In recent weeks United have rediscovered their attacking prowess and we are now once again exciting to watch, hooray! As we are also winning these games, which happen to be against some of our biggest rivals, the sense of optimism surrounding the team and club is incomparable to the pessimistic atmosphere that pervaded after the FA Cup exit to Arsenal.
So, how did we get here?
When I first learned that Van Gaal was to be United manager in my head I had visions of 4-3-3 as this was his favoured system he had used throughout his career. Although he used 3-5-2 in his most recent outing with Holland at the World Cup, this was a move out of necessity rather than choice as Strootman was injured prior to the competition and Van Gaal felt he had no immediate replacement to play his favoured 4-3-3.
Therefore, when he came to United, although he had had success with Holland using 3-5-2 I fully expected him to try to implement 4-3-3 as the dominant system with United. What surprised me slightly was his use of 3-5-2 when it was obvious our players were not comfortable or suited to this system and then to go to a 4-4-2 diamond surprised me more as this did not fit ‘his’ ‘philosophy’ or United’s as it is a narrow formation offering little width unless you have great wing backs who can get up and down (which we don’t).
Again, what is surprising is that the team he is generally starting is in essence a team made from a collection of players that Moyes left him with the exception of Blind and Rojo (when he starts) as Herrera was already in the bag before Moyes departed.
So, if these players were already in place the question might be how has he just realised this 8 months into his reign?
Well, I think there are a number of reasons and I hope the points I make below help answer both questions I have asked so far.
- Injuries – I think it has nearly been forgotten that early in the season the team’s he selected were so hampered by injuries it was the worst I have seen at United. Therefore, this limited him to what he could try to implement early in his reign.
- Players playing in favoured positions – two major factors in my opinion that have led to our return to form in an attacking sense has been the return of Carrick and the injuries to Van Persie and Di Maria. In Carrick returning it allowed Blind to move to left back where I think he is more comfortable at the moment as he didn’t move the ball quick enough or forward enough when in the holding midfield role. Also, with Van Persie being injured it has allowed Rooney to move back to Centre Forward and it had an immediate impact as his energy gave United a much needed lift up front. With Di Maria injured and then suspended Mata was played in a more advanced wide position without the need to track back and Herrera could then start inside as part of the advanced two midfielders with Fellani on the left side and Herrera on the right. This is like trying to explain a jigsaw puzzle coming together but I think it shows the complexity of getting the balance in the team correct and all the little pieces that can affect and contribute to it happening.
- Pressure – early in the season I think there was pressure, from fans mainly, to play our ‘start’ signings Falcao and Di Maria, I think the factors I spoke about above allowed Van Gaal to leave them out and with the team being successful now there is less pressure to start them although both players are popular with the fans as you can see when they come off the bench.
It has been highlighted how important Carrick’s return to the team has been and I think he was undervalued in the past. Carrick should be viewed as the brains of the team on the pitch and is has been stated that he offers a team 5 yards of space in this head. However, what it also highlights is going forward into the next season that Van Gaal must ensure we have a replacement for him and that must be one of his main objectives during the summer.
It was often discussed how United with Blind as the holding midfielder tended to play across and backwards with no real penetration, it is no coincidence that this changed with the return of Carrick and also with Herrera and Mata in the team who are always looking to go forward. Also, Fellani has also helped in forcing teams back as if a team is trying to press Carrick like on Sunday against City we can force them back by using Fellani as a more direct option which has the result of forcing the opposition back entirely which then frees up Carrick who can get on the ball more comfortably and dictate the tempo and build attacks.
Above are Michael Carrick statistics, (Carrick also achieves a 90% pass completion rate), which give a good indicator of the impact he has hand in terms of United being more of an attacking penetrative force since his return and I think for our continued good form this season and Champions League qualification he must remain fit and we so obviously need to seriously have a replacement for him going forward.
Although I speak above about Blind not being ready to replace Carrick I do feel that long term he could be the replacement as he continues to learn the game and develop as a player at the highest level. The future is bright for him as Van Gaal has a proven record of developing players, and in some cases in positions not originally thought of as the players most suited one.
I recently attended the Ajax Academy back in December and they spoke most highly of Blind of all their recent graduates and his ability to be able to play in a number positions including as a holding midfielder.
Although I feel we need to go and buy a midfield replacement for Carrick in the summer, this need was evident again against Chelsea, long term United should see Blind as the ultimate replacement taking into account his age and ability.
This piece was written by Philip Connolly. Follow him on twitter @philip_1981