There has been some disquiet amongst United fans after the last couple of game. United fans like to be entertained and like attacking football; chances galore and hopefully goals. The disquiet has focused upon the issue of formation with fans chanting 4-4-2 in the game against Queens Park Rangers and chanting “Attack! Attack!…Attack Attack Attack!” during earlier games. In the home game against Southampton United had a grand total of zero shots on target over the 90 minutes and whilst on Saturday at QPR United managed to create eight chances only three of those came before United reverted to a 4-4-2 formation.
As fans we are all entitled to opinions but the manager lives and dies by his decisions, whether they be about selection, transfers or formations, that principle also applies to a “trainer-coach” and as frustrating as it might be to some fans it appears that van Gaal will not be swayed by fan opinions. His statement post match was quite clear,
“I know in advance that when we play with four midfielders in a diamond that we create more chances, but then the balance of the team is also weak.”
He could have added the words “with the current players available to me”. By this statement we take to mean that the balance between chance creation and chances conceded is not too his liking. This is a reasonable point; when United have played with a diamond they have looked vulnerable and when di Maria has played they have looked especially vulnerable when teams have attacked the space behind him, (notably at Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion). Van Gaal is also right when he points out that when using the three at the back strategy with two strikers there have been a number of occasions when we have created plenty of chances, (the example he cited was the first half against Tottenham, but there has been other occasions as well).
The critical point is that chance creation has dropped off in recent weeks and if you look closely at the team shape and who played where in the last couple of games that may reveal the reason for this problem.
Strategy and Team shape
Firstly the three at the back strategy used in the last couple of games is not the strategy used earlier in the season. Then the shape was a 3-4-1-2, now the shape has become a 3-3-2-2. This is quite significant as it creates a box in attack. Compare the principle of the two formations in the chalkboards below. In the first formation the team has two deeper central midfield players with a number 10 ahead situated behind the strikers. The shape triangulates nicely and during the attacking phase the number ten can run between and beyond the two strikers who have the opportunity to split wide. In the second formation the deep midfield comprises a central defensive midfield player flanked by the wingbacks. Ahead of them sit two advanced midfield player. The deep midfield players and the advanced midfield players triangulate well and this can result in plenty of possession, but critically that possession is in deep areas. Does this ring any bells?
An early season 3-4-1-2 and the 3-3-2-2 formation from the southampton game
The issue is the lack of triangulation between the advanced midfield players and the forwards. The relationship is the aforementioned box with no triangulation. If the advanced midfield players push forward they tend to run into the space occupied by the strikers rather than between or past them. The shape is just too boxy and the result is the creation of a minimal amount of chances.
To overcome this one of two things has to happen, either the strikers need to start moving wide to create space for the advanced midfield players to run into or the advanced midfield players need to start wider, (which would leave the side vulnerable through the middle). If the striker move wide the opposition’s central defenders have to decide whether to go with them and leave space through the middle or stay in position waiting to pick up the advanced midfield players. Asking that question of the opposition would at least be a start because currently it is too easy for our opponents; the central defenders pick up our strikers whilst the oppositions deep midfield players pick up our advanced midfield player. They effectively go man for man which is what both Southampton and Queens Park Rangers did.
The forwards moving wider and a player running between them centrally incidentally was something that was happening earlier in the season when United’s shape was a 3-4-1-2 and Mata played behind Rooney and van Persie.
You can look at this in another way; consider a classic 4-3-3 shape. Again the key point is the triangulation between the midfield and the lone forward. The midfield comprises a defensive midfield player with two other midfield players ahead of him forming a triangle. The front line comprises a central striker with two wide players. The critical point is that the two more advanced midfield players can run forward in the “half spaces”, the inside channels on either side of the striker. This brings us to a point that needs to be made after the last couple of games. We have a player who is ideally suited to that role in the half-spaces – di Maria!
Who plays where?
In the last couple of matches upon his return from an injury lay-off van Gaal has chosen to play di Maria as a forward. This doesn’t seem to suit the player. Naturally di Maria likes to receive the ball on the half turn with space ahead to run into. Starting in a higher position he has less space to run into; quite simply he runs out of pitch. The other problem with di Maria playing so high is that his involvement in the game is minimised and in view of the fact that he is one of if not our best players that seems a waste. Against Southampton he had only 16 possessions of the ball. That is inevitable in a side that plays a possession based game as the side will only feed the ball through to the forwards at the optimum moment.
Consider the alternative of playing di Maria in a deeper position where he can work the half spaces. He receives the ball on the half turn, turns towards the opposition goal and begins to attack the space in front of him. He has three options, he can go outside and cross or come either inside or maintain his line with the goal. In both these last two options he potentially threatens the goal himself, (as he did to great effect at Leicester), and forces the opposition’s defenders and deep midfield players to make a decision. Do the midfield players track him back and leave space for others, do the defenders come forward to meet him and leave the forwards ahead of him free. These scenarios make the opposition make decisions, which as an attacking team is what you want.
If di Maria plays higher he is forced to face the play behind with his back to goal. The opposition can contain him simply by retaining their shape. When he does turn he has very little space to run into and United’s possession based game does not result in that many through balls from the deep for him to run onto anyway unless that is as the consequence of a breakaway. That happened at Yeovil, but ironically more accomplished Premiership sides are currently less likely to commit against United.
So why is van Gaal deploying di Maria in this position? We think there are two reasons. Firstly the aforementioned issue of teams attacking space behind di Maria. The further away from United’s game di Maria plays the less problem this is likely to be.
To play in a deeper position di Maria needs to be a secure option. That means giving the ball away less. Di Maria currently has a pass completion rate of 80%, which is the lowest of those players more regularly played in the centre of the pitch. That is to be expected as he is the player most likely to try to dribble past players. As can be seen from the comparison below di Maria is more likely to dribble past people than other players and is so more likely to lose the ball than others.
The second reason appears to be Rooney’s recent deployment as a midfield player. He has done fairly well in this role recently and looking at the pass completion percentage comparison Rooney is a more secure player to play in the deep than di Maria, but surely Rooney experience as a more advanced player is invaluable. Initially we believed that Rooney was being deployed deeper to create the opportunity for a striking partnership of Falcao and van Persie, but if either one or the other of these two is injured or not selected then by playing Rooney higher the opportunity is there to play di Maria deeper.
Van Gaal has constantly returned to the issue of balance in the side and perhaps this is the real issue here. If van Gaal would like to play di Maria deeper maybe the reason he is currently not prepared to do so is that he perceives that he needs a stronger more secure option as a partner for him. The lack of a solid box-to-box option means that he doesn’t have that at the moment. Without that perhaps he feels that his defence is left vulnerable and that area isn’t currently strong enough to cope.
It is all about balance, chances and goals determine results and the manager is in a position where he has to make the most of what he has got. We don’t feel we will see the formation he really wants to play until he has a more balanced squad and we don’t think he will see players played in the positions where he feels he can get the most out of them until then either. Until that time he has to make the most of the situation; make the most of what he has got.