After a draw and disappointing performance on Sunday at West Ham and a victory but similarly disappointing performance against Burnley there has been some disquiet amongst many United fans regarding that and other recent displays, with some questioning the wisdom of strategies being employed by Louis van Gaal. Interestingly a few weeks ago all the talk was about how the van Gaal was persisting with a three at the back strategy when many fans felt it was self-evident that a 4-4-2 with a diamond was what was needed. At that time we at www.manutdtactics.com made the point that it was not just about team shape but about how that shape was used; a change of shape would not necessarily resolve the perceived problems.
Since then van Gaal has reverted to the 4-4-2 option but still the problems persist. As fans we have to accept that van Gaal knows a lot more about his squad than we do. That is inevitable as he works with them on the training ground every day. Nevertheless it is clear that United’s squad is still unbalanced and still a work in progress. Conventional wisdom is that we need a defensive leader and to generally improve the quality in the defence. Equally it is considered that we lack a driving force in the midfield; a box-to-box player. After the weekend much of the talk was about the balance of the attack. All these are issue worth considering but the twin issues of Tempo and width seem equally as important.
Last year under David Moyes a legitimate criticism of United was a lack of pace. We did not have players who could run with the ball and scare opponents by so doing. This no longer applies as we have added di Maria and promoted Wilson to the first team squad. But the Tempo of our play is still often too slow.
Tempo and pace are different of course. Pace is about more than being able to run quickly with the ball, tempo is about the general speed at which a team is able to circulate the ball. Van Gaal is known to be a manager who wants his team to dominate possession. The aim however isn’t just to control the game but to stretch the opposition with the intention of pulling them out of shape and then exploiting the spaces so created. If you don’t pass quickly you probably won’t pull teams out of shape because they will have enough time to close down spaces before you have had the opportunity to exploit them. This is exactly what has been happening this season all too frequently.
The question to ask is whether the current squad have the speed of thought, technical ability and vision to pass the ball quickly, retaining possession and creating space? It starts at the back, if the defenders coming forward do not move the ball quickly this will inevitably set a slow tempo as the ball is moved up the field. What is required is one and two touch football played bravely at pace. United’s possession statistics are good this year but maybe the price we are paying for those statistics is a slow tempo.
Van Gaal has experimented with team shape frequently but the two main shapes used have one thing in common; they are both narrow. In the 4-4-2 diamond the two outside midfield players operate in the “half spaces” but for real width the team relies upon full backs getting forward. In a 3 -4-1-2 shape the team relies upon the wing backs to provide width. This season the players who have fulfilled these roles most frequently have been Valencia and Rafael on the right and Shaw and Young on the left and the wide threat from these players have been fairly muted. The most threatening of these wide players has been Ashley Young, who has adapted well to the wing back role. Perhaps it is no coincidence his recent absence with injury has coincided with a number of performances where this lack of a wide threat has seemed most acute. Of the other players Shaw and Valencia have seemed reluctant to run beyond players and whilst Rafael rarely misses an opportunity to get forward he has only played 9 games and his form has been erratic.
Earlier in the season van Gaal stated that he did not feel that he could play a 4-3-3 because his squad lacked quality of attacking wide players. It is often suggested that Angel Di Maria is a winger. This misunderstands his role. If he is a winger he is an inverted winger; that is a winger who plays narrow. At Real Madrid he regularly played on the left of a midfield three with Ronaldo as a wider forward ahead. As an inverted winger he can cut outside, hold his line or cut inside. If he holds his line or cuts inside then the potential is that he will threaten the goal. Defenders can’t ignore this and have to move towards him leaving spaces for other. If he plays wide defenders can hold their line and look to block his crossing opportunities. A narrow position operating in the half-space seems then to be the best option to exploit his strengths.
The other player often discussed as a wide option is Adnan Januzaj. Januzaj burst into the limelight last year when he was one of very few rays of sunshine in an otherwise disappointing season. He announced himself with two goals in an away fixture at Sunderland, both technically excellent finishes, one with his right foot one with his left. It has regularly been considered a player who could play on the right, on the left or through the centre. Januzaj has featured in a couple of games over the last few weeks and opinion has been divided amongst fans on the merits of his performances. He has been busy in these games but he hasn’t created a lot. In none of these games has he operated as a wide player as he did last year in many games. But are we all guilty of over exaggerating how well he played in a wide role last year? On many occasions he was far too easily isolated by opponents.
In the second half against Burnley van Gaal’s United did achieve greater width in their play by switching to a flatter 4-4-2. Di Maria and Januzaj occupied wide positions. This was only a very limited success; United played a lot of square passes, funnelling the ball wide and they did not create a greatly improved number of chances. The old problems with a flat 4-4-2 were very obvious, a lack of movement, the danger of being outnumbered in the centre of the pitch resulting in the square balls and over caution from Rooney and Herrera.
A season long audition
There is a school of thought that United and van Gaal spent over £150million last summer and so should be challenging for the title never mind qualification for next year’s Champions League. Last summer United moved 16 players out and brought 6 in. This imbalance in numbers is not an issue as without European Football we have not needed a bigger squad, (even in spite of our pre-Christmas injury list). What has been more of an issue is the imbalance in quality across the squad and a lack of certain type of players.
The view that we should be challenging relies on a belief that the squad has been rebalanced by last summer’s activity and upon the assumption that van Gaal got rid of those players he deemed not good enough and retained or bought those players he believed were good enough. What seems more likely is that he got rid of those players he was sure were not good enough and brought in a few he considered would be. Maybe the players retained were kept because he felt he needed longer to make his assessment and take a view on whether he could improve them; keeping them did not mean he had judged them good enough to be part of his long term plans. If this is the case we can expect another significant overhaul next summer. Van Gaal will be effectively asking every player are you good enough to play the fast paced possession game I require whilst also looking to obtain a type of player to allow that his team play with width. It’s all part of “the process”.