Another international break, the third of the season so far provided another break in the club season and an opportunity after eleven league games and one Capital One Cup game to take a look at progress to date. We live in interesting times; results may have been mixed but we should relish this fascinating period in United post Sir Alex development and in terms of tactics the times are certainly very interesting. In this first look at the season so far we will take a general look at a number of themes. In articles to follow we will take a closer look at particular issues in slightly more detail.

Ever Changing Formations.

It is a curiosity of the season that every time we have had an international break Louis van Gaal has made a change to the United formation. At the outset and following on from the pre-season games United fielded three at the back as a 3-4-1-2 formation. At the time the stated rationale behind this approach was the inheritance of an unbalanced squad. This shape allowed the manager to play two forwards and a number ten and so accommodate van Persie, Rooney and Mata.

The first international break coincided with the end of the transfer window and the influx of four new players. Van Gaal then changed to a back four and a 4-4-2 diamond formation. This was the most fluid formation we have seen under van Gaal so far and allowed that he accommodate all the new players as well as Rooney and van Persie. United played some wonderful expansive and entertaining football using this shape. When Falcao was fit Mata dropped to the bench and Rooney slotted into the number ten role. The problem with this formation however was that United seemed to run out of steam in games as they passed the hour mark. The classic example of this was the Leicester game. With the game seemingly won United capitulated. The problem was that this shape left United wide open at the back and with a seemingly fragile defence this was a critical problem.

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United shape versus Swansea Cit (3-4-1-2), QPR (4-4-2 Diamond) and Crystal Palace (4-1-4-1)

Then came the second international break and upon resumption of domestic football a change to a 4-1-4-1 shape which transforms into a 4-3-3 when the team attacks. This ensures a greater degree of solidity but it also means only one place for a single striker. To date injuries have meant that this hasn’t been an issue and whilst results have been unspectacular, (one win, two draws and a defeat), United’s have looked less vulnerable in defence. Performances have been less entertaining as well and we have scored far fewer goals than we did with the diamond formation. A review of this return however should consider that two of the four games were against the top two teams in the country and in neither game did we look out of our depth, despite playing with ten men at City for almost an hour.

But what does all this mean long term and what does all this tell us about van Gaal’s tactical thinking? Perhaps not a lot about United’s long term tactical approach, but one thing we can say is that all the tactical changes were highly logical.

Logical thinking

The logic is fairly clear. Van Gaal started with a three man defence to try to get as many on the squads stronger attacking players into the team. United struggled to make the three centre back system work however; the centre backs were unused to the system and the club does not have any specialist wingbacks. Playing as a wingback is different from playing as a fullback. The wing back starts from a higher position and has to assess whether to move forward or back. The fullbacks default position is in defence from where he can see the whole field in front of him. From his default position he can more easily pick and choose when to make his forays forward. Everyone we played in those early weeks attacked with a front three and looked to attack the space behind the wingback pulling the centre backs apart.

With four new players signed towards the end of the transfer window is was logical to change formation to both address the problems associated with the three at the back approach whilst also integrate the new men. The choice of a 4-4-2 diamond was also logical; it retained the two up front whilst allowing a reversion to the four man defence. It also allowed free reign to Angel Di Maria to use his pace to full advantage. United had lacked pace in those early games as they did for most of last year. The change saw some of the most exhilarating football played by United sides for about five years but this system has no natural width and United found themselves exposed in games several times when teams counterattacked through the channels or with width, notably behind the Di Maria; the fullbacks were exposed. The other feature of this series of games was that United started strongly and then faded, they could not sustain control of the game for a full ninety minutes.

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So the change to a 4-1-4-1. As stated above this easily transformed into a 4-3-3 when United attacked with the wide men, (Di Maria and Januzaj) pushing forward. United are more solid using this shape as it allows a two banks of four defensive strategy when we don’t have the ball but a central passing triangle when we do have the ball. Our football however has been less thrilling. It is difficult to access just how well this shape can work for United because of both injuries and the nature of the opposition we have faced. We shouldn’t really make any assessment about our general level based upon back-to-back matches against first and second favourites for the title.

