Van Gaal has talked a lot about the balance of the side in press conferences recently and these statements allude to the balance between attack and defence and the need to retain control of the game. The popular view amongst many is that United now possess a threat going forward but are weak in defence. The underlying assumption here is that we need better defenders. This is probably true but it ignores the fact that it isn’t only the defenders who defend and conversely it isn’t only the forwards who attack. The balance of the side depends on all areas of the team, but the area where balance is of absolute importance is in the midfield.
United’s midfield has been crying out for attention for a number of years of course. It isn’t that long ago that United fans were bemoaning the lack of midfield investment, but in the last fifteen months and depending on your view of Mata United have signed 5 midfield players, (Fellaini, Mata, Blind, Herrera and di Maria).
So where does that leave us?
Van Gaal’s preference.
Louis van Gaal is known to favour a minimum of three players in central midfield at all times. In all the formations he has fielded this year he has stayed true to this preference. When we are referring to central midfield we need to be clear that we are talking about the middle of the field, and that means the middle in terms of both the length as well as the width of the pitch. This means that the number 10 is usually seen as a midfield player rather than a deep forward.
The United tradition of course has been to play with wingers and that has often meant only two central players. This caused United problems in Europe for many years. After defeat against Real Madrid in 2000 Sir Alex experimented with a three man midfield often comprising of Keane, Scholes and Veron. Wanting to retain width Sir Alex decided to go with a single striker, van Nistelrooy. This was of limited success, but it wasn’t the unmitigated disaster that many seem to remember. Veron isn’t seen as having been a success at United but it shouldn’t be forgotten that in his best year at United he was voted the Champions Leagues “Most Valuable Player” and after all the experiment was about overcoming the situation n Europe where teams overloaded United’s two man central midfield.
We digress slightly but the point is that to play three in central midfield you will have to make compromises elsewhere. At the start of the season van Gaal stated that our squad was unbalanced. His main criticisms were that we had too many strikers and too many number 10’s. He also made the point that we had no midfield ball winners. He then went on to say that with all those strikers he wanted to play two forwards. This was probably the reason he tried the three man defence; seeing it as a way to retain numbers in the centre of the pitch.
United v Swansea City, 16.08.2014 and United vs Queens Park Rangers, 14.09.2014
Van Gaal’s usual preference throughout his career has been for a defensive midfield player, a box-to-box midfield player and a classic number 10. His most commonly used shape this season is a 3-4-1-2 and that utilises a double pivot. But we have seen a whole range of experiments; a 4-4-2 with a diamond, a flirtation with a 4-1-4-1 and a flattened version of the 4-4-2 diamond which is more like 4-1-3-2. All these shapes retain a minimum of three players in the centre of the pitch.
United vs Crystal Palace, 08.11.2014 and United vs Hull City, 29.11.2014
That shape like the 4-4-2 diamond comprises a single defensive midfield player, two box to box players and a classic number 10. The key is that one of the two box-to-box players will always stay deeper than the other, although the one staying deeper will vary depending upon circumstances in the match at any particular time.
The question in terms of midfield balance then is who of the players available will fit each role.
The defensive midfield player
United would always play one defensive midfield player and even in systems where they employ two deep midfield players, a double pivot, one of them would tend to stay deeper whilst the other would tend towards the traits of a more box to box approach. One of the reasons that our team performed so poorly last season was that David Moyes asked both central midfield players to stay deep and this effectively gave the opposition a lot of space in the centre of the pitch. Van Gaal would never make that mistake.
This position seems like a straight choice between Michael Carrick or Daley Blind. Carrick of course has played this role for many years now whilst Blind is younger and newer to the side. It is tempting then to see this as the established players being challenged by the young pretender. A different reading of this would be of a younger player learning from the older man with a view to a succession in years to come. That would be our take on the situation.
Carrick is the master of this role due to his ability to read the game and this leads to an excellence at intercepting. What he doesn’t do so well is tackle, but in all honest you don’t want this player committing to tackles or chasing the ball as that will often leave the defence exposed. Carrick of course is also good with the ball at his feet and has a fine range of passing. Blind also reads the game well and is also a good interceptor. Where he appears better than Carrick is where he is pressed; then he is a cool customer whilst Carrick has often struggled in these situations. The area where Blind need to improve is in his passing range. He rarely gives the ball away but he himself has admitted that he too often takes the easy passing option; that’s no bad thing for a player operating in a team’s defensive third but doesn’t always help move the ball away from the danger area and can invite pressure. His other weakness is his pace. This isn’t a problem if he has read the game well and is in position, but if caught out of position he doesn’t easily recover.
