Tactical Analysis: Should Louis van Gaal bite the bullet and switch to a 4-4-2?

After the disastrous performance against Cambridge United, Louis van Gaal is facing a huge amount of pressure from Manchester United supporters. The reason: his selection of players are not playing exciting attacking football- flying wingers and fullbacks attacking down the flanks with pace – The United way, The Sir Alex Ferguson Way..

Although van Gaal is a tactician par excellence, it seems he has not fathomed a very clearly evident weakness in his team. It causes a ripple effect that starts from solidifying the back at the cost of blunting the attack. Let’s analyze the flow:

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Lack of leadership at the back:

United’s center backs are devoid of confidence and leadership. None amongst Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair and Marcos Rojo are exhibiting leadership skills that are the foundation of a rock solid defense. A commanding presence like Nemanja Vidic, Vincent Kompay or John Terry is lacking.

As such, this is the only reason for van Gaal’s insistence on fielding a back three. In his 3-5-2, the center backs are on the ball for an extended amount of time. They are charged with finding the attacking players with their passing. However, this is not happening and they are continuously shifting the ball sideways towards the wingbacks who in turn are marked out of the game by the opposition winger-fullback combo.

OBSERVATION: The center backs’ lack of passing ability affects the buildup play, resulting in sideways passing.

Lack of transitional threat:

Rooney and Mata are played in midfield and are tasked with transitioning the play to the final third – a task which they do not excel at. Michael Carrick, being the metronome that he is, successfully transitions the ball from defense to the central areas. He finds Rooney and Mata with relative ease. United’s #10 and #8 however, struggle to string together passes with the front two and this results in a lack of tempo in the final third during transition. In other words, Rooney and Mata do not provide the same transitional threat as Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal do in Juventus’ successful rendition of the 3-5-2.

OBSERVATION: The most critical reason for United’s sluggish play: Instead of two #8’s playing in front Carrick, a #9 forward(Rooney) and a #10(Mata) are played in midfield. No wonder opposition defenses snuff out any chances created from central areas

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How does 4-4-2 help?

Given that van Gaal played the 4-4-2 diamond against Cambridge, it is obvious that he bowed to pressure. After the dismal first half showing against QPR, he moved the team from 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 and Fellaini scored immediately. Even then, he suggested that the diamond does not give balance to the side. He is right. When you pick a diamond that has Carrick, Rooney, Mata and di Maria, the balance is lost as 3 of the 4 are attacking players. A coach of van Gaal’s tactical acumen must choose the best player for each vertex of the diamond to make it balanced.

At defensive pivot, Carrick and Blind are two of the best options in ball retention, shielding the defense and providing calm passing options.

At left center mid, Angel di Maria has proven himself at Benfica and Real Madrid in this position. His ability to run at defenses with the ball from deep inside his own half will unsettle teams and shift the transition successfully into the attacking third. By the time he nears the edge of the box, he has three passing options (two forwards and the #10) or he can shoot for goal. The Argentine is custom built for this position given his work rate and tactical discipline.

At right center mid, the robust and physical presence of Fellaini will add a different dimension to the team. The Big Belgian has improved dramatically under van Gaal and is very adept at holding up the ball and his aerial ability is unquestionable.

At the tip of the diamond, Ander Herrera, the forgotten Basque should play week in week out. His intelligence, final third positioning, one touch passing, confidence to run at the defense with the ball are all classic # 10 traits. Every time he plays, the tempo quickens and his understanding with the forwards, wingers and midfielders knits the team together. He is the hitherto missing piece in van Gaal’s jigsaw.

As alternates to each position, van Gaal has Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj (#10), Jese Lingard, Nick Powell, Andreas Perreira as the outer vertices.

van Gaal’s mistake so far has been to instill the basics of the Juventus 3-5-2 into his selection. That is the main reason for the failure of the system. Instead of fielding players out of position in a 3-5-2, van Gaal must select the best players for each vertex in the 4-4-2. The diamond is essentially an extension of the Dutch 4-3-3 and falls within van Gaal’s philosophy whilst also meeting the need for United supporters’ penchant to see their team attacking with pace down the flanks.

Another option that van Gaal can try is the 4-2-3-1. Now that he has a world class attacking winger in di Maria, why can’t the below system be used? It has pace on the flanks, with overlapping fullbacks. The midfield has a runner (Herrera) and a passer (Carrick or Blind). There is the #10 spot for the un-droppable captain and the # 9 spot for one of the finest exponents of the position in the world (Falcao, who despite being criticised heavily has yet to played up top on his own where he has flourished at Atletico and Porto)

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As such, it has to be agreed that even Sir Alex had to tinker his side in the midst of matches according to the opponents’ defensive tactics. However, his sides were very much dependent on ball retention in the middle and efficient switching of flanks (a.k.a Paul Scholes) and this was the basis of his counter attacking teams. In other words, for all of van Gaal’s Dutch philosophies of possession football, United fans like nothing better than an overlapping run from the fullback resulting in a whipped cross on to the head of the center forward. There is nothing wrong in playing a 4-2-3-1 if you have exemplary wingers (di Maria, Januzaj), overlapping fullbacks(Rafael, Shaw) and an intelligent pair of midfielders (Carrick-Blind and Herrera) who can knit the team together and control the tempo.

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