Manchester United’s 2-1 loss to Swansea City last weekend marked a new low in Louis van Gaal’s tenure at the club. With an unlikely hand from Liverpool, United remained in the top four, but with the Reds dangerously close to slipping out of the Champions League spots, and struggling to dispatch lower league sides, the former Netherlands manager is now under tremendous scrutiny.
Unlike David Moyes, Van Gaal has a history of excellence and titles to fall back on. Even failures at Bayern Munich and Barcelona may be attributed to political circumstances outside his control, although it is worrying that the Dutchman’s management of both European giants was pockmarked with constant rotation and deployment of players in unfamiliar roles. Bastian Schweinsteiger may have reinvented himself as an excellent central midfielder, but deploying Rivaldo and Juan Riquelme out wide did not work. The constant experimentation at Old Trafford may fall into the latter category, with potentially devastating consequences.
United’s Champions League future is far from secure. After all, almost 70 per cent of the season has been played out and it is not uncommon for fourth and fifth sides to swap places in the Premier League from this stage onwards. In 2010/11, 11/12 and 12/13, Tottenham Hotspur sat in the top four having played 26 games, but lost out on a Champions League berth to Chelsea, Chelsea and Arsenal respectively. Southampton, Liverpool and Spurs are all within three points of United and further losses in the remaining 12 games may prove fatal.
To put this in numbers earlier analysis in this column revealed that number of “poor streaks” suffered by a club, as defined by consecutive losses and/or draws, is a very robust predictor of a team’s performance over a season. In recent seasons teams could not realistically afford more than four such streaks to reach the Champions League. It is concerning that United has already been through three and is on the cusp of another.
These are seriously worrying signs, yet there are also hints that the outlook may be improving too. Van Gaal’s sides have traditionally started their campaigns slowly and, considering that the Bundesliga includes a winter break at least a month long, a surge in performance may soon kick in if the pattern follows.
Further, van Gaal’s experimentation has always addressed areas of weaknesses while upholding his general philosophy of maintaining possession to create a situation of unpredictability. Assuming that Van Gaal persists with his philosophy it is not unreasonable to believe that United’s manager will evolve his team sufficiently to paper over the most conspicuous cracks between now and the end of the season.
United’s most worrying deficiency is in defence; the Reds’ back-four has suffered the most defensive errors in the Premier League this season. The lack of protection out wide at Liberty Stadium was particularly troublesome. Even placing blame on the narrow diamond system is erroneous given that Swansea matched United’s midfield diamond until late in the game.
There is potentially a quick fix though: lining up with wingers. This could also improve the sterile and predictable attack. United’s second half turnaround against Preston North End, following a switch to a flat 4-4-2, gives credence to the idea.
The Reds lined up in a 4-1-4-1 system in tough games against Chelsea and Manchester City earlier in the season and van Gaal probably will deploy wingers, ironically, to fortify wide areas in coming games. Star performer Angel di Maria is comfortable out wide and Adnan Januzaj – who has frequently featured in systems with wingers – has worked his way back into Van Gaal’s graces.
If the former Bayern manager takes a particularly pragmatic approach Januzaj’s defensive abilities might be questioned by the veteran coach although there are few choices. Juan Mata has often been deployed on the right flank, but the Spaniard lacks the Belgian’s physical presence and is surely down the list of potential options in that role. Ashley Young’s diligence may see the Englishman slip into the side, à la Ji-Sung Park, for his defensive work rather than attacking talent
Van Gaal’s predilection for setting up his team to create overloads means that the Dutchman has always tried to deploy “inverted” wingers. This tendency further supports the idea that Young and di Maria will be used in tandem in coming games. The more difficult part is to guess whether the former Netherlands boss will retain two strikers or further solidify his midfield.
One major advantage of a two-striker system is familiarity; United has often played in a similar formation over the years. The issue of United’s lack of speed up top is persistent though and one reason why Robin van Persie has kept his place despite the Dutchman’s poor form. The former Arsenal striker’s touch allows him to hold the ball up unlike Wayne Rooney or Radamel Falcao.
By deploying Marouane Fellaini in the hole, above, Van Gaal is be able to used Rooney as a striker. The Scouser remains United’s most mobile forward. Januzaj can then attack the space behind opposition defences from the left.
There remains a questions around Ander Herrera though. The Spaniard’s exclusion was explain by Van Gaal as the search for “balance” in his team and Herrera’s ability to get from box-to-box, albeit pleasing to fans, is at odds with the manager’s patient philosophy.
On econsequence of Van Gaal’s quest for patience is that United’s current vintage is creating less chances per game than Moyes’ team, although it is offering more assists.
United must be able to quickly switch angles of attack to abandon the current agricultural approach – hence the view that United will use width more as the season comes to a close.
Once Michael Carrick returns from injury and partners Daley Blind in midfield, below, Antonio Valencia will be able to advance more freely and create the overloads that Van Gaal so desires.
Van Gaal has instructed his right flank to be more conservative than the left in recent games and the security of having Carrick will allow more liberty. The double pivot will also appease the manager’s concern for creating a foothold in opposition half and even allow Herrera to play at 10 where the Spaniard has often turned out.
In this Carrick’s return is key in United’s remaining 12 games. Van Gaal has more or less been forced into playing wingers in recent games. The 33-year-old will allow the Reds to set up a solid base of attack and his diagonal balls should eliminate the need for Fellaini or van Persie to hold up the ball. United’s current predicament, aligned to Van Gaal’s philosophy, may see United replicate the pattern of late-era Sir Alex Ferguson sides.
All diagrams from lineupbuilder.com