We refer to our defensive problems as ongoing because they have been a consistent issue to date whatever defensive system United have employed this season. Issues around the defence are not new; we wrote about them last season, see our piece here: http://manutdtactics.com/?p=2210, and van Gaal seems to have identified concerns early in his time at the club if reports that in addition to the already signed Shaw he asked for an additional three new defenders are to be believed. He only got one new defender late in the transfer window of course; Marcos Rojo.
In our overview piece we made reference to the effect of injuries on performances and consequent results. There is no doubt that an ever changing back line has a significant impact upon understanding between players and defensive co-ordination, especially when a team is assimilating so many new players. But that should not be seen as an excuse, we feel that our defensive problems are as much due to other issues although a settled defence would no doubt see a general improvement.
Whilst United have employed a number of different team shapes and two clear defensive approaches we don’t want to focus on this issue in detail. Initially van Gaal favoured a defensive three with wing backs, but after the first few weeks of the season he has reverted to a four in a line defence, which now seems to be the default.
There is a more significant point that has to be made about defensive strategy and we feel this point is a more significant factor when reviewing United’s defensive problems thus far and that is that van Gaal is pursuing a radically different defensive strategy to that employed by David Moyes or Sir Alex in recent years. It will inevitably take the team time to learn that strategy and adapt.
So what is that strategy and how is it so different?
United under Sir Alex and David Moyes were essentially a counter-attacking side. They would defend deeply in two banks of four and await the opportunity to break quickly, often through fast wide players. This served Sir Alex well for many years, David Moyes less well as his side lacked the pace to counter-attack successfully. United were prepared to concede possession and often territory. For years United fans bemoaned the lack of a box-to-box ball winning midfield player, but with a counter-attacking approach the need for one was greatly reduced; United would sit deep and wait for the opportunity to break once the opposition had made a mistake and given the ball away.
In many ways van Gaal’s approach is the opposite of this. Where in the past United defended deep now he requires a high defensive line, where they would once wait for the opposition to give the ball away now they are required to press and win it back, preferably early and some distance from their own defensive third, where United would once concede possession they are now looking to dominate possession and control the game. So as well as integrating new players van Gaal needs the clubs existing players to learn the nuances of this different approach.
Naturally this will take time and as a consequence we have had to endure a few defensive errors. That United haven’t yet mastered this new approach is clear and in recent weeks we have seen van Gaal adapt his defensive approach slightly by changing to a 4-1-4-1 shape from which it is far easier to revert to two banks of four when necessary. This change of shape has tightened games up and in the managers own words allowed United to “close out the game” in the recent home win against Crystal Palace. It is unlikely that this will be van Gaal’s long term approach, it is not beyond the bounds of reason however to envisage United reverting to this approach in the final half hour of any game after another approach has seen the side create winning game situation.
This still begs the question why is the new approach so difficult to learn.
Playing with a high defensive line and a midfield press requires a high degree of co-ordination between players. Van Gaal is known to stress the importance of the “collectif”, it isn’t just about the defence but also the players in front of them, but each part of the team must work well together in a cohesive way. This is clearly going to be more difficult if the personnel are constantly changing. United just haven’t got there yet, it will simply take time and that timescale is being prolonged by injury and absence through suspension.
For this strategy to work a number of key factors are critical. Firstly defensive leadership is required. Defending is all about organisation and that organisation is significantly helped if the defence has a strong leader. This isn’t about “roll your sleeves up blood and guts” defending but defensive solidity is helped by that kind of resolve, rather it is about talking on the pitch. Someone in the defensive positions needs to take a lead to tell players around them to track a runner or push up five yards for example. At the moment United don’t seem to have such a player. Shaw is too young, Rafael does not have the gravitas and in truth this type of leadership should come from someone in the centre to be more effective. Who of the centre-backs can provide this? Rojo is new to the club and perhaps does not have the language skills yet to allow him to execute this task, he has also struggled himself since joining the club. McNair and Blackett are too young and inexperienced; Smalling and Jones whilst more experienced haven’t stepped up to the plate. Perhaps Evans seems the most likely, but he often seems too nice. He needs to be more unreasonable, more demanding to perform this role, and of course he has often been injured.
The second pre-requisite of the new strategy is a team that is able to press well. This is critical for any side defending with a high line to stop the opposition having time and space to hit the ball into the space behind the defence. Pressing is the tactics which perhaps takes the longest to learn as it requires the highest degree of co-ordination. The press needs to be co-ordinated so that you press as a unit. United have been more proactive in trying to win the ball back this season and they do now have the players to press well, but they again as with the defence need a leader in midfield who will direct operations. The midfield players need to understand when to press and when to drop off and maintain shape and critically when a number of players press the other players need to develop a sense of where they should be to plug the gaps and control the space created. This will require hours of training ground work especially as United have no tradition of playing a pressing game. Who leads the press, the defensive midfield pivot or a player further forward leading by example? This is an issue not yet fully resolved.
The other pre-requisite is players who are quick and comfortable in possession, (defenders and midfield players). United seem to have plenty of players with these qualities, but they do keep making critical mistakes. The Leciester game is the obvious example of this. Playing with a high line won’t work if you keep giving the ball away as it leaves the opposition with opportunities to run in behind. The high line may reduce the number of goal scoring opportunities the opposition get in and around your own box but when they do get chances they will generally be clearer cut often leaving the last defender exposed. How many United players have been sent-off because of this type of situation this year?
Van Gaal has bemoaned individual errors on more than one occasion and stated that “I think we have no problem when the opponent has the ball as we defend very good. Our problem is when we have the ball”. The problem is players loosing the ball and leaving their teammates exposed.
The other issue raised by many commentators and fans when considering squad strength this year is squad strength. Are the players good enough? We would say by and large yes although there are a couple of problem issues and areas to be considered.
We have already alluded to the need for a defensive leader and to this we can add the injury issue as there comes a point when if a player is injured so often you have to consider a permanent alternative. Jones, Smalling and Evans all have a case to answer here.
The areas of the defence where there appears to be an issue are the right-back slot where van Gaal doesn’t seem sure who he favours; Rafael or Valencia. Valencia has a tendency to be caught higher than the rest of the defence and so out of position. Rafael is just erratic, he can be excellent but he can also let you down by jumping in; his tackling is impetuous. The second area of concern is the left side of central defence. The recent injury to Rojo illustrates the thinness of the squad here. Blackett can play this role but it would be wrong to overburden him with responsibility at this stage of his carrier.
In addition to these defensive positions there still appears to be a need to strengthen the midfield with a particular type of strong box-to-box player. This might greatly benefit the defence, but we will consider midfield balance in our next Tactical Thought article.