We won’t say anymore about these players in this role here as we intend to undertake a more detailed comparison in another article.
Others players have used as a defensive midfield player by van Gaal, most notably Marouane Fellaini. But he has always featured in this role in tandem with another player; never as the sole defensive screen. Fellaini however has failed to convince with mistakes leading to a goal at Southampton and a number of clear cut chances conceded against Liverpool. There has been much made of Fellaini’s improvement this season and not unreasonably, but the improvements have generally been when he has played higher up the pitch, closer to the position from which he always seemed to cause United problems when playing for Everton.
Playing a deeper more defensive role seems to focus attention on his weaknesses; he plays too many shorter and squarer passes, he is cumbersome and often appears slow. His physical size and strength may cause defenders problems higher up the pitch but close to his own box they often result in him conceding possession and/or free-kicks. His pass completion rate is good, but how often do the players he passes to then loose the ball?
The Box-to-Box Midfield Player
United have a number of players who can play this role, some are more attack minded, others defensive. These players provide a large part of the midfield balance and the link within the midfield between the defensive screen(s) and the more attack minded number 10’s.
Having considered Fellaini’s shortcomings as a defensive midfield player it seems only fair that we take a look at Fellaini in this role to which he is certainly better suited. He has played as a box-to-box player in a number of games recently and has provided the balance to the midfield in doing so which has seen an upturn in United’s fortunes and resulted in a run of victories.
The upturn in Fellaini’s form is usually dated to the game at West Bromwich Albion where he was introduced as a second half substitute. This was the first game after an international break and prior to that break United had been playing a 4-4-2 diamond shape with two box-to-box players, usually Herrera and Di Maria. United were having problems with this shape in that teams were often getting behind the box-to-box players making United look wide open. As a consequence United were struggling to control games for 90 minutes, with the defeat at Leicester being the classic example.
At this time with Carrick injured Blind was playing as the defensive screen. The problem here is that none of these three players, Blind, Herrera and Di Maria are physically imposing, (Herrera is perhaps the most combative being terrier like), and United were getting muscled out of the game as the opposition asserted themselves in the centre of the park.
At West Bromwich Albion, Di Maria was being played in a higher wider position with Mata and Herrera playing as the box-to-box players ahead of Blind. Enter the physical presence of Fellaini at half time, who not only stiffened up the midfield resolve but scored within minutes. Did van Gaal learn a lesson here? In the English league a midfield needs a robust presence to stand up to the typical physicality of English opponents. Is Fellaini the only midfield player who can provide this?
The only other players at the club who seems close to providing these qualities are Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher. Perhaps this is the reason van Gaal has deployed Rooney as a midfield player recently? If Herrera is terrier like Rooney is Bulldog like. Short and stocky in build but strong with a determined competitive spirit. Fletcher hasn’t really established himself since his return from illness, but it was interesting that when Fellaini was ill ahead of the Aston Villa game van Gaal turned to him, presumably in attempt to ensure that midfield robustness was maintained in that game.
This type of robust competitive player has been a missing ingredient at United for a number of years and is perhaps the reason why we think that van Gaal’s first priority when he next enters the transfer market might be a more robust box-to-box player ahead of a top class central defender. Rooney’s qualities are perhaps better suited elsewhere and questions remain about just how good Fellaini actually is. Kevin Strootman?
Amongst other qualities required in this type of player is mobility and creativity. The other players who have fulfilled this role this year, usually Herrera and Di Maria have this in spades. In fact Di Maria is the only established player who can deliver the sort of pace that will make sides instinctively take a step back.
The Number 10
This looks like a straight choice between two players; Rooney and Mata, but actually whilst they are the clear favourites other players merit consideration. Last year we wrote a piece about United’s surfeit of Number 10, but since then things have changed with Kagawa and Welbeck, (who occasionally played as a number 10), both leaving the club.
