In terms of results United have had a good pre-season. They returned from the USA unbeaten, having won all their games, (albeit one via a penalty shoot-out) and followed this up with a 2-1 win against Valencia. This is all very welcome, but it isn’t really the point. So what have we learnt?
Firstly in terms of formation, van Gaal wants the squad to learn to play in a 3-4-1-2 formation. It doesn’t mean that it is the only formation he intends to use, rather that it is the one that the players are least familiar with, and therefore needs the most work to get it right. Although the coach has said that he may use a 4-3-3 if necessary, it appears that he intends to start the season with the new shape. Why? Well, he has repeatedly stated that we have an unbalanced squad, so the 3-4-1-2 gives him the best opportunity to include the maximum number of our attacking talents. He has also indicated that whilst we are over-stocked with central strikers and “number 10’s,” we lack quality wide players. After last season not many United fans will give him an argument on this issue.
The spine of the side
Looking at our use of the 3-4-1-2 so far we can see a consistency in the deployment of a number of players down the spine of the side. On tour, Van Gaal generally made wholesale changes at half-time but there seemed to be a pattern of selecting a reasonably consistent first half spine.
As expected, De Gea was the preferred first choice goalkeeper. In terms of defence Smalling, Jones and Evans have started most games. Herrera also began most games in central midfield whilst Mata has generally started in the number 10 role. Rooney was selected as a forward alongside Welbeck who usually featured as the other first half forward (although we would anticipate that when van Persie returns he would be selected ahead of Welbeck).
The general “philosophy”
Whichever formation van Gaal employs, the general approach seems clear. The team will play a high tempo possession game based on early passing. The new coach has set out that the players need to learn to make quick decisions, typically within one second. The team will defend with a high line. The squad has generally adapted well to these demands and some of the football has been excellent. It is refreshing to see how prepared players are to receive the ball in tight areas and to move both on and off the ball to create passing options for themselves or a colleague. Last year much of United’s play was static and cautious. This year it appears it will be fluid and brave.
The consequence is that going forward United have played some delightful, attacking football and scored some beautiful goals; the creativity that was lacking last year has returned. Of course a part of this is the form of new recruit Ander Herrera, an extremely mobile midfield player who is able to make telling passes and link well through the central spine of the side. He has often been support by the industry of others, most notably Cleverly and Fletcher. Playing Mata as a classic number 10 has also been significant in this improvement, as has the movement and industry of Rooney and Welbeck. The final feature to note is the attacking late overlaps of the wingbacks. Reece James and Ashley Young have both popped up and contributed goals in this way, running in from wide areas after the central players have inter-passed, to draw the opposition into a narrow position.
Whilst the attacking play of the wingbacks has been a plus point, the defensive side of their game is a potential problem area. In many respects wingbacks are the key to the success of the new formation; they provide a defensive cover in wide positions and vital attacking width. A range of players has been selected at wingback and these roles appear to be the ones requiring the most work. This is only to be expected as these are positions unfamiliar to the squad. The defence overall has done reasonably well, with only one goal being conceded from open play during the whole pre-season. But the relationship between wingbacks and the defensive three needs some work. United looked vulnerable at times to balls played diagonally into the space behind the wingbacks (even LA Galaxy has some success with this strategy). Opponents will look to this tactic as a means of undermining our new formation. We need wingbacks that are alert to this – players with good lateral awareness. To date Reece James appears the most accomplished in this role, with Ashley Young (a player perceived to have a tenuous hold on a future at the club) also rising to the challenge.
Pressing and transitions
The other stand out aspect of United’s play on tour is the urgency with which United now attempt to win the ball back. www.manutdtactics.com has identified this as an issue for several years now. Lacking a natural ball winner United have had a tendency to drop deep, maintaining two banks of four and wait for the opposition to give the ball away via a mistake. We saw this in the extreme last year, but it was an issue under Sir Alex as well. The consequence was that it was difficult to build up a head of steam and a period of sustained pressure. Well, not anymore. Now, upon losing the ball United look to win it back immediately by pressing the opposition player in possession. United are winning the ball back quickly and often in advanced positions. This, together with an emphasis on ball retention via quick early passing has led to our possession percentage has gone up.
This means that United are now a more significant threat to the opposition in transition; that moment immediately after winning the ball. On several occasions on regaining position in high areas, and with the opposition momentarily out of position, United have created significant quality goal-scoring chances, a number resulting in goals.
