With three transfers already confirmed, and deadwood disposed off, Manchester United finally have the squad depth to play according to ingenuity, and not injuries.
Four Four *insert obscenity of choice* Two
The choric response of the Old Trafford faithful exemplified their particular distaste at Van Gaal’s methods. Despite a successful run in Brazil, the controversial 3-5-2 formation found a less than accommodating home at Old Trafford. Playing players out of position and often leaving key areas overexposed, became the unfortunate MO of Manchester United under the early days of van Gaal. As the season rolled on, van Gaal found muted success in a 4-4-2 diamond. That too, teetered off into obscurity as the combination of Rooney, Falcao and van Persie flattered to deceive. Van Gaal approached the drawing board, and eventually returned to what he knew best 4-3-3.
Now while United didn’t embody the philosophies of total football to a Tee, it nonetheless saw them over the line, and into fourth place- a minimum requirement.
With new additions, a fully fit preseason squad, nothing less than a title challenge, will be their new minimum requirement.
How they plan to achieve this, will be yet another addition to the roller coaster that has been Louis Van Gaal’s tenure at United.
The Infamous 3-5-2
Entertaining the notion that United would revert to this formation, is laughable. While plying a back-three in the premier league, United barely looked functional. Wingback’s would stay in front, Left and right centre back would be left exposed, the entire game would shift to United running damage control.
Simply put, it wasn’t the United Way.
However, whatever the United Way was, is long gone. With the ever evolving modern game, comes a need to try modern approaches.
The 3-5-2 is not an alien concept to football in general. Many Portuguese, and notably Italian teams, such as Juventus have used it to great effect. It didn’t work for United, for two main reasons- A lack of experience, and injuries.
The latter saw the likes of Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett being deployed with alarming regularity, whilst leaving all the wide duties to Valencia and Young. The former came to the fore in the final third, as Rooney would often drop deep to dictate play, leaving two number 9’s to wait and watch as their service ran around like headless chickens.
Instability and irregularity put an end to what could’ve been a very interesting tactical change for Manchester United, one which they should try again.
With the arrival of Matteo Darmian, United have in their ranks, a tried and tested Wing-Back. His experience in the position as well as his athleticism and versatility, make him an uber-effective asset on the right. On the left, Ashley Young found his salvation as a LWB, combining pace with real defending capability. Any duo between Schweinsteiger, Blind, Fellaini and Herrera could occupy the central midfield spots, linking defence to attack and providing necessary cover to a back three.
The number 10 position looks tailor-made for someone like Herrera or Di Maria. The former revels in central space, with his propensity to pass-and-move combined with his dribbling skills, while the latter has proved most effectual when given space in the center, providing timely assists and raking bursts of pace. With Rooney and Wilson serving as United’s only first team forwards, van Gaal would be tempted to use new boy Memphis Depay in the ‘Robben Role‘, providing both pace and service for Rooney to finish.
With more specialised players in their ranks, the 3-5-2 provides United with an interesting dynamic. If employed properly, it could have the same effect that Netherlands had on the World Cup- The element of surprise, or in this case, the inability to cope against a solid 3-5-2. However, the formation depends greatly on the fitness of the Centre-backs. The bed rock of Juventus’ enterprise under Conte, and to a certain extent, under Allegri, was the continued use of B-B-C, or Bonucci-Barzagli-Chiellini. Smalling and Rojo have both shown their utility, however, United will need to sign another accomplished, fit centre back to provide leadership as well as relegating the perennially injured Phil Jones to the bench.
The Diamond 4-4-2
Whilst not the classic 4-4-2 of United lore, the midfield diamond offers a realm of options that suit United’s needs.
Sir Alex was reluctant to employ such a formation, as he feared that sacrificing width, would limit options. Sir Alex also didn’t sign a central midfielder since Oliviera Anderson in 2007, so he shoulders a part of the blame.
A more offensively astute formation than the 3-5-2, the midfield diamond makes the best possible use of United’s odd wealth of diverse central midfielders. With a back-four of Shaw, Smalling, Rojo and Darmian, United look to have pace and strength. Tactical astuteness and leadership, however, could be provided with a new centre back, while depth and tactical alternatives are present in the form of Blind and Rafael.
The role of ‘anchorman’ is one that Schweinsteiger excels in. During the World Cup, he shouldered the defensive responsibilities of the midfield, enabling Khedira and Kroos to function to their best possible ability. Whilst Germany plied a 4-3-3 in Brazil, Schweinsteiger’s capabilities suit a diamond.
On either side of Schweisteiger, United can field Herrera, Maroune Fellaini or Michael Carrick. All these players have been plied in attacking roles at some points in their career. Herrera and Fellaini however, have proved last season that they are equally adept at taking the games from the sides, connecting defence to attack near seamlessly.
