The end of season review is an opportunity to take a broad brush look back across the year. Hindsight gives us the opportunity to reconsider views formed about events and developments during the season. Here we are freed from match by match analysis and can look for trends and areas of incremental improvements (or regression) which you wouldn’t pick up on a match by match, week by week basis.
As well as considering the story of the season we need to ask ourselves a number of important questions. What has worked and what hasn’t? Why did he make that choice? What are our strengths and weaknesses? And where do we go from here? But the most important question of all is whether we have improved; are we in a better place now than at the end of last season?
Putting our cards on the table from the start, we would say that we are in a better place now than this time last year and we have improved as a team quite significantly. Some United fans might disagree with this and not that long ago the press considered comparing results and statistics from David Moyes’ year with Van Gaal’s year at the same stage, because they felt the improvement was not clear. But we feel that United have improved and we will look at why we think this later. At the same time we acknowledge that one area where there hasn’t always been an improvement is in the entertainment value of performances.
The Story of the Season
This season, perhaps more than any other in our time watching United, can be divided up into a series of quite distinct phases.
Van Gaal arrived late and in the middle of the transfer window after his adventures in Brazil and made three early statements, which were:
- he had inherited an un-balanced squad,
- he would give every player a chance to prove themselves and then he would decide who to keep and who to let go,
- he expressed significant disappointment at the injury to Michael Carrick which was sustained almost at the exact time he stepped through the Old Trafford door.
Looking back now, all of these seem to be highly significant.
The first distinct phase ran from Van Gaal’s arrival to the closing of the transfer window at the end of August. This phase was characterised by the use of a 3 man defence but also by the absence of Carrick who did not play a first team game until 02.11.2014 at the Etihad, where he appeared as a substitute. We will call this phase the three man defensive phase. Many reasons have been suggested for Van Gaal’s 3 man defensive experiment, but three stand out as the most plausible. As they are not mutually exclusive, they could very easily all be true. The first reason is that Van Gaal did not believe that his central defenders were good enough in one-on-ones and so he wanted a free man between two marking players. The second reason is that, in analysing his squad as a whole, he recognised that he had attacking strength and therefore wanted to get as many forwards on the pitch to benefit from that strength. The roughly 3-4-1-2 shape provided that opportunity. The third is that he did not feel the team could play the way he really wanted them to without Carrick in a holding midfield role.
All three suggestions have their merits although with hindsight the second is less convincing, as he chose to change several attacking players at the end of the window, releasing some and bringing in others.
United did well in terms of results in pre-season although not all the performances were good. If you listened to Van Gaal closely at this time you knew that he wasn’t completely happy with those performances and no doubt he wasn’t completely surprised by United’s early season form. Then came the week of the long knives and the chequebook at the end of the transfer window; Van Gaal had made his assessment and now sold or loaned out a significant number of players and brought in four new players (we had already recruited two other new players earlier in the summer). This was an attempt to start the process of re-balancing his squad and it ushered in the next phase of the season.
Contrasting United team shapes; a 3-4-1-2 on the opening day of the season against Swansea City and a 4-4-2 diamond against Queens Park Rangers.
This phase was characterised by a flirtation with 4-4-2, initially incorporating a midfield diamond and then with a flatter version of that shape. We will call this phase the midfield diamond phase. The home game against QPR marked the start of this phase with an exhilarating performance and a 4-0 win against an admittedly poor side. Optimism amongst United fans knew no bounds. But in our next game, the limitations of the diamond were exposed as a modest Leicester City side won 5-3 after United had led 3-1 in the middle of the second half. The problem for United was that teams found it fairly easy to attack the space behind the outer players in the diamond. Those players were Angel di Maria and Herrera; di Maria is not naturally a defensive minded player and we know now that Van Gaal had several reservations about Herrera’s positional discipline. All too often this left Blind as the exposed defensive midfield player – he is not known for his pace in recovery.
Throughout this phase United attacked with a good deal of verve and often established a strong lead but it was noticeable that from the hour mark they tended to fade and struggled to maintain that lead. Sometimes they managed to hold out and secure the victory, but they did not control the game or possession in the way that Van Gaal wanted. They also looked very shaky in defence. It was at about this time that Van Gaal started to talk about balance, and by this we took him to mean the balance between the team’s ability to defend and attack. He would return to this theme constantly thereafter throughout the season.
