Much of the pre-match buzz surrounding Louis van Gaal’s first game in charge of Manchester United focused on the tactics and formation the Dutchman would adopt against LA Galaxy.
Van Gaal went for a 5-3-2, and, as he explained to the club’s website, it’s a system he intends to stick by.
When you want to change a system, you must start at once. We don’t have time to prepare for other things. The other system they can play is 4-3-3 and they have played it for many years. I can change it back if it doesn’t work.
United looked very comfortable in the new formation. There was a fluency in the play that was missing during much of last season.
But what does this system and new way of playing mean for United? Which players will prosper? Who might struggle?
Let’s take a look...
One of David de Gea’s many strengths is his distribution, be it kicking from hand, playing it off the floor or launching a quick throw. He is capable of initiating attacks in that sense.
So having three centre-backs and two wing-backs ahead of him should suit De Gea, who will keep the ball alive and ensure that possession isn’t conceded cheaply.
United’s three current first-choice centre-backs—Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans—looked at ease in the 7-0 win over LA Galaxy. Each player saw plenty of the ball in the 5-3-2 and they worked well as a trio.
The only time they did look susceptible was when LA Galaxy attacked the space between the centre-backs and the wing-backs. Jonny Evans, in particular, appeared vulnerable when dragged out of position like that.
It’s something teams might try to exploit next season.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Van Gaal’s first starting XI was that Antonio Valencia began as a wing-back on the right-hand side. He’s played in defence before, but this new role allowed him to hug the touchline and provide much of the natural width.
It also ensured that his defensive weaknesses were never really highlighted. Arguably, it’s the best position for him.
Luke Shaw, making his United debut, played as a wing-back on the left-hand side. He was steady, perhaps a little nervous, and he took very few risks. Once he settles, there’s no doubt he will make that position his own.
The one negative of playing a 5-3-2 is that United are currently very light on defenders. The departures of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra mean that Van Gaal will need to sign at least two more defenders this summer—a centre-back and a back-up left wing-back.
United were dire in midfield last season.
It was therefore refreshing that Ander Herrera, Darren Fletcher and Juan Mata, forming a neat triangle ahead of the defence, controlled the game and dictated the tempo against a strong LA Galaxy side.
Herrera was outstanding on his debut. The Spaniard’s passing was crisp, his creativity in the final third opening the game up, and he appeared to have already built a rapport with his new team-mates. He’s a shoo-in to start most games next season.
Darren Fletcher partnered Herrera in midfield, though he will likely be replaced by Michael Carrick or a new signing long term.
At the head of the midfield was Mata, playing in his best position. He drifted into pockets of space, linked up the play and created plenty of chances. The benefit of a 5-3-2 for Mata is that he has very few defensive responsibilities.
The priority for Van Gaal now, midfield-wise, is to sign a dynamic, all-round midfielder who can be effective from box to box.
Mata is the creator and Herrera is the bridge between defence and attack—it’s now a matter of finding a player who can add robustness and mettle to the 5-3-2.
Van Gaal says #MUFC must wait to see how Kevin Strootman recovers from injury before deciding whether to move for him— James Ducker (@DuckerTheTimes) July 26, 2014
This new system also means that Shinji Kagawa’s role in the squad might change. When he does play in midfield, he won’t be asked to play out wide. The Japanese will get plenty of touches in Van Gaal’s 5-3-2, and that’s the only way we’ll ever see the player who shone for Borussia Dortmund a few years ago.
There are a number of midfielders who may struggle this coming season, however. Since the natural width in a 5-3-2 is provided by the wing-backs, there is no need for out-and-out wingers.
Nani and Ashley Young will start very few games because of that. Likewise Adnan Januzaj, who enjoyed a fantastic debut season, could find his playing time limited compared to 2013/14.
Van Gaal will be fully aware of Januzaj’s talent—and seemingly limitless potential—but he might look to use him similarly to the way he used Memphis Depay at the World Cup.
Depay came off the bench a number of times to switch the formation from 5-3-2 to 3-4-3/4-3-3, which was a more attacking option. Introducing Januzaj around the hour mark in that manner could be Van Gaal’s go-to plan for the young Belgian.
Ultimately, if United are able to sign a combative midfielder with technical ability, then the problem area in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final years in charge could become the strongest area under Van Gaal.
The most significant aspect of Van Gaal’s 5-3-2 is that it’s the one way he can shoehorn Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie into the same side whilE playing Mata in his best position.
Rooney and Van Persie have shown very little in the way of link-up play in the latter’s two seasons at Old Trafford, but this new system might change that.
The one glaring problem with those two in attack is that both lack raw speed, particularly when accelerating over the first 10 yards.
Van Gaal’s 5-3-2 at the World Cup worked so well because Arjen Robben saw plenty of the ball and used his pace to devastating effect. There was little in the way of pace in the rest of the team.
The same is sort of true at United. Playing Rooney and Van Persie up front might be too easy for opposing teams to defend against. Speed rules in modern football—and without pacy wingers, the onus moves to the two forwards.
Enter Danny Welbeck.
The England striker played in his favoured position against LA Galaxy, scoring an excellent goal from 25 yards. He’s capable of playing out wide, as he has done for club and country, but Welbeck is suited to a forward role in this 5-3-2.
The same goes for Javier Hernandez. The Mexican endured a difficult season under David Moyes and never really got a look in. If he stays at United, then a 5-3-2 is the ideal formation for him. Hernandez will benefit from playing alongside a second striker and having Mata in close proximity.
There are very few players who will be adversely affected by Van Gaal’s introduction of a 5-3-2 system. In fact, most will flourish in a formation based upon technical, passing football that brings fluidity and versatility.
The challenge will be knitting it all together and finding a rhythm.
For Van Gaal, signing a ball-playing centre-back, a dynamic midfielder and one or two back-ups, added to the already-signed Shaw and Herrera, would represent good business.
Last season there were a number of bold suggestions that claimed this was United’s worst-ever team and that a mass influx of new talent was needed to swiftly follow a mass exodus.
After just one game and two smart signings, it’s clear that this group of players just need to be coached in the right way.
United’s 4-4-2 last season was archaic, with the best players on the fringes of the game and the weaker ones thrust into the action. There was no cohesion, no balance to the line-up, and it showed.
A 5-3-2 makes sense for United. All of the best players can play in their natural positions and it provides tactical versatility. Van Gaal can simply make an in-game decision to switch to a 4-3-3, as he has alluded to, which is so important.
With a few new players, Van Gaal’s coaching expertise and a quick start to the season, United could be back to winning ways sooner rather than later.