Over the last few years of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United, the FA Cup started to lose its importance to the club. Fergie’s team were awfully successful in both the Premier League and the Champions League, and fans were prepared and somewhat comfortable on missing out on the cup. Things, however, have changed dramatically over the last two years and the cup is perhaps United’s only real hope of winning a first trophy in two years. After securing a scrappy win against League One strugglers Yeovil Town, Louis Van Gaal’s side will now face Cambridge United who are twelfth in League Two. The tie will be contested at the Abbey Stadium, giving the purists a chance to use the cliched phrase – ‘this is what the cup is about’ again.
Cambridge are a team that use the classic 4-4-2 formation and are usually fun to watch. The team maybe 12th in League Two, but are second on the goals scored table in the division behind Wycombe who are currently top of the table.
Predicted line-up (4-4-2): Chris Dunn, Michael Nelson, Josh Coulson, Greg Taylor, Richard Tait, Cameron McGeehan, Ryan Donaldson, Liam Hughes, Tom Champion, Tom Elliott, Sullay Kai-Kai
No matter what Cambridge do tactically, the headlines will be made by United manager Louis Van Gaal as there is a serious uncertainty as to who will start and what system will be employed. Since his arrival at Old Trafford, the Dutchman has tried to find the right combination for his team, but still hasn’t settled in on one particular system or a set of players.
In the club’s last game against QPR, United started with a 3-5-2 and looked dull, managing just a couple of shots on goal in the first 45. It all changed in the second as Van Gaal changed the system and played a straight forward 4-4-2, which eventually turned out to be the catalyst for that 2-0 win at Loftus Road. Fans and ex-players have implored Van Gaal to use the latter on a regular basis, but the former Barcelona manager doesn’t seem to be too interested.
In the last 5 games, United have largely used three centre backs and dominated possession, but their passing has been labored and unimaginative. A huge part of the reason behind the sorry state of affair of this team, which has in spurts shown glimpses of absolute genius, is the manager’s use of key players such as Angel Di Maria and Wayne Rooney.
The biggest weapon that Di Maria has is his pace and ability to take players on and when he is employed as a striker against teams such as QPR who are defending deep, he is being denied the chance to use just that. The Argentine loves to get on the ball and make intelligent passes, while looking for quick one-twos, making full use of that electric pace. In his last season with Real Madrid, Di Maria flourished in a three man midfield, which is what he needs at United at the moment. With his many qualities, he can come in useful as a second striker but only when the team is looking to play on the break, like they did against Arsenal back in November.
On the other hand, there’s Van Gaal’s captain Wayne Rooney. The 29 year-old started this season, playing up top but was then asked to play in midfield. At the time, the club didn’t have a second midfielder as both Daley Blind and Ander Herrera were recovering from injuries and his passing range and energy were more important than his ability in front of goal. However, with the two back, playing Rooney in midfield seems to be holding both him and his team back.
Van Gaal has often talked about ‘balance’, and ironically enough, by playing Rooney and Mata in midfield and Di Maria up top, it is just that he’s lost the most.
With both Smalling and Evans out of the contest, the wily Dutchman maybe forced to tinker with his tactics again. He is almost certain to rest influential midfielder Michael Carrick and may even rest Rooney in this game. He also revealed that Robin Van Persie and Luke Shaw are both fit to start the game, but did not confirm if either of the two will be involved. When asked about whether the match could see January signing Victor Valdes make his debut, he remained coy.
Probable line-up (4-4-2 diamond): De Gea, Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw, Blind, Herrera, Fellaini, Di Maria, Wilson, Falcao
Cambridge United 0-3 Manchester United
While it may be a tricky game on paper, United seem well equipped to handle any threat that Cambridge may pose. It all, however, will hinge on the Dutch master’s choice of system, it could be a dull game if he chooses to persist with the three at the back.