Manchester United has succumbed to a second season without silverware after defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup on Monday. At most clubs, this might not be a big deal, where each trophy earned is cherished. The fact that United is in the midst of such tumult says much more about the club. Few clubs have enjoyed such a prolonged period of excellence as United did under Sir Alex Ferguson. Supporters’ expectations must now be tempered with that detail firmly in mind, and yet Louis van Gaal has the resumé to reasonably forecast the start of another glorious era.
Despite Monday’s cup defeat the Reds, albeit perilously, still remain fourth in the Premier League, although a difficult run of fixtures stand in the way of Champions League qualification. Disappointing results notwithstanding, Van Gaal is as good a manager as any to see the club through a difficult period. The word “hope” is indicative of desperation; it is not yet the time to invoke such sentiment.
Van Gaal’s philosophy is now clear even if the lack of overall strategy is obvious. Despite perception to the contrary, the Dutchman’s tactical manoeuvres have generally been reasonable this season and aimed at solving significant problems in the squad. Van Gaal has not yet produced a solution to every challenge – and United faces a difficult end to the campaign – but he is addressing each in turn.
The record summer spending has exacerbated the public perception of United’s current predicament, but the Reds had an unusually subpar squad to begin with and a lavish summer was never going to fix all the problems in one go. The addition of Ander Herrera and Angel di Maria has at least addressed midfield, an area of weakness for past five seasons or so, and afforded Van Gaal the leeway to experiment.
United’s weakness in defence – particularly at full-back where Antonio Valencia is only a passable option – has ultimately ruined Van Gaal’s attempt to use back three and diamond-based formations this season. Swansea City, for example, successfully stretched United’s diamond with a diamond of its own and United has since lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation that seeks to shield the flanks, while relying on Marouane Fellaini to support Wayne Rooney up front.
It is a system hardly suitable for Van Gaal’s philosophy that is centred on creating overloads. United’s full-backs can overlap, but Fellaini’s presence leaves little space for the right-footed Ashley Young to cut into. Meanwhile, di Maria’s forays in-field also put Herrera in an awkward position.
Against Arsenal, Van Gaal tried to resolve the problem by asking his wingers to attack the touchline and his full-backs to cut infield. While this idea has worked to a degree in a 3-4-1-2 or 4-4-2 diamond this season, the presence of wingers leads to congestion. In addition, Young and di Maria are ‘wrong-footed’ – relying on them in a traditional sense of the winger’s role is tantamount to self-negation.
On Monday, meanwhile, the issue of Herrera not having a clear role was ‘fixed’ by brining on Michael Carrick who sat deeper and engaged the wide men much better.
One, and perhaps only, positive of Van Gaal’s original game plan against Arsenal was the effective pressing that garnered United 56 per cent possession in the first half. Carrick’s deployment, however, left a gap in advanced midfield areas, below, previously occupied by Herrera and United’s pressing organisation broke down completely. This would not have happened had Van Gaal not persisted with a Fellaini-led attacking plan.
Van Gaal’s track record so far at Old Trafford suggests another shift in tactics is on the horizon. At this point solidifying defence by sacrificing the offensive threat makes little sense. The agricultural approach has not worked and probably never will. Nor does United have the pace to reliably counter-attack. It makes sense, therefore, that Van Gaal looks to bolster his attack, even if it means sacrificing some defensive balance. The former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich “trainer-coach” could do so by seeking to play quick passing football.
The biggest challenge with Fellaini is his clumsiness with the ball at his feet. The Belgian may receive the ball in advanced areas, but the former Evertonian’s inability to turn significantly hampers United’s tempo. Rooney, hardly a technical player himself, has often been forced to come deep to move the ball forward.
One simple solution could be a switch in Fellaini and Rooney’s positions; essentially a traditional big man/small man combination. Rooney is a far better number nine than the former Everton midfielder, nor will the Englishman improve United’s tempo by starting deeper – a half season’s worth of evidence supports this thesis.
Another genuine, and achievable, solution is a switch to a 4-3-3 formation, by pushing United’s wingers higher up the pitch. This strategy enables United to create overloads, with more room available in the middle. The system is a Dutch favourite and Van Gaal should be more than familiar in drilling his side.
One further problem facing Van Gaal is to find a partner for Herrera. Juan Mata is a poor choice in a 4-3-3 – the Spaniard boasts the technique, but his tendency to slow down play would complicate matters. Indeed, Mata’s exile is mostly due to this facet of his play – at least Fellaini offers brawn. Mata enjoyed two great seasons at Chelsea – a side that essentially deployed three number 10s at the same time. It’s an approach that is very hard to replicate in modern football, and impossible at United.
Di Maria, below, might be a more natural choice to partner Herrera in that he has fulfilled a similar role at Real Madrid. Meanwhile, Adnan Januzaj has not progressed markedly from last season, but he is two-footed, which is an asset if Van Gaal persists in his puzzling concept of asking Valencia to cut inside. Di Maria is, of course, suspended against Tottenham Hotpsur and his form is another matter again.
Playing both Daley Blind and Carrick is an option as well, although not one blessed with speed. Meanwhile, Van Gaal’s use of a 4-2-3-1 system is also possible, with Herrera deployed at 10. Robin van Persie’s return may be accommodated by shifting Rooney into the hole in lieu of the Spaniard. This observation leaves a switch to 4-3-3 as Van Gaal’s most likely move, since two holding midfielders will hardly improve United’s laboured tempo.
This rests on a change of strategy though. United’s defence has failed to deal with quick attacks throughout the season and Van Gaal has already been mindful of counter-attacks. Enough, even, to go route one with Fellaini leading the charge. The “hoofball” experiment has failed though and a return to more technical football is a must if United is to qualify for Europe. It has been a long time coming – late era Ferguson sides were hardly Barcelona-esque either.
All diagrams from lineupbuilder.com