In the World Cup as Holland’s manager, van Gaal deployed his team to press man for man down the middle of the pitch with midfield players pressing their direct opposite midfield player. So far United have employed a similar approach. Pressing, then, is not necessarily employed as a co-ordinated team tactic, but is more opportunistic. Generally this has worked quite well, so it will be interesting to see whether in time United move towards employing a more co-ordinated team press. To do this the team will need to become more accomplished at controlling space; currently players pressing the ball can be assured that his teammates can cover the space behind him. If everybody presses the team has to move as one in a co-ordinated manner to ensure that the press is effective whilst team shape is maintained and space is controlled. This will take some time.
Our new defence has done relatively well in pre-season, certainly in terms of goals conceded, but there have been occasions when we have appeared uncomfortable with a back three. Of course all the players are still learning this system so we have to give them a little time to get used to what is now expected of them. There are a number of emerging issues, however, which United will need to address if a three man system is to be viable.
A general principle of defending is to have a one more defender than the opposition has attackers. As such a three man defence works well against a two man attack, but can struggle against a three man attack. That has been United’s experience thus far. We saw this against Roma and again in a slightly different situation against Liverpool. The key to addressing this issue is the relationship between the outside defenders and the wingbacks.
Against Roma, United faced a central striker who sat on the shoulder of the middle attacker and looked to run behind him. With a three man defence the usual strategy is to maintain a high defensive line to ensure there is little space between the back three and the midfield. This leaves space behind the defence which can be exploited by fast attackers. To supplement this threat Roma pushed their other two attackers wide in an attempt to drag United’s outside backs away from the central back. This would leave the central striker one on one with the centre defender. Roma hit long passes over the top of United’s defence for the central striker to pursue. United were lucky not to concede to this tactic. In this situation the wingbacks need to drop deep to cover wide areas, allowing the defensive three to stay compact. After a shaky start against Roma, United’s wingbacks did this in the second half, but it is a lesson the team needs to learn.
The story against Liverpool was slightly different. Liverpool attacked with a front three, all of whom pressed high. Inter did something similar earlier in the tour and United struggled to get their passing game moving. Often in this situation Liverpool were able to win the ball in high positions and from those transitions created a number of good goal-scoring chances. The solution to this problem is better positioning from the wingbacks. They need to drop deep to receive the ball in wide areas and then move the ball forward through the wide channels or, if they are able, stretch out the opposition’s attacking three and re-circulate the ball to the middle from where it can be moved forward towards the central midfield players. This is all about beating the opposition’s press of course, which is harder to do if you are trying to press high yourself. If everybody comes deep you invite the opposition’s midfield to press as well, which makes it harder to pass your way out. Van Gaal faced this issue in Holland’s game against Chile in the World Cup. This was a game which Holland needed only to draw in order to progress, so rather than press high Holland sat deep and waited for Chile to wilt in the heat. In English conditions the alternative strategy would be to change to a 4-3-3 and match the opposition’s shape.
The other issue is the depth of our defensive resources. Currently we only have three central defenders with significant first team experience, two of whom are essentially right sided players. On tour United supplemented these with two youngsters, Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett. They did well but even so it appears to be asking too much of Evans, Jones and Smalling to play as a defensive three over the course of the season with such inexperienced back up. Injuries, suspensions, fatigue and loss of form will take their toll over the course of a 38 game season so United really need to sign at least one experienced left sided central defender if they are to play a predominantly three man defensive game plan. We would also suggest that they need to sign one, possibly two players with previous experience of playing as a wingback.
In conclusion United have had a good pre-season and have made progress towards learning a new tactical formation. There is still much to do, though, so we should not get ahead of ourselves in our expectations of the year ahead. Only time will tell whether we have come far enough yet with the new formation for it to be a success in competitive domestic fixtures. At the moment, we would suggest that we could come unstuck against the very best sides in competitive games, so unless we sign additional resources before the end of the transfer window van Gaal may need to revert to an alternative shape in certain fixtures. The start of the season sees United play a number of fixtures against newly promoted sides and teams whom a good confident United side would usually expect to beat, so we would expect the 3-4-1-2 experiment to continue over the coming weeks.
One thing is certain, we live in interesting times. United fans can look forward to high tempo attacking football in the year ahead.