Since the New Year there have been lots of discussions about Manchester United’s style of play and Louis Van Gaal’s tactics. Both results and performances have been mixed over this period and the criticism is no longer focused on their defending. Statistics show United have one of the best defences in the League in terms of goals and shots conceded per game, so clearly the Reds aren’t shooting themselves in the foot so often these days.
The biggest issue now is a lack of creativity and a painfully slow tempo. Van Gaal’s insistence on a 3-5-2 has irritated many supporters, who would rather the extra centre back was removed in favour of a midfielder. To be fair, he’s now stated his intention to play this way but it remains to be seen whether it’s a permanent change. After starting the season with a 3-5-2, he played eight of the next nine games with a flat back four, then nine of the next ten with a back three again, so it’s difficult to predict. Clearly the Dutchman is still trying to strike a balance between avoiding the boredom of recent games and the twitching backside of a few months ago.
But one thing that would make the 3-5-2 better is more positive distribution from the back. Far too often, teams mark United’s midfielders and allow the defenders the ball, knowing they won’t do much with it. The exceptions were Arsenal and Yeovil who intensely pressed the trio, instead causing them to panic.
In a back four, the central defenders usually have an easy out ball to a full back, but in a back three this is less likely. There are no full backs; rather wing backs who push high up the pitch, so there is a real need for at least one of the central defenders to be proactive. They need to initiate attacks and have the confidence to become an extra midfielder, rather than passing the ball between themselves and/or giving it away.
Once upon a time, when being a United supporter was slightly less stressful, you would have said Jonny Evans was an excellent ball player and most suited to this system, but he’s now the most nervous. Chris Smalling has always been the least gifted on the ball while Phil Jones possesses good drive but is only a marginally better passer than Smalling. The most comfortable on the ball has been Marcus Rojo, possibly due to his experience as a full back.
There is somebody else though who can play in defence, and is arguably the most comfortable on the ball in the entire squad. The currently injured Michael Carrick has played 90 minutes in the back three only once this season, against Liverpool, but he could well be the solution to United’s problems. He plays with composure and begins attacks exactly as Van Gaal would want. His ability to step into midfield could create another triangle, and means that the attack minded midfielder in front of him – say Wayne Rooney or Ander Herrera – can lose the shackles and push on a little more.
Against Liverpool, Wayne Rooney spent less time in his own third, with under 16% of his actions coming there. This was potentially down to Carrick’s presence in the back three, meaning Rooney was free to push forward a bit more.
In contrast, the game at Spurs, where Carrick wasn’t in the back three, saw Rooney forced a lot deeper to pick up the ball – over 33% of his actions came in his third. This indicates a lack of confidence in the defenders to kickstart attacks.
Defensively, Carrick’s reading of the game means he’s rarely caught out of position and he brings a quiet authority to a back line lacking leaders. He’s previously played in a conventional back four with just one partner, but as he lacks pace and power he was sometimes exposed in one on one or physical situations. However this system is perfect for him – with two defenders either side he has enough protection and is unlikely to be left isolated, allowing him to mop up where needed. As an important bonus, he is also two footed so can switch play to either side with ease.
Much like Danny Blind or Rijkaard did in Van Gaal’s great Ajax side, Carrick has both the defensive and attacking tools you’d want for somebody playing as a spare man – this isn’t something you can say about anybody else in the squad.
Ajax under van Gaal in the mid-90’s – Blind or Rijkaard would step out from the back
The issue with him moving to defence of course is that it takes him away from his deep midfield role. Along with the 90 minutes against Liverpool, Carrick also spent the last hour back there away at Southampton and Manchester City. On all three occasions, Marouane Fellaini took over in the deep role, where quite frankly he is a bit of a liability. He’s excelled when played higher up the pitch, closing down the opposition and getting into goal-scoring positions. But as he showed last season, he doesn’t have the technical ability or fleet of foot to play in front of his defence, so his struggles in those matches were as unsurprising as hearing the word ‘philosophy’ in a Van Gaal press conference.
The big difference now though is that Daley Blind is fit. He may not be an exact clone of Carrick but he’s the closest United have, and there’s every chance he’s been bought as a long term replacement. In fact, the similarity between the two might be why they’ve not yet played in midfield together. Van Gaal would rather play others alongside Carrick, which is a sign that he doesn’t want his midfielders to be too alike.
Like Carrick, Blind’s reading of the game and positional awareness is excellent, and he rarely gives the ball away. There has been criticism of his overly safe passing which he himself wants to improve; but with Carrick coming out from defence behind him, and two from Rooney, Herrera and Juan Mata alongside him, will this really be a big issue?
Carrick stepping out from the back to form a midfield diamond?
They say great teams are built from the back, and in Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 this doesn’t just mean their ability to shut out attacks. The tempo of United’s overall game also lays at the feet of the defenders, and at the moment they are slowing everything down. Carrick, so used to setting the tempo from midfield, may be the man who can quicken things up.
In any case, it’s something we won’t see for a while due to his injury and Van Gaal’s move to a 4-4-2, but past history suggests that the experimenting isn’t over.
This piece was written by Nilesh Pandey. Follow him on twitter @NileshP7