After the Southampton game and on the back of five consecutive victories United now find themselves in third place. The consistency of results has not been matched by a consistency of performances and in several games United have clearly ridden their luck. There is a general sense amongst fans that we are moving in the right direction however, and that is based on more than results. Belief in van Gaal appears to be growing.

Team shape

Over the season there has been a logical progression in terms of team shape and van Gaal has explained his thinking. You would have to go back over his selections and press conferences to follow the logic of that progression and that is something that the press seem unprepared to do. They would rather characterise van Gaal as a manager stumbling around looking for a magic formula. We don’t intend to look at that logical progression at length here; that is for another day. But we would make two points.

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Firstly none of us know to what extent team shape has changed game to game because of necessity based upon player availability, (with injuries and suspensions having a major impact on United’s season so far). This factor has had some effect though.

Secondly United still possess an unbalanced squad and this has also had an effect on strategy. Van Gaal clearly wants to play two central forwards wherever possible. At the outset he made comment about the number of forwards and number 10’s in his squad and although he has made some adjustments this is still the case. This desire to play two at the front appears a significant driver; the three man defence and the 4-4-2 diamond shape, whether flattened out or not, allow this and they are almost certainly preferred strategies for this reason.

A three man defence on the road and a four man defence at home

Since the last international break United have played two away games and two home games. In both away games they have set up with a three man defence supplemented by wingbacks whilst in both home games they have set up with a four man defence. What does this tell us?

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United’s shape against Arsenal (A), Hull City (H) and Stoke City (H)

What is clear is that changes in strategy recently have been motivated to some extent by a need to tight things up. United played a 4-4-2 diamond for a while but were unable to control the game for a whole match using this strategy and were vulnerable to counter attacks, (the Leicester and to a lesser extent West Bromwich Albion games were a demonstration of that). The 4-1-3-2 seen against Hull is a flattened form of this shape and whilst Hull didn’t offer much going forward it seemed to give greater security to the defence, (you could argue that the return of Michael Carrick was as significant a factor; and we will shortly), but it was also used against the more expansive Stoke City and served United well in that game. This may be van Gaal’s preferred approach in home games, especially against teams he believes he can dominate.

In the last two away games we have seen a different approach. This could be because those games have been against accomplished teams who were both above United in the table at the time of the fixture. Many commentators have criticised the use of the three at the back strategy, with Kevin Garside in “the independent” describing van Gaal as having a “mad obsession with three at the back” even going as far as to state that Van Gaal is the only man who sees value in the approach. That is over stating the issue but its use does need to be questioned. The approach allows van Gaal to play two strikers whilst also playing two deep midfield players to protect the defence. It didn’t work in the opening twenty-five minutes at Arsenal and it didn’t work at all at Southampton where United ended up only playing one screening midfield player, (Fellaini in the second half after Carrick dropped back), and two more advanced midfield players, (Mata and Herrera). Would the system work with Carrick and Blind as the screening players? No doubt we will find out at some point, but for now it appears the use of this system is a preference in a tough away game where a counter-attacking strategy is to be deployed.

Defensive performance

There has been a lot of focus on the side’s defensive performance as well as defensive strategy this season. Concerns are justified but statistically at least things aren’t as bad as they seem. United have conceded 17 goals in 15 games, but that includes conceding 5 in a single game at Leicester. If you took that game away the return would be 12 goals conceded in 14 games. The lowest number conceded by anybody this year is 12, (by Southampton), so seen in that light things don’t appear to be that bad. Of course they are and we can’t take the Leicester game away so we need to look more closely at why United’s defence has been so heavily criticised.

We have previously set out that United are learning a new defensive strategy this year based upon possession and a high line rather than two banks of four. United have also suffered many of their injuries to central defenders resulting in ever changing central defensive combinations. But the fact that United’s have focused on possession based football only further highlights the issue. In some games United have enjoyed over 70% of possession and have regularly enjoyed over 60%. This means that teams are hurting United at the back with a minimal number of opportunities to do so.

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But actually United’s weakness is in the transition, or put it another way the moments just after losing possession. Against Southampton United were successful is 100% of their clearances, (33 out of 33) and 100% of their headed clearances, (17 out of 17), but they still conceded. The problem is when the defenders or players in front of the defence loose the ball and colleagues are caught out of position. Southampton’s goal came from Fellaini loosing the ball with a misplaced pass and all Southampton’s chances in the game came after similar turnovers of possession. It is for this very reason that over and over again after matches van Gaal has made reference to giving the ball away too frequently when United have struggled in games. When it comes to backs-to-the wall defending we are usually okay and have regularly held on to see out wins in recent weeks, the problems come when we have the ball.

To overcome this good movement off the ball is required; players need to be brave to present passing options to colleagues. Bravery relies on confidence, which we have seen in home games and after Monday’s game van Gaal identified that this confidence is there in training but not necessarily in matches.

A lack of pace

With Angel di Maria having missed the last two matches and most of the previous game United have looked a little short of pace. At Southampton this was undoubtedly one of the reasons for our poor performance as if you are utilising what is essentially a counter attacking approach pace is a necessity. It may be that others could provide this pace, (Falcao when fit or Januzaj), but currently we look over reliant upon di Maria to provide it. Of course the ball can move faster than the man, but a sudden change of pace and a quick repositioning can open space and disturb even a well organised back line. United have coped with di Maria’s absence, but his return would be welcomed.

Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini

One player whose return has already been welcomed is Michael Carrick’s. In one of his first press conferences at the club van Gaal bemoaned the injury sustained by Carrick as a big blow, coming as it did right at the start of the new manager’s tenure. Recent games have highlighted how much he has been missed and just how much of a van Gaal type player Carrick is.

A thoughtful and considered passer, Carrick has good positional sense and passing accuracy. He keeps things moving with simple passes occasionally contrasted with a more expansive pass. His current pass completion rate this season across all games played is 90% and 71% of his passes have been forward passes. This is broadly similar to Blind who seems to be in direct competition for the defensive midfield anchor role but compares very favourably with Fellaini who fulfilled that role in the second half against Southampton. Fellaini has a pass completion rate of 88% which is similar but only 51% of his passes are forward and Fellaini’s average pass distance is 16 metres compared with Carrick’s 19.3 metres.

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These stats are one of the reason’s he struggled in the Southampton game. Southampton is a team that presses and short sideways and backwards passes attract pressure. It is no surprise that Fellaini struggled in this role at Southampton and it is no surprise that Carrick’s return from injury has coincided with a run of good results. Let’s hope we see Carrick return to his natural midfield anchor role soon.

Looking up

How good is the Premier League currently? The recent struggles of Premier League sides in the Champions League suggest that standards are currently not that high; only Chelsea have been consistently convincing in that competition. With United now in third place they are entitled to look upwards. At www.manutdtacics.com we have felt for a while that standards in the Premier League aren’t that high. The side that won the league in 2013 was probably the weakest United side to win that prize in the Premier League era and City relied on others slipping up on the two occasions they have triumphed.

Chelsea currently look the strongest side and they have consistently improved over the last two years. City are desperately hanging onto their coat tails and with an injury to Aguero the next month may be a challenge for them. Can United bridge that gap to the top two? It is too soon to say and currently they should concentrate on consolidating their position in the Champions League qualifying places. Until performances are consistent as well as results we should just remain cautiously optimistic.