In Part 1 we considered van Gaal’s usual general tactical approach.  Now we take a closer look at what 4-3-3 means to him.

Under Sir Alex and then David Moyes, United’s base tactic was a 4-4-1-1 in defence and a 4-2-3-1 in attack, the critical difference being the position of the wide midfield players or wingers between the two phases of play. Van Gaal may choose to stay with a 4-2-3-1 based approach, but if he does, he comes to it from a 4-3-3 background. This makes a difference.

utd circa 94         utd 4231 94         utd 4231 circa 09

Chalkboards 1, 2 and 3 – Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactical journey to 4-2-3-1

Sir Alex tended to select a forward to play in the number ten role (the central player in the 3 of the 4-2-3-1) whilst a coach of the 4-3-3 tradition chooses to pick a midfield player for that role.  At United that means a player with a tendency to play higher, with an eye for goal. This can result in a disconnect with the deeper two, something we saw many times under David Moyes, but was also a feature of Sir Alex’s teams.  Under Sir Alex, the wide players tended to stay wide and much of the team’s creativity came from those wide areas (where full backs would push forward to try and create overloads). The deeper midfield two tended to stay deeper and screen the defence; one might push forward but the emphasis would be on their pushing the ball wide rather than looking for movement and penetration through the centre of the pitch.

In contrast, when a coach who is used to playing a 4-3-3 changes to 4-2-3-1, his number 10 is a midfield player and so he has a tendency to link well with the two deeper players who will often run past him in central areas. The wide player will also look to link with the central three and may play fairly narrow. This creates a far more fluid formation with lots of movement and one and two-touch moves. Both teams are playing a 4-2-3-1 but each is using the shape in a radically different way.

In interviews and in print Van Gaal has regularly stated that his choice is a 4-3-3 (see: It is worth looking at his use of this system as it provides us with clues as to what to expect irrespective of the system he chooses.  The best place to start is with the team that made his name – the Ajax side of the early to mid-90s.  Ajax of course is usually considered to be the home of “Total football” and had a very specific approach to the game.

Total football is quite hard to define or even sum up in a few simple descriptive points but the general idea is that a Total Footballer is a good all-round player who can play in a variety of positions and able to interchange roles. For us, that misses the point or tells only half the tale.  Even when a player has a basic range of skills to a standard of proficiency, his individual physical characteristics mean that he will almost certainly develop a specialism that lends itself to a particular role in the team. The ‘basic proficiency’, though, enables such a player to be flexible, which leads to the ability to interchange with others, and most important, to manipulate space on the pitch.

The Dutch have a very particular way of thinking about space and systems (the term Total Football itself has been borrowed from other schools of Dutch thought, the most notable for us being the Dutch concept of Total Architecture; architecture essentially being concerned with the organisation of space). Holland is a fairly small country in terms of land area with a relatively large population, resulting in a one of the most densely populated countries in the world.  As such they have to use space well. In football terms this translates into Total Football, where space is created and manipulated by movement both on and off the ball together with the interchanging of positions.

The chalkboards below help to illustrate how van Gaal’s Ajax teams set up and how they moved.

Chalkboard 1                                              Chalkboard 2

Chalkboard 4 – 4-3-3                                                     Chalkboard 5 becomes 3-4-3

Chalkboard 4 shows the team’s shape in a defensive phase whilst Chalkboard 5 shows the shape when they have possession and are looking to attack. The critical difference is the position of the second centre-back (in this team, Rijkaard).  He would move forward to help build-up play, forming a central midfield diamond. The shape became 3-4-3 when Ajax had the ball.

The diamond is significant because it gives options. It is a feature not just of van Gaal’s sides but of the approach of many Dutch coaches. See this link:

Johann Cruyff is no fan of van Gaal, but his tactical approach is similar. Note that at the end of this clip Cruyff indicates his disapproval of the 4-2-3-1 approach. His view is that it is overly cautious and can be slow. If you look at Chalkboards 2 and 3 you can see how someone from a 4-3-3 tradition would come to that conclusion; all the adjustments to this shape from a 4-3-3 involve players moving back. Under Moyes, caution was certainly our experience.

Van Gaal can be pragmatic rather than cautious, certainly to a greater extent than Cruyff, the aforementioned purist. To Cruyff, the beauty of the game is everything. Van Gaal appreciates that beauty and preaches attacking football, but would forgo purity in order to win.

In his last season Sir Alex experimented with a midfield diamond, which helped United retain the ball. The shape was used in a number of games, most noticeably European fixtures. We always felt that this was a response to United’s early elimination from the previous season’s Champions League and subsequent elimination from the Europa League when they struggled to retain possession against (surprise surprise) Ajax who were managed at that time by a disciple of van Gaal, Frank De Boer. They struggled in the same way against Athletic Bilbao who were managed by an admirer of Van Gaal, Marcelo Bielsa.  The problem for United was that the diamond was narrow and United sacrificed their wingers to form this shape relying on fullbacks to get forward. The movement of Rijkaard illustrates how van Gaal would form his diamond without having to sacrifice width.

343 lateral                                      343 vertical

Chalkboard 6 – 3-4-3 across the pitch               Chalkboard 7 – 3-4-4 up and down the pitch

The other critical point about van Gaal’s 3-4-3 is that the shape is vertical as well as lateral. You could see this as a manifestation of Dutch spatial thinking on a football field. When we think about the shape of a football team we tend to think in lines across the pitch. This is an over simplification because it isn’t really like that, and this thinking is underlined by the way we categorise players. Defence, midfield, forward translates into a three layer description defined by how many players of each type we pick; 4-4-2, 4-2-4, 4-3-3. 4-2-3-1 breaks that of course, but the point still stands generally. The best Dutch coaches in the Total Football tradition do not think like that, as illustrated by the chalkboards above. The 4-3-3 categorisation works across the pitch, but for Total Football it also works up and down the pitch. This allows players to be twinned and to interchange either with teammates to their side, in front of and behind them. So Total Football allows for vertical and horizontal interchanges, but most important, it allows for a different mind-set.

So what can we expect from van Gaal at United?

We can expect three things that van Gaal has demonstrated recently: good tactical judgement, boldness and flexibility. Reviewing his management of the Dutch side in Brazil, more than one commentator has referred to him as an alchemist. Yes, his Dutch squad contained three World Class players and a couple of youngsters who may develop to be World Class in time, but the majority of the squad looked workmanlike and inexperienced. Van Gaal’s marshalling of the available resources got the most out of that squad. He made Holland difficult to beat and during matches often outthought the other team’s coach, making substitutions and tactical adjustments which turned matches.  We would hope that he proves able to effect a similar alchemy on United’s current modest squad. Whatever he does and whatever tactical approach he takes, can’t wait to see the effect he has on our club’s fortunes.

Let the fun begin!