“People criticised me because I played with three at the back, but those criticisms were really ridiculous; what we did was fill the zones on the field where the game required it. If the opponent played with two up front, which was common then, and my team went out with four defenders, I had one too many, so I moved him towards the midfield.” – Johan Cruyff, talking about Barcelona’s use of three at the back during his time as their manager.
To date van Gaal has set up his United side to play with a back three in every game but one. That one game was our first win of the season against QPR and this has led many to suggest that the three man defence has been at the core of our early season problems. This seems a little simplistic. Yes, United have struggled with a back three, but they have also struggled to adapt to the van Gaal philosophy.
In understanding van Gaal it is important to consider the distinction in his mind between his philosophy and a tactical approach or strategy. It is clear that many football journalists are struggling with this distinction as evidenced by their questions at the manager’s weekly press conferences. In this forum the manager is regularly asked to explain his philosophy to which he responds that that would take several hours and in a press conference he hasn’t got time. Then he gets a question about whether he ever doubts himself and whether he will ever consider changing his philosophy. Again the answer is “no,” but reading between the lines it appears that the journalists are actually asking him whether he will ever consider changing his tactical strategy. In other words will he vary from playing three at the back in view of United’s early season woes? Van Gaal answers the question they have asked rather than the question they think they have asked. Confusion reigns.
It is critical to distinguish between the manager’s philosophy and his tactical approach. Van Gaal is a logical pragmatist who varies his tactical approach. Traditionally he has used a 4-3-3/3-4-3 but he has used a 4-4-2 based system in the past. More recently at the World Cup he used the 3-4-1-2 system that he has since employed in his early games at United. Van Gaal will change systems to suit the players available and in order to win. He will not change his philosophy or football credo; he will always believe in certain football principles that are part of his football DNA.
So what are these principles?
In very simple terms van Gaal likes his team to play a possession- based, attacking game. To him, the principle is that if you have the ball the opposition cannot score. Control possession, control the game and control the result. But possession must be purposeful rather than sterile. As such, he wants his teams to be bold and aggressive. He believes that if you are not positive in an attacking sense you surrender the initiative and invite the opposition to take the ball.
He expects the players to apply their talents in a co-ordinated, collective way. The team ethic is everything. Van Gaal wants good all round footballers to execute his tactical plans. He expects all players to be at least excellent in respect of the basic skills. They should be able to pass well, head the ball well, shoot well, tackle, and be quick. They must also have good game intelligence and a strong positional sense.
The fact that van Gaal wants United to dominate possession means that defenders need to be adept at playing the ball out from the back. United’s possession statistics have generally been pretty good since van Gaal took charge, but before the QPR game much of that possession has been fairly sterile. One of the differences against QPR was the movement of players off the ball which helped United’s defenders to move the ball out from the back far more effectively. At the same time, Daley Blind, playing almost as one of the defenders, was always available to receive the ball. These factors, rather than a change from a three to a four at the back made the critical difference.
Moving the ball out from the back is made significantly easier if the quality of movement both on and off the ball is improved. Movement disturbs the opposition; runs off the ball need to be covered and the defending side needs to adjust to address the changing position of the man on the ball when he runs with it. Quite simply, these readjustments make it harder for the opposition to retain their preferred defensive shape – if they lose that, spaces will open. If the movement and passing are executed at pace, either bigger gaps will open or smaller gaps can be more readily exploited. Multiple movements quite simply multiply the range of passing options which makes it harder for the opposition to second guess where the ball will move; again this makes it harder to retain defensive space. All this movement needs to be intelligent, and that means offering a passing line to the man on the ball. Ideally, both the man off the ball and the man on the ball should move to create the passing lane. This needs players who are thinking on the same wavelength. Obviously with so many new players, this might take some time at United.
The second phase movement is also critical; that means that when one player moves to receive the pass another player moves to receive a pass from the player about to receive the ball. This is perhaps one of the most important factors, for without it, the player receiving the ball may only have the option of a return pass and we are back to square one. In this instance the objective of moving the ball up field towards the attacking zone has not been achieved. If this situation endures for even a short period of time, the defending team will tend to press higher and might win the ball closer to our own goal. We have seen that a few times lately.
In this area of his philosophy, the importance of van Gaal’s emphasis on the team collective can be seen. With all this movement players need to move in a co-ordinated way to ensure that the basic team shape is maintained. Against QPR this worked particularly well on the left hand side and in the centre of midfield; on the left Rojo and Di Maria covered each other whilst in the middle Blind and Herrera dovetailed.
Finally, the passing should be intelligent. Pass into space around the player receiving the ball in a way that stretches the play and opens up a forward movement. If a pass is played directly to a player’s feet, one who is often facing his own goal, then it is so much easier for the opposition to close that player down. On receiving the ball he has no momentum and has to get the ball out of his feet as he receives it. If it is in front of him and the position of the ball means that he naturally has to move towards the opposition’s goal to receive the ball, he has momentum and the natural inclination of many defending players is to take a step back so giving the player receiving the ball a little more time.
All of these factors are significant parts of the van Gaal philosophy, whatever team shape is selected. What they require is confidence and bravery which go hand in hand. At the moment United’s squad is still getting to know one another and learning the new manger’s methods, so confidence and bravery are not quite there yet, but they will come via results as the team adjust. We certainly saw significant improvement in all these factors in the game against QPR. But we should be clear: it is philosophy he is asking his players to learn. The tactical strategy or system is a different thing and might vary from time to time.