Louis van Gaal’s first game in charge and a first chance to look at the direction in which he wishes to take the side, or using his terminology the first chance to look at his “philosophy”. He picked a strong starting eleven featuring three centre-backs and two new signing, Herrera and Shaw, making their debuts.

There has been a lot of talk since this game about the nature of the formation. Van Gaal himself referred to it as 3-4-3, whilst others have referred to it as 3-4-1-2. Both are fair descriptions; it depends upon your perspective. The difference is the position of Mata in relation to the front two, moving forward in attack and dropping back to be closer to the central midfield when necessary.

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The use of three at the back and two forwards builds on van Gaal’s stewardship of Holland at the World Cup, but there were differences here. United were less passive than Holland who essentially looked to sit deep and hit on the counter-attack. This ultimately proved their undoing when the opposition also chose to sit back and Holland’s last two games went to penalties as consequence. In that lottery they were only 50% successful.

United play was fluid and incisive with plenty on one touch passing moves. They were just more assertive. The three centre backs played high up the pitch and the wing-backs, Shaw and Valencia pushing forward alongside the central midfield two. That allowed those two, Herrera and Fletcher to play close together. Much of the passing then was short and early. Mata dropped deep to join in whilst Rooney and Welbeck’s presence further forward prevented LA Galaxy from stepping up in response. Mata and Herrera often interchanged and their understanding was impressive. Herrera, Fletcher and Mata formed a triangular shape which controlled the centre of the pitch. After half time Cleverley, Herrera and Kagawa repeated this.

Herrera in particular had an excellent debut game. He was neat and tidy, comfortable in possession and always prepared to take the ball even in tight spaces. He demonstrated good movement and reading of the game around him and his subtle repositioning re-shaped his and other peoples passing options. He clearly has a good eye for a pass and the accuracy to deliver providing three assists; what is not to like! He looks a great buy and this was the best debut we can remember in a United shirt for many years.

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United were untroubled throughout the game except for a number of moments in the first half where LA Galaxy ran into space behind the wing-backs. Their crossing however was poor. At half time van Gaal made wholesale changes, but with the exception of the first five minutes of the second half the shape remained the same. Fletcher dropped into the middle of the centre-back three between Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett. Reece James and Rafael played in the wing-back positions with James particularly doing well and adventurously running forward to grab two late goals.

We need to put this game in perspective. This was only a pre-season friendly against a side who with all due respect are not of the highest standard. This performance rather than the 7-0 score line however is a step in what looks like the right direction; a new tactical direction. If nothing else this gives United fans a sense of optimism for the season ahead, something which is welcome after last year.

Four things stand out:

  • The squad has demonstrated an ability to adapt to van Gaal’s “philosophy” so quickly.
  • The new tactical approach seems to suit the squad and address many of the weaknesses seen in United’s play last season.
  • Van Gaal’s post match comments regarding the need to play Fletcher at the back because of defensive weaknesses and his comment about an unbalanced squad suggest he will both prune and buy.
  • Ander Herrera.