So Louis van Gaal it is then. This should be fun.

Since van Gaal’s appointment, United fans have been debating what they can expect. There has been much discussion and many column inches filled with speculation. Whilst some have focused on his reputation for having a no-nonsense approach to the press and others have considered his reputation as a training ground disciplinarian, our focus at is inevitably upon what we can expect on the pitch. Clearly no one can have any great certainty on how he will approach the task at hand with the players he inherits or those he chooses to bring in, but we can have some fun speculating.

In this, our first tactical thoughts piece considering van Gaal, we will take a general look at what we might expect. In our second piece we will take a closer look at the team that made his name, their tactical approach and the Dutch 4-3-3 tradition.

Van Gaal, who made his name at Ajax, comes from the 4-3-3 tradition.  United is a club of the 4-4-2 school; so this should be very interesting.  In recent years van Gaal has varied his tactical approach, demonstrating some flexibility, unlike, say, Johann Cruyff (more of a purist in his adherence to a 4-3-3 orthodoxy). There are a couple of key points to make here.

Firstly, do not make too many assumptions based on van Gaal’s approach in recent weeks as Dutch manager. A national manager has to adapt his system to the players available. Unlike a club manager, he cannot look to buy the missing parts to make a preferred formation work.  Secondly, most coaches have a preferred tactic, which they will develop or vary periodically or for specific matches against specific opponents (Sir Alex regularly changed his approach to a lopsided 4-3-3 in recent seasons against certain opponents whilst retaining a general adherence to another tactical approach). For van Gaal the base approach remains the 4-3-3.

Whichever tactical system van Gaal chooses, United fans can expect to see a number of features in United’s play.

Van Gaal places great emphasis upon what he refers to as the “collectif”. There are no stars, all players must accept their place in the system and he will select whoever best fits that system. This means that he is as likely to promote a youth player with the right characteristics as to buy a new player, or stick with an established star name.  After a year of underachievement and an apparent lack of commitment from some players, the United squad should take note.

David Moyes experimented early last season with pressing. He expected his front four to press whilst the back six would sit deep and maintain their shape. This didn’t work, but still we should expect van Gaal’s teams to press.  Ajax, in the late sixties and early seventies, perfected this tactic with the second centre half directing the press.  This is all about space. The press makes the pitch small when the opposition has the ball and denies the man in possession time to find a pass. Moyes’ attempt to do this was half hearted – only four players pressed, which left a space behind them for the opposition to exploit. Van Gaal’s press is likely to be much more co-ordinated and committed.

If van Gaal’s side will attempt to make the pitch small when they don’t have the ball, when they have it they will attempt to make the pitch big. To do this they usually use width. His sides attack on a wide front with two wingers and a single central striker.  At times the wingers may play narrow, but when they do, the fullbacks are expected to push up in order to maintain the attacking width. By coming narrow, the wingers create a critical mass in the centre, supplementing the presence of the lone central striker and creating a greater target for the full backs’ crosses. This means that we should expect the full backs to deliver as many crosses on occasions as the wingers.

Ajax under van Gaal

Ajax under van Gaal

Van Gaal’s teams will attempt to maintain a shape that will create diamonds and triangles, so maximising passing options. Their shape encourages forward diagonal passing; the type of passing which constantly asks questions. The tendency to make square passes is reduced. We should also expect players to pass early. The chalkboard above illustrates this. Players will move in a way that maintains a triangulation. His team will also play at a high tempo. Expect pace. United’s recent lethargic approach will not be tolerated.

Holy of holies, and a blessed relief for many United fans, van Gaal places great emphasis on a balanced midfield. His teams usually play with a central midfield three as a minimum, comprising a screening player, a box to box midfield player and a creative number 10.

The final point we would make is that, as United fans, we should be excited about the appointment of van Gaal. Most United managers over the years have been excellent man managers and motivators, rather than great tacticians. Sir Alex was a motivational manager as was Sir Matt. Both men employed coaches to do the technical and tactical work, each was occasionally outmanoeuvred by better tactical minds. For the first time United are being led by one of the world’s finest coaches with one of the world’s best tactical brains.

As we said earlier, this should be fun.

Don't worry, I'll sort it out

Don’t worry, I’ll sort it out