The Premier League season is, amazingly, upon us. On August 8, fans will gather for their well-rehearsed rituals ahead of the weekend's ultimate treat: competitive football's return.
Manchester United will be expected to move from strength to strength this season, building upon a 2014-15 campaign that ensured their successful return to the Champions League at the first time of asking. A summer recruitment spree and, at the time of writing, the retention of David De Gea put them in pole position to wrest the title off Chelsea this coming campaign.
Here B/R delves into the major tactical talking points and questions ahead of the new season, identifying areas of change and interest as Louis van Gaal tweaks his approach.
1. 4-2-3-1 Ahoy?
Ahead of Louis van Gaal's arrival in the Premier League with Manchester United, British football fans were taught somewhat sternly by Dutch football aficionados that he was a manager wedded to the 4-3-3 system. Despite deviating from it at the World Cup because of a system-crippling Kevin Strootman injury, normal service was expected to resume upon his taking the reins at Old Trafford.
United started the season with three at the back as well, attempting to mask the horrific defensive setup in place. It didn't really work—that 4-0 defeat to MK Dons stands a fresh wound in many a memory—and that system was soon ditched for LVG's revered 4-3-3.
Slow, at times impotent and wholly unexciting, the transition to his go-to system flattered to deceive; the 4-3-3 caught fire for approximately four weeks during a spell when United beat Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City but lost rhythm and ended the campaign with a goalless draw at relegated Hull City.
Despite requests for patience and incessant mentions of Van Gaal's "philosophy," it never really came to fruition. That United garnered 70 points in 2014-15 is something of a modern footballing miracle, and it's arguable about 12 of those are attributable to De Gea alone. A change for the better in terms of performances is sorely needed, and the solution, it appears, is to try the 4-2-3-1.
United's International Champions Cup campaign has dropped quite a number of hints about how Van Gaal plans to play 2015-16, and the 4-2-3-1 was a constant fixture in the tournament. Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick at the base of midfield, Memphis Depay as the No. 10 behind Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata opposite Ashley Young on the wings.
Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian appear to be first choice in their respective full-back positions—despite Van Gaal suggesting the latter would be second choice to Antonio Valencia, per the Daily Mail—but Ander Herrera and Chris Smalling seem to be on the outside looking in.
The 4-2-3-1 provides Depay the freedom to collect longer passes from the back, turn and run, while the Schneiderlin-Carrick shield is so strong perhaps the mundane, play-not-to-lose style of last term can be discarded in favour of a definitively attacking approach.
It's an intriguing look and a serious vote of confidence in Depay. He's played most of his career on the left wing cutting inside, and to come to a new league at such a young age and take up a central role will be tough. Mata will look to exploit any gaps created from his "false-winger" role on the right, but much of the offensive buck will stop with the Dutchman if he's played as the No. 10.
2. Even Better Wide Play
A big feature of United's positive attacking play last season was the great use of width; United were arguably the best crossing side in the league, creating chances and scoring goals thanks to excellent deliveries from the flanks.
Daley Blind and Ashley Young formed an absolutely superb duo, and with Marouane Fellaini bringing down goal kicks and sliding them to their flank, they'd buccaneer forward and swing dangerous balls into the box.
The right side, however, lacked any form of natural width or punch. Valencia's crossing has become so poor fans will him not to even bother; contrast his 2015 deliveries to his 2010 deliveries, and you'd be forgiven for thinking it's actually a different player in the same shirt. Mata, forever a No. 10, doesn't stay wide and doesn't hit the byline; he starts there but cuts in, filling gaps and linking play.
But this season, this already impressive wide play promises to improve, and quality will be found from both flanks. "It shall be the season of Luke Shaw," LVG recently declared, relayed by the Independent. His confidence in the boy is founded upon some great pre-season showings in which he's looked fit, confident and sharp.
The Southampton academy product had a poor 2014-15 blighted by injuries, homesickness and a loss of confidence, but he looks a reinvigorated figure now. Storming forward with the ball at his feet, he's been hitting the byline, providing crosses and showing the stamina to get back and defend.
Opposite him, Darmian has been a marked upgrade on Valencia, even if it is only pre-season. It's easy to project the Italian as an improvement because those who've seen him play for Torino and Italy know he's a quietly efficient and effective player. His crossing is far better than Valencia's, finally bringing good deliveries from the right side.
Fellaini may not play as often this season, so United's overall aerial threat may drop a little, but Van Gaal places importance on stretching the pitch horizontally, overloading the flanks and burrowing through defensive structures using his full-backs. They're very important to the system, and with Darmian in place of Valencia, the Red Devils are firing on all (both) cylinders.
