central midfielders share holding duty. Had di Maria and Adnan Januzaj showed even a semblance of consistency then 4-2-3-1 would have likely been the default this system this season.
Breaking down teams that park the bus still remains a key issue. Upcoming games against Crystal Palace and Hull City may see a repeat of recent matches – and United still needs two wins to secure fourth place. Van Gaal has enjoyed excellent results against ‘big sides’ this season – so a win against Arsenal at Old Trafford is firmly within the realm of possibility. Realistically though, away games against Palace and Hull will decide United’s fate.
Ultimately, Van Gaal lacks the players with pace to run in behind and feed off Fellaini. Wilson may be an interesting proposition though far too much of a risk given that the Englishman has not played in the Premier League since February.
Yet, another issue is that there is no conventional winger or a ‘correct footed’ wide player in form. Tempo has been killed by wingers cutting in before whipping in the cross. In this sense, midfielders arriving from deep will present a greater threat to the opposition.
United cannot set up to make the traditional target work – it does not make sense on paper nor has it worked previously this season. On the other hand, moving the ball quickly through the centre whilst retaining an option to recycle the ball with midfielders coming from deep does sound promising given the circumstances United is facing. This means deploying Rooney and/or Fellaini deep with Herrera at number 10, as below.
Alternatively, below, Rooney can engage the flanks or play a simple pass to Herrera; the Spaniard can release Van Persie and Fellaini or combine with Mata on his right. And if the central approach is unfeasible or fails Blind and Valencia can put long balls or crosses directly into the box or Young and Mata can cut in then put the ball in with Fellaini and or Rooney rushing into the box.
Of course, this discussion is moot if Carrick can quickly regain match fitness. This in and of itself is a problem. There is no understudy to the 34-year-old nor are deep-lying playmakers of Carrick’s class, or better, plentiful on the market. Whatever happens this season a radical change in approach likely awaits United next season.
All diagrams from lineupbuilder.com