There are many examples of new managers assessing players inherited from a previous regime and asking them to fulfil an alternative role or in fact buying a new player and asking them to do something different. The Dutch of course have a tradition of the “universal player”; the total footballer with a good basic range of skills who can turn his hand to the requirements of a number of positions. They are not unique in this, the utility player has for a long time been a feature of many football cultures, including the British, but the Dutch perhaps more than anyone have championed universality as a virtue.
It should be no surprise then that in his short time at United van Gaal has already experimented by playing a number of players in alternative positions. The advantage to him of this is that this gives him a greater range of strategic tactical options without having to expand his squad to unmanageable proportions.
In this piece we wish to look at four players who have been asked to fulfil alternative roles to that which are usually considered to be their own. In truth several of these players have played in these positions before van Gaal came to United, but usually as an emergency stop-gap measure. Van Gaal rather has chosen to play these players in these new roles and has done so on several occasions to make a particular strategy work.
The four players we wish to discuss are Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney.
Over the last few years Carrick has occasionally filled in as a centre back when United have suffered a number of injuries to centre backs. On these occasions he has been asked to form part of a back four. The difference this year is that he has been asked to take on the role of the central player in a back three.
Prior to the start of this season we identified Carrick as key player for van Gaal and suggested that he may be utilized as a ball playing central defender. Whenever we have made this suggesting we receive feedback to the effect that we are being silly and Carrick is a midfield player. “He can’t defend!” This seems to miss the point that he is a defensive midfield player who for many years under Sir Alex and David Moyes has operated as the deeper and more defensive of the two pivots. Carrick can defend, but what he doesn’t do especially well is tackle. Carrick’s strength is that he reads the ball well, makes a good number of interceptions and has a good range of passing which ensures that he is a valuable asset passing the ball from the deep and so starting moves from the back.
Putting aside his tackling ability the other perceived weakness in his game is when he is pressed. Over the years teams have unsettled him when they have got “in his face”, but as he has become a more experienced player he has improved in this respect.
Carrick against Liverpool and against Hull City
Carrick is still well suited to operating as a defensive midfield screen in front of the back four, but if you consider all his qualities he is also well suited to the role of the middle player in a back three. In that situation the other two players operate as the markers picking up the oppositions and making the vast majority of defensive tackles. This leaves Carrick as the spare man to direct their movements, read the game, make interceptions and pick up loose balls. From there when United get the ball the two markers generally spread wide to stretch the opposition leaving Carrick in the middle as the fulcrum of the team as they start to pass out from the back. Carrick is currently doing just this anyway when United play with a back four as in that scenario he will drop deep between the two centre backs from a higher starting position at the base of the midfield.
Perhaps van Gaal sees Carrick in this role as the key to the success of a back three strategy and perhaps it is one of the reasons he has persisted with that strategy despite early problems. Was he waiting Carrick’s return from injury to see him slot into this role/
Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young
United’s wide players, with the exception of the raw young talent of Adnan Januzaj had a pretty poor year last year. The nadir was the game against Fulham at home when aimless over hit cross after cross yielded very little. Valencia and Young were amongst those under performing wide players and going into this season their long term United future seemed in question. In truth neither player has really ever convinced the United faithful since their arrivals at the club.
It has been a feature of van Gaal approach this year that United, a club renowned for its reliance on width has played a number of systems which don’t rely on wide forwards for natural width. This seemed to suggest limited opportunities for both players, but van Gaal had other ideas from the very start of pre-season with both players being deployed almost exclusively as wing backs when United use a three man defence or as full backs when a flat back four is used.
Again as with Carrick, Antonio Valencia has been deployed as a full back in emergency positions in the past and as a more defensive winger, perhaps he is reasonably well suited to this role. With both players the concern is not their ability to get forward and support attacks but whether they a lack of defensive instinct. This doesn’t appear to be an issue for Valencia and after initial problems Young appears to have developed some defensive nous, (although we would expect Luke Shaw to take over on the left when he returns from injury).
A couple of features of both players games which seems to make them well suited to a wing back role are worth pointing out. Neither player is known for using trickery to beat a man as they advance. Valencia and to a lesser extent Young are players who power past people having built up some speed. They beat players with momentum; neither is particularly effective from a standing start. Advancing as a wing back rather than from a higher starting position allows both players the room to build up this momentum. Against Liverpool for example when Valencia ran to set up United’s first goal he had acres of space to build up speed as he beat the static Allen.
The other feature is a positional sense. Full backs tend to focus on looking across the line, (with a concern about the defences shape in catching opponents offside as well as staying in touch with centre-backs). From a full back position they can usually see the whole game in front of them as well and so judge from that starting point when to make their forays forward. A wing back naturally has a higher standing position so has to look across the line, forward and back when judging his position. They have to be aware of space all around them. This is a big difference and a former winger or more attacking player used to playing higher up the field more naturally has that ability.
Of the players considered here Wayne Rooney is the player who has previously be used in a wider variety of positions. Throughout his time at the club he has been asked to play in roles for the team to accommodate other players. Most notably in his early years in a wider role to accommodate Ronaldo.
This almost begs the question what is his best position? A couple of years ago he appeared likely to leave the club because his view of the answer to this question was at odds with that of the then manager. The next question is what has changed as in recent weeks he has played for van Gaal in a deep central midfield role, the very role he previously did not want to play? It appeared that last year Moyes massaged Rooney’s ego and van Gaal seems to have continued this policy. He has been made captain and the new manager has explained that this means that he is unique in that he will be selected for every game. In effect van Gaal has said to Rooney “you are my most important player and my leader on the pitch”. That sticks in the throat for some United fans who remember his two transfer requests but it has worked to the extent that he appears to be prepared to play in any number of roles and has generally played them all fairly well.
So far this year Rooney has played as a central striker as part of a pair, as a number 10, (although surprisingly rarely this season), and in recent weeks as a deeper midfield player, again as part of a pair. In all these positions what Rooney offers is energy, drive and aggression, (as well as no little skill and the ability to read a game). What he perhaps needs to develop to flourish in a deeper role is a greater ability to keep the ball, (in other words don’t take as many risks as a player operating in the final third would), and tactical discipline.
Tactical discipline has often been seen as Rooney’s Achilles Heel. He has been criticised for both club and country in the past for not sticking to the tactical plan, (for United famously in the 2011 Champions League Final). This is something van Gaal would always expect of a player, and to date it hasn’t been a problem this year.
Of course there are other players who we could have discussed in this piece. Fellaini, Rojo, Di Maria, Blind and Januzaj all immediately spring to mind as players asked to fulfil a variety of roles so far this season. What is clear is that van Gaal values flexibility and his deployment of players has not necessarily been a response to an injury crisis, but more probably a desire to develop the option of using a finite group of players to execute an infinite range of tactical strategies.