Flattened version of the diamond versus Hull City and statistics showing United dominating possession and passing combinations.
His response to United’s defensive struggles when employing the diamond was to flatten the midfield with the shape becoming something close to a 4-1-3-2. This helped, but United’s attacking verve was dulled.
The other issue which came to the fore at this time: the need to develop a greater physicality or robustness in our midfield led to the third phase of the season. The start of this phase is more difficult to date. In fact, the transition between the second and third phases was in fact very gradual with Van Gaal chopping and changing between different team shapes, returning occasionally to the three man defensive experiment and even flirting with the shape he employed towards the end of the season. This third phase could be considered the most experimental phase. On one level the whole season can be read as an educational exercise in which Van Gaal taught the squad his philosophy (we will return to that idea later) but on the issue of physicality it seems that it was Van Gaal who was undergoing the education. This was always going to be necessary to some extent as the new manager learnt about English football and the Premier League. This phase was also characterised by his experimentation with personnel, trialling different players and moving some to different roles.
The first signs of the emergence of a third phase were seen in the 2-2 draw at West Bromwich Albion, another match in which United struggled when the opposition attacked the space behind the outside of the diamond. At half time Van Gaal introduced the much maligned Marouane Fellaini, who promptly scored and produced a decent performance. What he contributed was a physical robustness which had been missing up to this point. It appears to have occurred to Van Gaal that this was significant, along with the realisation that in England a robust physicality in midfield is a must. If this third phase has a name we would call it the experimentation to achieve midfield robustness phase. It is, admittedly a bit of a mouthful, but never mind.
For a while Van Gaal used Fellaini as one of the outside players in the diamond in place of Herrera, but then Fellaini’s performance at Southampton demonstrated his limitations as a midfield player when played anywhere close to his own goal. (Those of us who saw Fellaini’s display in the Champions League at Olympiakos could have warned van Gaal about that). On the edge of the opposition’s box Fellaini has his advantages but when he is played close to his own box, his short square passing can be a liability. The alternative provider of robustness is Rooney and this saw one of the most controversial Van Gaal experiments of the season, moving Rooney to a midfield role whilst Herrera sat on the bench and the forwards (still two forwards at this point) continued to misfire. For a while the shape returned to a 3-4-1-2 and interestingly this coincided with the absence of Michael Carrick through injury.
Van Gaal’s phases and his various experiments don’t seem to relate directly to results but rather to the quality of performances, but it is worth highlighting that United enjoyed a run of good results which, after a couple of frustrating draws, culminated in an excellent performance on Boxing Day against Newcastle United. In the New Year, results were mixed; once again this coincided with the absence of Carrick.
Team shape against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford and Michael Carrick making a critical contribution.
The final phase of the season was characterised by a return to the regular use of one team shape. That shape was something close to the one we had envisaged he would be likely to use at the outset. That is, a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape with the wide forwards dropping back into midfield in the defensive phase. In fact they often drop so deep that as the play becomes compressed, the shape often resembles a 6-3-1. Controversially, we are going to call this phase the penny dropping phase because when our adoption of this strategy resulted in a series of exciting performances and a welcome run of six wins some people suggested that the penny had dropped and Van Gaal had finally understood what United is all about. This is a case of “Eyes that do not see” for the penny had dropped, but not in the case of Van Gaal’s understanding, rather that of his players, who had begun to realise what they needed to do to make his methods work.
Van Gaal had used this strategy briefly earlier in the season. You could read the team shape employed in the second half of the 2-2 draw at West Bromwich Albion as a 4-1-4-1 and it was certainly the shape used in the home game against Chelsea, but know it became the orthodoxy; perhaps earlier in the season he was testing the shape on the players to see if they were ready.