Angel Di Maria should be deployed at the tip of the diamond. A three man midfield behind him, ensures that he wont have to track back so much, giving him both space and freedom in front of the centre-backs to thrive. Di Maria is likely to do better in the Champions League, as the Argentine often does better when he doesn’t have to negotiate 5, and even 6 man defences. Juan Mata is also a likely candidate for the CAM spot, as it was the position that launched his Chelsea career. While van Gaal used him as an inverted winger to tactical success, Mata’s best position is in front of a strong midfield and behind an athletic attacker.
4-3-1-2 in England 4-3-1-2 in Europe
Total Football 4-3-3
Van Gaal’s greatest success story, was the 1994 UEFA Champions League Final. He led an Ajax side, aged 24 at average, to beat incumbents AC Milan 4-1. The victory launched van Gaal’s managerial career and solidified the return of Total Football, The Dutch Way.
His attempts to implement such a system, 21 years on at United, proved to be a far more difficult task. Injuries, tactical unawareness and loss of form prevented van Gaal from deploying his favoured 4-3-3. With Michael Carrick’s return, and Ashley Young’s swashbuckling return to form, the Dutchman finally implemented his 4-3-3, and it paid instant dividends. United beat Liverpool, Aston Villa, Spurs and Manchester City, plying this tried and tested formation. The formation however depended heavily on the pivotal exploits of Michael Carrick, without whom United lost three games in a row after City, cementing them to fourth place, and not possibly second.
The arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and possibly Morgan Schneiderlin, seek to lessen the dependence on the renaissance man. While neither can shoulder the responsibility as pivot to full effect, rotation between the three midfielders, could provide United with an intriguing set of dynamics.
The defence, is where the formation gets a little tricky.
With the presence of recognised wingers, the fullbacks aren’t required to be quite so attacking. However, the overlapping between full back and winger has become an increasingly rarer sight at Old Trafford, preventing an extra dimension in attack. Luke Shaw’s arrival was heralded as a masterstroke, as United looked like they had a left back for more than the foreseeable future. His first campaign at United however, proved that a lot of work still has to be done. Daley Blind offers a more stable and assured figure at left-back. During United’s best spell of form, Blind formed a perplexingly formidable triangle with Fellaini and Young, ensuring United’s creativity from the left lasted the entire 90. Moreover, Blind’s exposure to both the Champions League and the World Cup, makes him a safer choice in European competition, whilst a fit Luke Shaw could do well domestically.
The midfield of a 4-3-3, comprises of 3 major components. A defensive pivot, a box-to-box engine, and a creative play-making presence. While the odd triad of Carrick-Herrera-Fellaini served United excellently, it is nonetheless one that cannot be deployed with increasing regularity. During United’s initial days, Herrera Blind and Di Maria gave United a peek into what a fully functioning midfield should look like. That candle burned out too fast, as injuries forced the players into different positions. Ideally, van Gaal would prefer the trio of Schweinsteiger Herrera and Fellaini in premiership football, while Di Maria looks likely to take the third spot in continental competition.
At the front, is where it gets very tricky. Memphis Depay will find England the sternest of testing grounds, despite a ground-breaking campaign with PSV. Ashley Young is likely to hold on to his spot on the left wing, though van Gaal will deploy the young Dutchman wherever he deems fit. On the right, is where the problem really lies.
Juan Mata excelled as an inverted forward against the premier league’s toughest opposition. The switch from centre to the wing was one that took time, but in doing so admirably, Mata sent a message to his naysayers, chiefly Jose Mourinho. Di Maria too offers a fair bit from the wing, on the left, he was often looking tired and without ideas, on the right, he could cut in more instinctively, offering the pace and drive that Mata lacks. In doing so, he could free up space for either Darmian or Rafael, as both fullbacks are known for their propensity to overlap.
4-3-3 in England 4-3-3 in Europe
A Problem Between the Posts
With Iker Casillas’ departure confirmed, Real will no doubt turn up the heat on their pursuit of David De Gea. Whilst Ed Woodword has played hardball with Real so far, the inevitability of his departure is exacerbated by Iker’s exit.
Victor Valdes already has a relation with Van Gaal, and knows that he fits the mould of the goalkeeper he has in mind. He’s fast, good on his feet and has a wealth of experience. However, with one eye firmly on the future, van Gaal will look towards a younger goalkeeper, possibly in the mould of Jan Oblak or Bernd Leno.
However, keeping Valdes should be a priority considering his experience and the fact that he has his best keeping years ahead of him. Van Gaal is taking steps to re-ensure the spine of his squad, and with the addition of a proven centreback, as well as consistent fullbacks, United’s future no.1 will have a comparatively easier job than De Gea had for the last two seasons.
Van Gaal could yet pull out another plethora of tactics this coming season, but for the present, these three look to be the most plausible choices. The unpopular 3-5-2 could find a second coming in the right situations, with the right personnel.