While the 7-0 scoreline spoke amply to its effectiveness, it was Manchester United’s tactical complexity that astounded in Louis Van Gaal’s debut against LA Galaxy on Wednesday night. The veteran manager’s strategy was far more intricate and exotic than any employed by David Moyes’ yet the team carried out the plan with remarkable fluidly despite an unfamiliar back-three system.
The complexity of the approach fed through to the media, with morning reports varying in their analysis of van Gaal’s system from 5-3-2 to 5-2-3 and 3-5-2. The latter being much more accurate given how advanced Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia were, while United’s wing-backs did not defend in line with the centre back trio of Johnny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.
In the middle Darren Fletcher, captain for the day, partnered new signing Ander Herrera, with Juan Mata completing the midfield triangle, while Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck made a pair up-front.
The Netherlands’ World Cup template bears significant resemblance; one born of van Gaal’s need to cover for the lack of midfield options after Kevin Strootman’s knee injury. United is in a similar situation, with Michael Carrick out for 12 weeks. Perhaps more significant still, the Dutchman’s system also allows the Reds to do without the perpetually under-performing wingers. 3-5-2 makes a lot of sense.
Much of United’s play against Galaxy was channeled down the left where Shaw showcased some of the talent that cost United £30 million. The youngster spent much of his 45 minutes in the Galaxy half and Evans often advanced to fill in the gap at wing-back, while Smalling and Phil Jones shuttled across to cover. Jones was brave in defending as he shunned the temptation to hold his central place to close down the flanks.
United held a high line and pressed relatively heavily, starting in attacking midfield areas – another transition from the Moyes era. Fletcher was impressive in orchestrating the defence, while the close control of Mata and Herrera allowed United to navigate through the central midfield congestion. Indeed, it was the new recruit from the Athletic Bilbao who was the most impressive in van Gaal’s first game in charge.
The Reds set up relatively wide, with wing-backs bombing forward and the midfield duo often isolated. The mobility of Herrera, however, allowed United to completely dominate the centre of the park against a physically fitter opposition. The Spaniard was brave enough, and had the skills, to receive the ball in tight spots and keep United moving. He must watch his Scholesian tackling though.
Up front, United was less impressive despite scoring seven. Rooney was largely quiet – two goals aside – as his runs were rarely found. Mata’s preferred central role allowed him to pop up in various places – and combine neatly with the two forwards and Herrera – but United’s strikers kept running into each others zones. It’s a problem that will be cleared once the team has clocked up some minutes on the training ground.
Indeed, there were some glaring weaknesses that stronger sides might exploit. Smalling’s distribution was alarmingly wasteful and the ball was more or less forced down the left with the Englishman continually losing possession on the right side of United’s back three.
Valencia also had an ineffectual night despite being found in promising positions several times. As it has become the norm the Ecuadorian captain rarely threatened with crossing opportunities. Albeit against a fully routed opposition in the second half, Rafael da Silva was much more exciting.
The back-three is also a cause for much concern. Galaxy had some joy attacking down the channels, though some of it due to the inherent weakness of any three-at-the-back system, especially as Evans and Smalling seemed uncomfortable dealing with threats out wide. Shaw and Rafael’s acclimatisation into the system, alongside better defensive cover, will help. A new classy holding midfielder might yet arrive to shore up United’s defending.
The crucial issue, though, is United’s ability to navigate the opposition’s press. Smalling’s poor distribution rendered United predictable and Herrera cannot be expected on to run his way past opposition every single game.
While van Gaal said that he wants “to play with two strikers” there is adequate attacking cover – Shinji Kagawa, Mata and Adnan Januzaj and four strikers are all available to the Dutchman. This summer’s priority is a central defender who is comfortable on the ball.
Still, the Dutchman is brave despite complaining about the imbalance of “four number tens.” The Dutchman, ever pragmatic, might yet dabble with a strikerless formation to accommodate as many as possible.
This bravery showed in the formation. Mata was in line with Rooney and Welbeck in the defensive phase, and though the Spaniard started the match relatively deep, he increasingly spent time in more advanced areas once Herrera established dominance in central midfield. Certainly, neither Welbeck nor Rooney was deployed as a permanent number nine – and while it might be a step too far to describe van Gaal’s system as as “3-4-3-0” – few reports have truly captured the nuances of United’s new approach.
United’s upcoming match against AS Roma will present a sterner test, of course. It’ll be a better look at Van Gaal’s tactical outlook too. Yet, putting seven past a fully fit side with only two training sessions on the clock does bode well for the future.
In fact, with Nani and Ashley Young fit, van Gaal could have opted for a more conventional system. The fact that he is continuing with the summer’s 3-5-2 system demonstrates a level of bravery that Moyes always lacked.