What made it a success now was the pace of United’s ball circulation, an ability to move the ball away from their own third quickly, to press the opposition in a co-ordinated manner and a willingness to test the opposition by reducing the number of safe passes and increasing the number of risky early passes which stretch space. Several individuals were key to the success of this system, Mata’s re-invention as an “inverted” or “false” right winger, Young’s direct running, Rooney’s return to the attacking line and Smalling’s assurance and self-confidence in possession. The contribution of two players stand out above others however: Carrick with his ability to pick a pass from the deep and so move the ball forward quickly, and Fellaini, as a target for those passes just behind or in the forward line. These factors allowed United to develop their passing moves closer to the opposition’s box and helped to introduce vertical punch to their play when previously it had been over-reliant on lateral passing across the pitch which allowed the opposition to maintain its defensive shape.
It should be noted that the success of this phase depended greatly on those players who had reinvented themselves or were demonstrating a distinct improvement in their play as the season wore on. Much credit must go to Van Gaal and his coaching staff for this and is, perhaps, the single biggest reason why we would confidently assert that United are in a better place this year than last (when many players seemed to be going backwards).
United stuck with this method after an injury to Carrick in the Manchester derby but without the Carrick/Fellaini combination it was never quite the same again, with teams finding it far easier to resist United’s attacking endeavours. Now United’s play returned to a slow possession-based pattern, characterised by a more cautious passing rhythm. Teams were able to maintain a low block, confident that United didn’t have the attacking pace that would make the difference. Nevertheless the six wins yielded by the high point of this method proved enough to ensure that the season’s primary objective of a top four finish was achieved.
Having looked at the season in phases, we will now look at its prominent key themes, pick out issues and discuss those things which we feel have worked well as well as those that haven’t.
Philosophy and process
The sub-plot to United’s stated objective of a top four finish has been Van Gaal’s mission to reshape the club to play football that speaks of his philosophy. In brief, his philosophy is to dominate possession to control the game; attack with pace and width, manipulating and controlling space. He also puts a clear emphasis on the collective over individuals. Philosophy is different from a tactical approach or strategy and this caused considerable confusion, in particular earlier in the season. The tactics or strategy is the way in which you achieve the objectives of your philosophy. Perhaps with the single biggest exception of his obsession with possession, Van Gaal’s philosophy is in alignment with the general philosophy of United as a club and even that is not necessarily at odds with it.
The re-shaping, then, has come at a strategic, tactical level. United have traditionally played a 4-4-2 based game, whilst Van Gaal is of the Dutch/Ajax 4-3-3 school. This should not matter, both systems employ two wingers although a 4-3-3 approach sacrifices the second striker for an extra man in midfield. In doing that it creates a greater opportunity to triangulate passing options and so retain possession of the ball more easily. The 4-4-2 approach has only two men in midfield, traditionally good all-rounders (Robson, Ince or Keane, for example) with an emphasis on rushing the ball through midfield to the front or to wide areas. The 4-3-3 is a more patient approach but it gives greater control and minimises the opportunities for the manager’s “ass” to “squeak”. United fans may crave a more swash-buckling wing approach but can we honestly say it has served us well over the years? How much more successful might we have been in European Football with an extra man in midfield? Didn’t Real Madrid demonstrate this in 2000, ushering in years of experimentation? Our success in the latter part of Sir Alex’s reign came after a switch to a 4-3-1-2/4-2-3-1 shape which incorporated extra bodies in the centre of the pitch.
After initial teething problems Van Gaal has been successful in converting United to a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 strategy, although this conversion is a “process” which is not yet complete. The problem is that he does not yet have the full set of component parts necessary to take this conversion to the next level. And so we come to the next theme of the season, balance and physicality.
Balance and physicality
At the start of the season Van Gaal talked about the unbalanced nature of our squad and throughout the season he has talked about the difficulties in fielding a balanced team. This has been a particular problem whenever United have suffered injuries. But we shouldn’t consider ourselves to have been unlucky with injuries because, whilst we have had more than our fair share, injuries are an inevitable part of the game. The point is that if you have a balanced squad you have done all you can to insulate yourself from their effect. United have had an unbalanced squad for years now and it was always going to take more than one or two transfer windows to put that right. Hopefully now that the manager and CEO have had a period to prepare, this summer’s transfer window will see United make real progress in addressing this issue.