3. Use of Andreas Pereira and Adnan Januzaj
Van Gaal has always fancied himself as a bit of a position changer; there are times when he sees strengths in a player no one else does and encourages them to move around the field to find their best spot.
One of his most famous achievements, besides all the silverware, is converting Bastian Schweinsteiger from a winger into a central midfielder. The German, a little slow to be an out-and-out wide man, dropped inside and became one of world football's finest midfield war horses, exemplified by his magnificent, battling 120 minutes in the 2014 World Cup final. He ended the match bloodied, bruised and muddied; the sidelines just weren't for him.
In 2014-15, Van Gaal toyed with Fellaini's role, moved Blind around, played Rooney in central midfield for close to the entire campaign and shifted Mata into a new role on the right-hand side. Some experiments were more successful than others, with the Rooney one in particular irking supporters because of the obvious poor fit between player tendency and role requirement.
This summer, the Dutchman's been at it again: Andreas Pereira, Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson—three players who could break into the first team on a regular basis this season—have been moved about the pitch as Van Gaal starts to weave a fresh canvas.
Pereira is a No. 10 but can play wide, and of the three, he looks the most likely to feature in this United setup. Januzaj, though, was tried up front against Barcelona and scored a beautiful goal in the dying embers of the match to reassert his club's two-goal advantage against the European champions.
It's been tough going for the Belgian since breaking through under David Moyes, but perhaps playing as a striker—should he train hard and add some bulk—is his ticket to more regular first-team football at Old Trafford. Given the depth behind Rooney is slender at best, he could well up his minutes if he's willing to change positions.
Wilson, meanwhile, who is actually a natural striker, took to the flank when he came on against Barcelona and deftly played in Tyler Blackett on the overlap in the buildup to Jesse Lingard's goal. We can't say if Van Gaal is flexing his options or rounding his players' skill sets, but what we can say is there's far more tinkering to come.
4. Rooney as Starting Centre-Forward
When you tally it up, it's astonishing how little Rooney has played as the central striker during his time at Manchester United. He's been played wide left, right, behind the forward and in central midfield; it's arguable he's only played as a No. 9 for two full seasons in the last six years.
In 2009-10, he scored 34 goals in 44 games—a season famous for the ridiculous number of headed goals he scored. His winning cameo in the 2010 League Cup final against Aston Villa saw him change the game and score the winner from the bench, looping a stunning header past the outstretched talon of Brad Friedel.
Then, in 2011-12, he bagged 34 goals in 43 games. Another stunning haul, proving once again at the time he could play as the No. 9. But Sir Alex Ferguson (and David Moyes to an extent) consistently chose to use others in that position. Dimitar Berbatov was a £30 million obstacle one year, while Robin van Persie was a £200,000-per-week roadblock the next.
Now, as we approach the 2015-16 season, Rooney is slated to play just his third season as the undisputed central striker, and at 29 years of age, there is some doubt he can do the job required. Van Gaal has given him his vote of confidence, but he'll need to convince some quarters of the fanbase he's reliable enough in front of goal to carry this team to a title challenge.
When he's practiced and ready, Rooney is the ideal No. 9: technically savvy, a good timer of runs, an instinctive finisher and robustly determined when necessary, he's always shown the ability to sniff out chances and score goals. He struggled in midfield because he instinctively takes too many touches when playing deep, but give him a ball to run onto and he'll slam it past the 'keeper after one prod to set himself.
He's dynamite in the box, making space for himself to receive passes in dangerous areas, and while he did develop a Frank Lampard-esque, edge-of-the-box sweeping ability last season, which saw him net 12 goals, per WhoScored.com, he's better suited to playing as the focal point up front, not 15 yards deeper.
The title challenge, at the time of writing, is on. It's set to be a close-run thing, as Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool have strengthened measurably too, but United have bought well and have everything in place to improve upon their tally of 70 points from last season.
The issue is if De Gea leaves, it could cripple them in the goalkeeping department—by our count, he's the second-best in the world behind only Manuel Neuer—and they're definitely one world-class centre-back short, but Sergio Ramos will be signing a new contract with Real Madrid, per Marca. Despite good work in the window and good preparation so far, United are still in flux as the future of one of their best players stands unresolved.
Sergio Romero is a replacement for Victor Valdes and in no way an option should De Gea leave, so Van Gaal will need to put on his thinking cap if Madrid snare his No. 1. Hugo Lloris? Jan Oblak? Claudio Bravo?