It’s never wise to read too much into pre-season friendlies, but it’s hard not to see significance in the fact Louis van Gaal selected the same side for both of Manchester United’s first two games in the International Champions Cup.
Far more common, particularly with the games being played just four days apart, would be to try to give pitch time to an array of players and to avoid wearing anybody out. Van Gaal made little secret of his frustration at his side’s inability to assimilate his tactical instructions last season; this, perhaps, is a manager setting out the structure early.
It doesn’t necessarily mean Van Gaal will stick to the same shape all season—or even for the next game, against Barcelona on Saturday—because he is a coach who believes players should be able to adapt. But the basic formation so far has been a 4-2-3-1 similar to the one he used in his time at Bayern Munich and, on occasion, with the Netherlands both in his first spell in charge and then in his second before the injury to Kevin Strootman prompted a rethink.
The preference for a back four is not a great surprise, given the way a number of United players struggled in a back three last season. What is more of a surprise is the two starting central defenders used so far have been Daley Blind and Phil Jones, with Chris Smalling only coming off the bench for both the 1-0 win over Club America and the 3-1 victory against San Jose Earthquakes. That perhaps suggests Van Gaal wants centre-backs who are comfortable stepping out into midfield—although Smalling improved in that regard last season, it would be no great surprise to see him involved against Paris Saint-Germain or Barcelona.
Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw were both involved at full-back, although Van Gaal indicated in a press conference ahead of the victory over San Jose that he sees Darmian as backup for Antonio Valencia, who is recovering after surgery, reported by the MailOnline. Shaw may be the first choice, but Blind could move across if Smalling returns. There is also Marcos Rojo, whose preparations for the new season have yet to begin because of his involvement in the Copa America.
But what was really interesting was the midfield. In both games, Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick started in the anchor roles, a classic combination of a ball-winner and a passer—although Schneiderlin’s passing is excellent as well. In both games, they were replaced at half-time by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ander Herrera, a slightly more complex pairing.
Although Schweinsteiger replicates the passing range of Carrick, he is a more dynamic player, less inclined to sit deep and, through a combination of presence and positional sense, stifles opposition attacks almost before they happen. Herrera is less of a ball-winner than either Carrick or Schneiderlin and less inclined to play long passes, but he has pace and aggression.
Both pairings feature a 25-year-old and a player in his 30s, and in both, the idea seems to be that the younger man hunts the ball and the older stays back and fills the space. The pairings will, presumably, be mixed up as the season goes by, but Van Gaal’s thinking in that regard when everybody is available is intriguing.
The use of two holders has two other implications. It suggests Van Gaal feels he needs the stability of a pair in front of his back four, and it also means there is no obvious role for Marouane Fellaini, not if the intention is to play Wayne Rooney as a lone striker with Memphis Depay, Juan Mata and Ashley Young behind him. If, as seems likely, another forward comes in, Rooney could drop back and Van Gaal perm two from the other three with Adnan Januzaj in reserve.
That’s not to say Fellaini has no role to play in the coming season, more that it appears from these first two friendlies he will be a Plan B or a backup rather than the main attacking weapon it sometimes appeared he was last season. It appears Van Gaal is turning to a more traditional approach.