When Louis van Gaal’s Holland finished, in the FIFA World Cup 2014, held in Brazil, United fans heaved a sigh of relief. He had taken the tournament by storm with a very average squad at his disposal. His tactics, composure, decision-making and complete control over his team were all applauded by football pundits worldwide. The Old Trafford faithful were convinced that the club was in safe hands now.
It is widely known that van Gaal loves the 4-3-3 formation and being the perennially excited species that United fans are, the United fans began speculating what the best possible Starting XI with that formation would be. But soon after van Gaal took charge, he said that since the squad “doesn’t have world class wingers”, he would be opting for a 3-5-2 instead of his beloved 4-3-3. The same formation that he deployed the Dutch XI in, during the World Cup, as a result of the injury to Kevin Strootman (whom van Gaal is very fond of). This system was to be a first for United, as this formation had never been played at the club before. Wingbacks in place of fullbacks. Three centre-backs in place of the traditional two. Naturally, the curiosity about the new look of the team was on the rise as pre-season came closer.
The defense seemed uncomfortable with this paradigm shift in tactics. Every kid in England grows up learning football as a game with 4 defenders at the back. Van Gaal’s formation had only 3. United being short on CB’s following Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s departures, had only Smalling, Jones and Evans at their disposal. Hence Tyler Blackett, Michael Keane and Reece James were called up from the Reserves. Blackett was used as the 3rd CB, while James was to be a cover for new signing Luke Shaw at LWB (left wingback). Shaw seemed to be doing okay defensively, but wasn’t as potent going forward, possibly due to the massive increase in required workrate as LWB. Valencia was to be Rafael’s cover at RWB and after an injury sent Rafael packing, took over the role. His attacking contribution was curbed as well. Moreover, there was an increased restlessness between the centre-backs, as the mean distance between defenders is more in a 3-man defense than with 4 men. The closing down needs to be quicker. The defenders found that hard to deal with. But these defensive worries were masked to a large extent by the attacking exploits of Rooney, Mata, Young and Welbeck and the creative setup from Ander Herrera. He impressed mightily on the tour.
United won all their games and confidence was tremendously, as compared to last season. But the contentment and delight among the fans was short-lived, as the commencement of the season dealt a sickening blow to their expectations. A defeat in the first game against Swansea at home and an excruciating 1-1 draw away at Sunderland. Both the games had one thing in common – United’s defensive frailties and the clueless midfield were exposed. The defenders were lost for ideas when they had the ball and resorted to hoofing it forward, rather than pass it along to the midfield. The centre-backs were too slow closing down attackers and let them slip through frequently. Valencia and Young, as wingbacks (Shaw was ruled out for 6 weeks), were getting caught up too often, not knowing when to concentrate on attack and when on defense. Tyler Blackett, in my opinion, has been the pick of the defenders so far. Despite being the least experienced and youngest, he has shown a lot of maturity while using his physical strength or while blocking opposition forwards. Whenever he hoofed the ball, it more often than not reached another United player and possession was rarely lost. The midfield has had its own woes, and for quite a few years.
Manchester United never really managed to replace Roy Keane. Neither did they ever think about replacing Paul Scholes, when they had time. Be it Carrick, Fletcher, Anderson, Cleverley or Fellaini, all of them lack something or the other in huge proportions, which makes them all either bad players, or not-so-bad players. Ander Herrera was brought in to change that. An all-round midfielder who can create, control the game and can contribute defensively in dire situations. But as luck would have it, Anderson, Carrick and Fellaini were all injured leaving Fletcher to partner Herrera, who himself is somewhat of a defensive liability now. The less said about Cleverley, the better. Statements made by Paul Scholes and ex-Manager David Moyes suggest that there was a lot of movement at the club to sing Cesc Fabregas and Tony Kroos, both of eventually went to Chelsea and Real Madrid for 30m and 24m pounds, respectively. United have also been in the news for reportedly chasing Sami Khedira and Arturo Vidal, but nothing has materialized as yet. Marcos Rojo and Angel Di Maria have been brought in to bolster the defense and attack, but the root of all of United’s problems lies with the (virtually non-existent) midfield.
Defensive cover from the midfield is zero and there is no incisive passing or defense-splitting through balls. The very same wingers who tore defences to shreds after receiving the ball high up the pitch from Scholes, are now spending their time recovering the ball from the half-line and carrying it all the way towards the goal. And that isn’t going so well, as the time lost in manually carrying the ball is used by the opposition defences to regroup and overload their penalty areas while defending, thereby outnumbering all of United’s attacking players and rendering them almost useless. All United’s midfielders do, is pass the ball sideways or back to the defense/keeper. The acquisition of Herrera is a positive step towards building a potent midfield,but it is the first step of several that are needed.
As a Manager of a big club, Louis van Gaal obviously knows more about his players and football in general than a simple game-watcher like me. But in my totally unqualified opinion, based on what I have seen of the season so far, the players aren’t responding well to van Gaal’s new system. There is total disarray in the structure of the team during matches and players are clueless for a majority part of the 90 minutes. Decent and good defenders like Jones, Evans and Smalling are making blunders and conceding goals that you would expect even kids to defend. The wingers have lost whatever limited attacking ability they had left in them. The forwards and attacking-midfielders are helpless as the ball doesn’t reach them as easily and as quickly as it should. The way I see it, it would make me (and millions of fans) extremely happy if the team switched back to a formation with 4 defenders. We may not have done exceedingly well in that formation last season, but at least the players are familiar with it. In Herrera and Di Maria, United now have the players to play a 4-3-3 and utilize all of the club’s best players at a time.
Good results are obviously welcome, but they’re not something I can’t live without. I can take defeats and another trophyless season. But what hurts is to see a great attacking team like United playing clueless football with zero intent or conviction while going forward. Louis van Gaal is an excellent coach having a resume studded with achievements and I believe in him. I can only hope that he turns around United’s fortunes before the fans’ spirit breaks completely.