There is a renewed feeling of optimism amongst United fans after the last two games. In successive matches on each occasion United have given their best performance of the season, albeit in each game a strong first half display followed by a lesser standard after the half-time break.
This comes at exactly the right time as we have entered the business end of the season with a series of tough fixtures against direct rivals for a top four finish. Many people anticipated that United’s uneven performances would see them found out. But pride often sees United raise their performance standards against better sides, so perhaps we should not be at all surprised about the performances and victories against Tottenham and Liverpool. So what have we learnt from the last two matches?
Louis van Gaal has talked previously about a moment when a side reaches a turning point; when the penny drops and they get his “philosophy.” He has made reference to the turning point in the Juventus game when his Bayern side clicked. It is tempting to see the Tottenham game as that moment but we will only be able to judge with hindsight and it is still too early to decide. If the penny has dropped, it has dropped first and foremost with the players, not with Van Gaal who almost certainly knew what he was aiming for from the outset. But the performances we have seen clearly dispel a few myths that have built up over the season about Van Gaal and his approach.
In the media Van Gaal has been often been characterised as a cautious coach, one who requires his sides to develop play based on a slow deliberate build up. Gary Neville even went as far as to counsel United fans that they just needed to put the Sir Alex years in the past and forget about a fast tempo game – in his view it just wasn’t Van Gaal’s way. This completely ignored the evidence from Van Gaal’s career where he has built a number of teams who passed the ball quickly. It also ignored the fact Van Gaal regularly complained that he felt the side’s passing tempo had been too slow this season.
What we have seen in the last two games is a United side passing the ball early and well, pulling teams out of shape with brave passing which has asked difficult questions of the opposition. It is no surprise that the two performances have coincided with the return of Michael Carrick to the deep midfield role; Van Gaal has praised his qualities as a midfield player who can play the ball forward. This has allowed United to move the ball away from their own goal more quickly, thereby avoiding situations in which they pass the ball around in the deep for a prolonged period.
Some people suggested that Van Gaal was a manager who didn’t embrace width, something which is seen as a traditional characteristic of United’s game over the years. The last two games have also shown this to be nonsense. In both games United have fielded a side in a 4-3-3 shape when we have had the ball, which has then morphed into a 4-1-4-1 shape when we have lost the ball. The essential difference between these two shapes is the position of the wide men, dropping deep and coming inside when we have been out of possession. This has enabled United to retain control of space in the centre of the pitch. Against Tottenham, United had less of the ball in the second half, but they controlled space to the extent that the visitors did not have their first shot on target until the 89th minute. Liverpool, too, had plenty of the ball after the break but for all that (and accepting they were playing with ten men) they did not overpower United in the centre.
In both games Van Gaal has included wide players and to do so he has sacrificed a second central striker. What this means for Falcao and Van Persie in the long term we will have to wait and see as much of his experimentation earlier in the campaign was driven by a desire to shoehorn to strikers into the side.
Possession isn’t everything
Van Gaal likes his team to control possession and so control the game. In the last two games, though, United’s possession percentage has been lower than has been usual this season, (Tottenham game 52%, Liverpool game 58%). This doesn’t tell the whole story of course as in both games the average was significantly higher in the first half (when United were at their best) than in the second. The second half average on each occasion brought the overall average down. This in itself doesn’t tell us a lot, although Van Gaal’s reaction to both games does tell us that he recognises that possession itself is not enough. He has described both games as United’s best performances of the season and previously he has bemoaned the fact that when we have had plenty of the ball we have not done enough with it.
United possession – 52% against Spurs, 58% against Liverpool
Long Ball Side?
Oh how we laughed when Sam Alladyce described United as a long ball side. Why should we care, only the most jaundiced anti-United person would take this statement at face value. United aren’t a long ball side but they certainly know how to use the long pass.
In both of the last two games United have used long passes forward, in subtly different ways as a deliberate tactic. Each time the tactic has involved Fellaini. Put simply, either the defenders or Carrick have looked to direct a long pass towards Fellaini who has taken up a position just behind the forward line. He is expected to bring the ball down and lay it off to another player; either a wide player or an advancing midfield player. This allows United to then start their passing moves in a higher position and beat the opposition press. This is not about by-passing the need to retain possession with a “Wimbledon style” long ball game but instead about setting up the opportunity to play possession based high tempo moves in the opposition half. In both games it has worked because Fellaini has played well and has the ability to bring a long pass down, often via his chest, rather than knocking it on in a fashion based on playing the percentages.
Van Gaal doesn’t rate Herrera and Mata
How else would you explain their absence from the side in so many games this season? Well, it appears that Van Gaal is running a meritocracy here and as such he will pick what he believes is the best side for the occasion (side rather than the best players). As fans, we need to remember that Van Gaal trains these players every day and sees far more of them and their combinations than we do. He won’t always get it right, nobody does, but we must trust his judgement.
What is clear is that van Gaal doesn’t do favouritism but instead selects his side based upon the evidence as he sees it. After the Liverpool game Van Gaal stated that Mata was a very good player and now he had found a position for him. In other words, he has found a way of accommodating him whist still retaining balance in the side. A few weeks ago when talking about Herrera, Van Gaal described how hard it is for the player to compete for a game in such a talented squad. The balance issue comes into play again here. These two players clearly have an excellent understanding, as evidenced by United’s opening goal at Anfield. It is no coincidence that the last two performances have been United’s best of the season whilst also being the best performances in a United shirt by both players. That is why they are playing now and is also one of the reasons why United have played so well.
Balance and Physicality
There has been a lot of talk about balance this season. By balance Van Gaal is referring to the need to have a balance between creativity and defence. Clearly for most of the season the balance hasn’t been right. In the last two games Van Gaal has settled on his traditional 4-3-3. This is perhaps the most balanced of all tactical formations (as one would imagine from the numerical description). It gives you a solid defence, a controlling midfield which is difficult for the opposition to outnumber, width and the potential to reinforce the centre of the attacking line.
The jury is out as to why Van Gaal has taken so long to settle on this shape but there are two plausible explanations. The first view is that with an unbalanced squad he felt that he needed a different shape to fit as many of his better players into the team (hence the persistence with two strikers for so long). The second view is that he didn’t feel he had a squad good enough to play this system, with the defence being a specific concern. The truth is probably a bit of both but the last two games has shown that United can play with one central striker and maybe the players are good enough to play this way. Smalling deserves great credit for his performances in the last two matches and if he carries on in this vein then maybe a reappraisal of his abilities will be in order.
Without a top level box to box midfield player there have been occasions this year when the spine of United’s side has appeared vulnerable. This is the reason behind Van Gaal’s deployment of Rooney in midfield. After Sunday’s game, Van Gaal talked about Fellaini’s physicality in the centre of the pitch in a high position giving United balance. The important difference in the last two games is that that physicality has been deployed further up the pitch than it was earlier in the season. Fellaini can’t play a deep role and Rooney is wasted there, but a physical determination in an advanced position has worked in the last two games and sits well with United fans who want their side to attack, be assertive and brave and take the game to the opposition.
In midfield Van Gaal has achieved his balance, with Carrick in the deep screening the defence and moving the ball forward quickly; Herrera with his busy terrier-like qualities combining with Rooney, Mata and Young; and Fellaini’s physicality acting as a deep lying target man to set up the opportunities to probe the oppositions final third.
Long may it continue?