There are a couple of key points to make however. Firstly this shape utilizes only one main forward and so it employment suggests van Gaal has abandoned his desire to accommodate two forwards. He said in a press conference last week that he couldn’t currently accommodate Falcao using this tactic. Falcao is injured however and who knows when he returns van Gaal may revert to a diamond or an alternative strategy. Secondly it seems that this shape has been employed to provide greater defensive solidity. When players return from injury, (defenders and midfield players), he may determine that they can help provide a greater balance between defensive solidity and attacking verve and this may prompt a change of approach. This may equally apply if United strengthen either of these two areas in January.

Injuries

This subject has dominated the opening of every press conference. It has almost become a standing joke. You could add suspensions to injuries as United have had four players sent-off so far and suffered absences which have exacerbated injury woes. Nowhere has this been more evident than at the centre of defence. We won’t bother to list who has been absent and when, but with the use of two different defensive strategies and as a consequence of these absences United have fielded eleven different centre back combinations in 12 matches.

From a tactical point of view the consequences of this are that it makes it far more difficult for the manager to access the overall strength of the squad and develop a coherent tactical strategy. It also makes it very difficult for fans to read van Gaal medium/long term intentions. The changing formations may be as much to do with player availability as a search for a preferred approach.

Learning about English football

The danger with a new manager recruited from abroad, especially one with as big a reputation as van Gaal is that supporters expect instant success. They forget that the new man has to come to terms with both living and working in a new country. The critical issue here is adapting to the nature of the domestic English game. Van Gaal himself has alluded to this identifying that every team is competitive and that no one accepts defeat until the final whistle. This seems to have come as a surprise.

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Two other issues also seem relevant. The first is the physicality of the English game. The manager will have been aware of this from his previous experiences watching and pitting his whits against English opposition, but perhaps the fact that every single team adopts a greater level of physicality than in most continental leagues has been a surprise. The Premier league is also renowned for the pace of the game played and this is the other issue. During pre-season van Gaal made the point on several occasions that he was interested in training the brain as much as the bodies. In the light of the number of injuries experienced to date, and these two additional factors one can’t help but wonder whether the coaching staff has underestimated the level of physical strength and fitness required to compete week in week out in the Premier league?

Relations with Her Majesties Press

It was with great relish that the press greeted the three month anniversary of van Gaal taking over at United. With van Gaal having advised that his work would take time to yield fruit and having suggested that he should be judged after three months they needed no second invitation to make an assessment with many gleefully giving him a grade! Van Gaal is a strong character who doesn’t suffer fools; his press conferences have been fascinating to date as has been his thinly veiled contempt for any questions where he believes the answer to be self evident. What’s clear is that some in the press corps don’t really like van Gaal, (or at least his abrasive manner), and would love him to fail. What is also clear is that it has also taken some time for some people in the press to develop the ability to understand what van Gaal is saying. They understand the words of course but his use of the English language, his phrasing does seem to have caused misunderstandings on occasions.

Manchester United Press Conference

Van Gaal has told them that he is smart and on occasions he has shown some impatience with journalists asking the same question either from a different angle after he has batted it away or asking the same question from week to week. To date van Gaal has proved more than a match for the press and this is to be welcomed. A club like United need a manager who can stand up to journalists and will not allow them to set the agenda. Perhaps this was an area where David Moyes fell short; Sir Alex never did and van Gaal does not appear likely to fall short either.

So how is it going?    

Anybody making comparisons with last season, journalist or fan is missing the point. Look at the quality of the players van Gaal has let go and the quality of the players he has brought in. Van Gaal has tried three different tactical strategies to date and may well try more. What we know is that here is a manager who is bold; he has the courage of his convictions and is not afraid to make necessary changes in pursuit of a long term aim. We don’t know what has motivated the use of different team shapes; this could be a search for an appropriate long term strategy or a short term attempt to mask pre-existing areas of weakness. We don’t know how his team would have developed with a shorter injury list or whether this would have significantly altered tactics.

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What we do know is that there is a sense of optimism around United brought about by van Gaal’s boldness. United fans feel that however slowly we are moving in the right direction. We live in interesting times.

In an article to follow we will look at the issue of our ongoing defensive problems and in a third article the issue of midfield balance.