We need a balance between defensive solidity and an attacking threat. In terms of goals conceded, our defence has not been that poor, although not Championship winning standard. The excellence of De Gea has helped to keep the goals down. In attack, however, we have been fairly toothless at times and over reliant upon goals from midfield. More about that subject anon.
The midfield is the key area in terms of achieving balance; it is also the area in the English game where you benefit from physicality. The two players Van Gaal has turned to, to provide physicality in the centre of the pitch are Rooney and Fellaini; in fact this is probably the real reason Van Gaal chose to play Rooney in midfield so often through the middle part of the season. The last time that a United midfield did not contain either Fellaini or Rooney from the start of the game was on the 20th October 2014 at The Hawthorns.
Fellaini and Rooney adding physicality and balance
The problem has been that neither of these players is especially good at this; both are a little slow and cumbersome, you might say clumsy in the challenge. Both have been sent off this season and opponents find it a little too easy to pass around them, leaving them chasing shadows. What United need here is a genuine box-to-box midfield player – someone who can provide midfield energy and robustness, drive and crunch into the occasional challenge, the type who makes opponents take a step back, someone who will set the tempo in the middle of the pitch. This is something United haven’t had since Roy Keane left the club and (whilst we are aware that we are repeating ourselves here) it is something that the recruitment of several midfield players over the last two years has not addressed. This brings us to our next topics, tempo and width.
Tempo and width
Our problems with tempo and width were most evident in the middle part of the season, particularly after Christmas, but they resurfaced after the Chelsea game in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Put simply, United’s passing was often too slow and too safe to trouble the opposition. By the mid-point of the campaign United had demonstrated that they now had the ability to control a match by dominating possession; the lapses which saw them lose the ball in their own defensive third as they looked to develop moves were now more or less a thing of the past. Their problem was that against teams who showed limited attacking intent they struggled to break down the low block. Against more adventurous teams they tended to fare better, but if a team parked the bus with some discipline they failed. Good enough to control the game but not good enough against these teams to make their possession pay. Mourinho recognised this and shamelessly chose to park the bus in a home game. United lost to a breakaway goal.
Passing was generally too slow and safe, much of it square to the wings. It allowed the defending side to maintain their shape easily and defend on a narrow front, surrendering space in wide areas for solidity in the middle of the pitch.
United’s play in the wide areas contrasted significantly between the left and right hand sides. As the season wore on, United’s wide threat was evidently more potent on the left where Young’s direct running had improved. Unfortunately, though, his delivery via crosses was often a disappointment. On the right, Mata was developing his role as a “false” right winger. He tended to come inside into a narrow position and link with Herrera. This was occasionally effective but he tended to run into a crowded zone. His movement did create space behind him for Valencia to attack but generally he was restrained in this and when he did advance, his delivery was often as disappointing as Young’s.
The result of all this was that United did not stretch defending teams across the pitch and this made it easy for them to defend the width of their penalty area. This problem was exacerbated by Young’s tendency, in the latter weeks of the season, to run inside diagonally, narrowing the area of play on both sides of the pitch.
Defensive midfield and controlling the press
The other area of concern has been the defensive midfield position. This is perhaps the most important position in Van Gaal’s preferred shape. The defensive midfield player acts as a defensive screen, a means of playing out from the back and a co-ordinating player helping to both provide a reference point from which other players adjust their position and a player who co-ordinates the use of the pressing tactic.
When Van Gaal bought Daley Blind many people, ourselves included, imagined that it was with the intention of if not replacing Carrick as a single defensive midfield player in a preferred 4-3-3 shape then at least being his understudy with a view to eventually taking over. Looking back, that is how it has worked out. Whenever Carrick has been fit he has played ahead of Blind with the new man either standing down or playing as left back. Van Gaal, however, has bemoaned the lack of an adequate alternative to Carrick as a defensive midfield player. This begs the question whether Van Gaal is happy with Blind’s ability to perform in this position, at least for the moment.
This is not the time and place to compare Carrick and Blind, but Van Gaal has indicated that he will look to sign another defensive midfield player this summer. So why is this position the key?
