Analysing the Tactical Options Offered by Manchester United's New Signings
Manchester United have invested heavily during this transfer window, and with their new signings comes a good degree of tactical flexibility.
Much has been made of Louis van Gaal’s deployment of a 3-4-1-2 formation, but he has intimated that he may be open to changing that to accommodate Angel Di Maria, per James Dickenson of the Daily Express.
Whether Van Gaal is looking to switch to a 4-3-3 or fill out his 3-4-1-2 with improved personnel, United’s new signings offer him a variety of options.
Luke Shaw appears to offer the straightforward option of either being played at left-back in a back four or left wing-back in a back five.
Shaw’s attacking prowess means he seems a natural fit for wing-back, and he showed last season that he is very comfortable in a back four at Premier League level.
Presumably, those are the only positions Shaw can play, although as with all attack-minded full-backs, someone will eventually suggest trying him on the left wing.
Marcos Rojo offers Van Gaal an option at centre half, left-back and left wing-back. Played on the left of a back three at the World Cup, Rojo has also covered the flank for club and country.
Having a player who can play in those positions is crucial in terms of covering for the defensive injuries, but it also frees Van Gaal up to make some experimental moves—playing Phil Jones in midfield for example.
Although my personal take on Jones is that he is best served by an extended run at centre-half, if Van Gaal sees it differently, Rojo will help to enable that. Jones can certainly do a useful man-marking job in midfield against specific opposition.
Rojo’s ability to play on the left also means that Van Gaal does not have to use an attacking player at wing-back if Shaw is unavailable, meaning players like Ashley Young and, now, Angel Di Maria can be deployed elsewhere.
Ander Herrera is as comfortable in the No. 10 role as he is at the heart of midfield. Of course, United are replete with players who can play between the midfield and the strikers.
They are considerably less replete with quality deep-lying midfielders and so, for now, Herrera will most usefully be deployed in the heart of midfield.
However, it is much to be hoped that United’s midfield options will improve over the course of Herrera’s time at the club, and when they do, unleashing his full range of talents behind the strikers will certainly be an option.
Glimpses of his potential in this role were shown in pre-season, notably his two magnificent through-balls for Ashley Young against LA Galaxy. He, of course, played there for much of the second half of last season, for Athletic Bilbao.
His tough-tackling defensive prowess will also be tactically crucial should Van Gaal look to deploy a 4-3-3. If the Dutchman looks to use Mata as the most advanced of the midfield three, then Herrera can serve as a holding player, alongside, perhaps, a further new signing.
On the other hand, Herrera’s ability to unlock defences will be at its most effective should he be used in a more attacking role within a 4-3-3, perhaps with a new holding midfielder and Angel Di Maria.
A flexible midfielder feels like a pleasing novelty at United, and Herrera certainly fits that bill.
Angel Di Maria
Angel Di Maria is a spectacular acquisition. It has been a long time since Manchester United bought a world star at his peak from a club outside of the Premier League.
Aside from an enormous injection of quality, Di Maria also offers new tactical options. He has often played as part of a midfield three, could play on the wing in a four-man midfield and also as one of the wide forwards in a traditional Van Gaal 4-3-3.
Of course, that 4-3-3 would mean that Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie could not be incorporated into the same line-up without one of them playing out of position, but that sacrifice may be worth making to inject more pace into United’s forward line.
With Di Maria on one flank, Adnan Januzaj on the other and one of Rooney or Van Persie in the middle, United’s attack could become electric.
United’s new signings all offer tactical options and are all fine players, but Di Maria is both the most exciting and maybe the most flexible. It has turned out to be a fairly remarkable summer, and seeing how it plays out over the course of the season will be fascinating.