Manchester United’s summer signings provide Louis van Gaal with the chance to move away from the 5-3-2 formation that has seen his players struggle in the opening four games of the season.
The system that served Van Gaal so well in pre-season has looked worryingly beatable, and United have picked up just two points from an available nine in the Premier League.
United’s defence is vulnerable, the midfield has been overrun and the attack has looked blunt. The most alarming aspect of the 5-3-2 is how easy it is for teams to play against, not that United have been sluggish in becoming accustomed to it.
The first step is to line up with two wide men, wingers or wide forwards, forcing United’s wing-backs to form a flat back five. That takes away all of the natural attacking width and makes it difficult for United to play expansive football.
The second step is to pack the midfield, paying close attention to the two central midfielders sat behind Juan Mata. Those two are responsible for feeding the ball to the front three attacking players, so restricting the number of times they see the ball is an effective tactic. Burnley did this wonderfully well, and United’s defenders had no option but to play the long ball up to Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, since their route to passing into midfield was blocked.
It’s therefore promising that United have the chance to change formations based on the players they have acquired in this transfer window, even if Van Gaal might persist with a 5-3-2 for a little while longer.
Defence: United Don’t Have the Players For a 5-3-2
Following the departures of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, United were always going to have a new-look defence this season.
Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are tasked with stepping up in the absence of the aforementioned trio, but only Jones has looked comfortable with the added pressure in this new formation. The 22-year-old has arguably been United’s standout player at this early stage of the campaign.
Evans, now United’s most senior defender, has had a contrasting start to the season. Nervy and vulnerable to being dragged out of position, the Northern Irishman has underperformed, making a series of costly errors.
What’s noticeable about United’s defence is that, despite the number of options, there is a dearth of star quality, particularly in central areas.
It would therefore make sense to revert to a four-man defence, which would simultaneously relieve pressure on United’s back line and allow Van Gaal to introduce another player up field. Partnering Jones and Marcos Rojo together seems like a natural fit, though Smalling and Evans could slot in just as well. With Rafael and Luke Shaw on either flank, United would have a balanced, albeit young and inexperienced defence.
Possible defence: Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw.
Midfield: 5-3-2 Puts Pressure on United’s Weakest Area
There’s nothing that hasn’t been said or written about United’s midfield problems in the last few years.
It’s strange, then, that Van Gaal has selected a formation that puts so much pressure on the two central midfielders, because United are notoriously weak in that area.
Since the wing-backs have been forced deep in the opening three Premier League games, Ander Herrera, Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher have struggled to give United a foothold against supposedly weaker opposition.
They’ve simply been outnumbered in the middle of the pitch. Burnley, in particular, quashed any impact United’s midfield could have on the game. Sean Dyche’s four-man midfield was compact, protecting its back line and stopping United from having the ball in threatening areas of the pitch.
By switching to four in defence, Van Gaal would have the option of playing an extra man in midfield. That’s where Daley Blind comes in. Though a quality left-back, the former Ajax man is a defensive midfielder by trade, where his technical ability and passing range sees him control the game.
The appeal of playing him deep in midfield is easy to see. Blind could form a triangle with Rojo and Jones, breaking up play in front of those two and acting as an outlet when United pass their way out of defence.
Blind’s presence in midfield would also benefit the likes of Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera and Mata ahead of him. Squeezing those four into the same midfield is possible, particularly if Van Gaal were to play a diamond.
Di Maria and Herrera would be ideal as the shuttling players on either side of the diamond, since both are adept at getting up and down the pitch. The obvious player to position at the tip of the midfield, a position that requires creativity, is Mata.
The benefit of playing Blind, Di Maria and Herrera in this way is that they could easily be used in a 4-3-3 formation, should Van Gaal wish to introduce some more width in attack.
That would open things up for Adnan Januzaj, since the 5-3-2 is one formation that doesn’t suit his skill set. Seen as a future No.10, the Belgian star is currently at his most dangerous when playing from out wide.
Now United’s finest winger, finding someone to play on the opposing side would be the biggest problem in playing a 4-3-3.
Possible midfield: Blind, Di Maria, Herrera, Mata (4-4-2 diamond)
Attack: Predictable and Lacking in Imagination in a 5-3-2
Van Persie stands as one of the Premier League’s finest goalscorers of all time. Rooney has been a constant source of goals since joining from Everton 10 years ago. Why, then, have the two been unable to strike up a formidable partnership?
The answer, perhaps, lies in the fact that both players are too similar. Wayne Rooney is keen to seek the ball when United are in possession. Van Persie also has a tendency to drift left or right, in an attempt to move his marker out of position.
Simply put, they do not complement each other and their playing styles clash.
The signing of Radamel Falcao, unexpected as it was, changes things. The Colombian has an astonishing goalscoring record, per ESPN FC’s tweet.
Falcao's league statistics... pic.twitter.com/fHLV8ajDv1— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) September 1, 2014
Falcao’s signing suggests Van Gaal has eyed him as a primary striker. The Colombian is comfortable playing as a lone forward, but the presence of Rooney and Van Persie means playing with a two-man attack is logical.
Naturally, one of those three proven, top-class strikers would have to sit on the bench. The injury records of Van Persie and Rooney may make that decision a little more straightforward, but if all three are fit and firing, Falcao and Van Persie might be the way to go.
Rooney’s form last season was somewhat overplayed, since he had the lowest strike rate of United’s then-strikers, per ESPN’s Paul Carr.
Non-penalty goals per 90 minutes for Man United last PL season: RVP 0.53 Welbeck 0.51 Rooney 0.48— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) September 1, 2014
He’s also not been as creative as Mata since the Spanish playmaker joined United from Chelsea in January this year.
The media will tell you Wayne Rooney carries United and Juan Mata struggles. Is that the case? I know who I'd drop. pic.twitter.com/5MSry9RLza— Chris Fleming (@Chris__Fleming) September 1, 2014
The fact that United have three superb strikers in their ranks is, for the most part, a good thing. It gives Van Gaal options. Rooney and Falcao could prove to be a wonderful attacking duo, just as Van Persie and Falcao could.
It’s likely that Van Gaal will use the first few weeks after the international break to observe all three in training and competitive games before deciding on his preferred pair.
The fact that young James Wilson could get more playing time as United’s reserve striker is an added bonus, and he has three outstanding players to learn from.
Possible attack: Any two of Falcao, Van Persie and Rooney
The Challenge for Van Gaal Is to Find a Balance
There’s no doubt that United’s squad is attack-heavy, so Van Gaal’s task is to develop a system that accommodates such attacking talent, all the while thinking about defensive solidity.
But all signs point to one or two star players missing out per game.
Dropping Mata and playing Rooney in attacking midfield would allow Van Gaal to play his three big-name, high-earning players in the same side (four with Di Maria slightly behind Rooney).
Leaving Rooney on the bench would make United’s starting XI more dynamic, since the England striker can slow the game down when he dawdles in possession.
That’s arguably Van Gaal’s biggest decision.
Whatever he decides in the next month, there’s sure to be a lot of tactical chopping and changing at United. The truth is that the squad of players the Dutchman now has provides great tactical versatility, but moving away from a 5-3-2 is now a real possibility.