The phrase “defensive midfield player” seems to put the emphasis on the defensive side of the role, but actually this is wrong. The player needs to contribute at least as much (if not more) in an attacking sense to the team.
Blind and Herrera, both used as the defensive midfield pivot, both struggled at at times.
But let’s look at the defensive side first. Imagine we don’t have the ball and the opposition reaches United’s defensive third. The defensive midfielder will look to screen the defence and will rarely dive into a tackle; but when the opposition has the ball deep in its own half, the defensive midfield player will co-ordinate the press which will be undertaken by players further forward who are looking to win the ball back quickly in a high area. The defensive midfield player will look to cover the space behind the press and ensure that the team retains its shape. He must not get caught in a high position with the play going past him. For a press to be successful it needs to be a co-ordinated team effort. Pressing is an aggressive defensive tactic and one which United are learning. In the past under Sir Alex, United usually retreated into two banks of four and waited for a mistake by the opposition to present an opportunity to counter-attack; they were passive and did not press. David Moyes tried to employ pressing early last season but abandoned the experiment after a number of teams successfully beat it. It takes a while to get right and United have enjoyed varying degrees of success with it this year.
The attacking side of the role is just as critical and it is this area where United have struggled this year, particularly when Carrick has been absent. The defensive midfield player will often drop in between the centre-backs and pick up the ball to start moves. It is vital in this situation that the team moves the ball forward quickly whilst retaining possession. All too often this season United have passed the ball square, not moving the ball up the field away from their own goal. They have retained possession but with little effect. This is different from playing the ball square in order to switch play in the opponent’s half. All the players at the back are responsible for this aspect of playing out from the back and if Van Gaal signs another centre back you can be sure that he will be one who is comfortable with the ball and who can contribute to overcoming this problem. The defensive midfield player is the one with the biggest responsibility. This is perhaps where Carrick’s presence has benefitted the team’s performances- he has tended to move the ball forward more quickly and played fewer square passes.
A simple statistical analysis of the final Premier League table tells the tale very clearly. Consider the goals for and against columns for home and away fixtures. Overall United scored less than our close rivals but it is noticeable that with the exception of Chelsea (who scored and conceded fewer) we scored and conceded approximately the same number of goals at home as those teams around us. Away from home, our goals conceded was also comparable but we have scored noticeably fewer goals away from home than the other teams who finished in the top six.
Away from home you are naturally inclined to commit fewer bodies forward and chances are generally at more of a premium than at home. This means that you can expect to rely less on goals from midfield in away fixtures. What you need, then, is a forward line which is clinically efficient in taking a good proportion of the chances you create. We simply haven’t had that this season and few teams win the league without a twenty goal a season forward. It would help matters greatly if that forward was also quick. Pace frightens defenders, who are inclined to take a step back, leaving more space to exploit. This helps whether you are playing at home or away and can only help improve United’s ‘goals scored’ column.
The other issue to consider here is Wayne Rooney. Rooney is the captain and so as far as Van Gaal is concerned he will always play, but is he the player we need to lead the line in a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 formation? In that team shape you are always going to have one single central striker, a player who needs to be quick. He also needs to be fairly big and physically robust. Rooney is physically robust but is he big enough or quick enough to fulfil that role in Van Gaal’s chosen system?
Building a Winning Team
The biggest question of all this summer is, has Van Gaal gone as far as he can go with the players at his disposal? Our answer would be “yes.” He has improved the performance of several players and ensured that we have got the best out of them. Whilst he has improved players, can he take them any further or have they individually and collectively reached the limits of their ability? We feel sure he can make further improvements to the play of individuals and the group, but as we said at the outset, the squad is still unbalanced and uneven in quality.
So we expect a busy summer in the transfer market with players leaving as well as new ones joining. The important thing to remember is Van Gaal’s emphasis on the collective rather than individual. Whilst he will look to buy better players than we currently have, this does not necessarily mean big names. A quote from one of the better English language books about Dutch football stands out. In “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football” David Winner wrote,
“In Van Gaal’s system, the individual player is far less important than the shape of the team and the structure of the passing and running movements”.