Rooney and Mata both bring slightly different things to the role and a choice between the two will inevitably raise the old question of whether the number 10 is a deep lying forward or an advanced playmaking midfield player? Sir Alex always favoured the deep lying forward, but for van Gaal it isn’t quite so clear cut. To date van Gaal has played both players for a period as the number 10, but currently Mata appears the favourite with Rooney playing deeper. This is currently making sense because Rooney is a more robust presence and drives the team in the way that a box-to-box player should. This leaves Mata as a more static element behind the forwards to pick his passes and feed the movement of the forwards and Rooney himself arriving from deep.
Mata’s weakness is his lack of pace and his perceived inability to make a defensive contribution; perceived by Jose Mourinho that is who famously sold him for that very reason. In view of this it has been interesting to see Mata offering more in this role in recent weeks. Rooney’s weakness as a box-to-box midfield player is his ability to retain possession. Rooney has played most of his career as a forward and as such in the final third. Forwards tend to take more risks and so naturally loose the ball more often. A few weeks ago Rooney’s pass completion rate did not compare well with those of the other players operating in midfield, but in recent games it has improved so maybe he can lay this role freeing the Number 10 role for Mata. These improvements in both these players incidentally is an example of how a really good “trainer/coach” and his staff can make even genuinely good players better working with them over time on the training pitch.
So who are the other players who might fill the number 10 position? Ander Herrera occasionally played in this role for Athletic Bilbao whilst Marouane Fellaini played in this role for his former club and it is often suggested that Adnan Januzaj could play in this position. It doesn’t appear however that van Gaal considers that this is the best place for Ander Herrera and Januzaj is probably too inexperienced at this stage; he also appears to have a job on to secure any place in the side. So that leaves Fellaini.
Fellaini has been played in a high position in several games this year and his better performances have come when he has played just behind the forward line. In that position he has proved a real handful for opposition defences but these games have generally been when United have fielded one central striker and when Falcao, van Persie and Rooney are fit that is clearly not van Gaal’s preferred approach. If Fellaini is played in this area it does rather change the nature of the number 10 role. In this scenario he is really operating as a second, deep lying striker, a player who will drop deep to disrupt the opposition when they have the ball, but will pop-up in the box at key moments, often arriving late to great effect. Then he can utilize his strength and power in the air or his trademark ability to take a high ball on his chest, take it down and change the angle of the attack. He isn’t really the creative fulcrum of the team in the final third as you would expect a number 10 to be, but rather an irritant whose nuisance value disturbs defences.
The choice for the number 10 then appears to be between Rooney and Mata.
So we return to the issue of balance. Classically a midfield needs robustness, (and that means a degree of physicality) to ensure defensive stability, creativity as well as an ability to control possession and the tempo of the game. But it also needs pace.
In appeared that for a while recently van Gaal had settled on a combination of Carrick as the defensive midfield player, Rooney as the box-to-box element and Mata as the number 10. Prior to this Fellaini was lending the necessary robustness, but effectively van Gaal turned to Rooney to provide this. The midfield had a more solid look about it, in part due to Rooney’s robustness, but perhaps also due to Carrick’s defensive nous; Mata is also contributing more in this respect. This midfield has also managed to retain possession fairly well with Rooney’s pass completion rate improving significantly in recent games as he begins to develop a midfielder player’s mentality. The areas where the balance is currently not quite right is in terms of creativity and pace. In some respects these go hand in hand as a change of pace can be crucial at key moments to open spaces. The problem here is that Carrick, Rooney and Mata are all a bit one paced and ahead of them neither Falcao and van Persie are not providing this either.
In this context the return from injury of di Maria at Yeovil is interesting. Introduced after an hour it is fair to say that Yeovil were tiring after a concerted effort to press United up to this point in the match. But it is equally fair to say that without the threat of significant pace from midfield United had struggled to hurt Yeovil. Di Maria’s pace changed the game. It wasn’t just his burst for the last minute breakaway goal but the threat of his runs which both made Yeovil take a step back but also opened space for others. His reintroduction was into a midfield four rather than a three and the big questions for van Gaal now are will he favour a four, which role should di Maria best fulfil and how does he achieve the necessary robustness required in the Premier League when he accommodates di Maria in midfield? Only time will tell; but it appears that there is still a need to recruit another box-to-box option and perhaps one who has long specialised in this role.