Build-up play is a key feature of Louis Van Gaal’s philosophy as it is inextricably linked to the main thesis which is to dominate possession. Build-up is quite a loose term but for the purpose of this article I will define build-up as how the team moves the ball into the midfield and attacking areas from the defence (again a loose definition). Louis Van Gaal’s teams always aim to build attacks from deep in a very methodical and calculated manner, in the battle of the P words patience is definitely prioritised over pace. So how exactly do United go about building attacks from deep?

Firstly it is important to acknowledge that a team’s build-up play will be affected by their opponents. If, for example, a team is being pressed in their initial build-up phase it will be far more rushed than if their opponents are sitting back behind the halfway line. Thus when referring to certain matches in the season I will refer to the approach of the opponents.

Average Positions

It is well documented that United have employed several formations last season including 3-5-2, 4-4-2 diamond and 4-3-3 however the average positions in build-up do not differ much.

Build-up 4-3-3 (1)   Build-up 4-3-3 (2)   Build-up 4-3-3 triangles

Above is the 4-3-3 formation, on the left side is the starting position with the lines representing the movements the players make in the build-up phase, in the middle is the shape after the movements have been made and on the right is an illustration of how the players are inter-connected in triangle format for optimum retention of possession. The same applies for the 3-5-2 formation below.

Buid-up 3-5-2 (1)    Buid-up 3-5-2 (2)    Buid-up 3-5-2 (3)

As can be seen in both formations the centre-backs split and the full backs advance, while the midfield players position themselves to receive passes from the defenders, this often involves dropping into the half spaces (area between wing and the centre). It is very important for players to spread out in the build-up phase as it stretches the opponent if they try to press making it far more difficult. It also creates access to the midfield line to make vertical passes easier.

Positional Play

Louis Van Gaal is a notoriously meticulous and obsessive coach meaning that he leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of success and addresses every detail. Van Gaal spends a lot of training time coaching positional play and there are a few aspects which are very evident in United’s build-up. As Jonny Evans has said Van Gaal makes remarks such as ‘You should be five yards to the right’ in training which demonstrates how important he sees positioning. Positional play entails very deliberate positioning and an important aspect of this is having a low number of players in a single vertical and horizontal line, this is called staggering. If there are too many players in a vertical line it will take less players to cut them out as passing options meaning that there are more players free to focus on the others. When this is not the case more players will be required to prevent easy vertical passing leaving opponents short in other areas of the pitch. Players are also arranged in different horizontal lines to pose problems for the opposition, for example imagine a central midfield line of 2 (4-4-2) against another central midfield line of 2 (4-4-2) they would find it easy to prevent the midfielders from dictating the game by staying in line with them. However if this midfield line of 2 were up against a midfield with a deep no.6 in front of them and 2 no.8’s (4-3-3) behind them, they must decide either to prevent both the 8’s from dictating play or the 6 and one of the 8’s meaning that one of the midfield players will be free to dictate play. This can be adapted to ensure that there is always one more player than the opponents in the middle.

3v2 Build up

This also relates to another key concept of positional play which is the constant search for numerical superiority in areas of the field. This can be referred to as playing the ‘numbers game’, and is done to ensure easy progression of the ball in the build-up phase. As Marti Perarnau said in an interview with Adin Osmanbasic “Positional Play does not consist of passing the ball horizontally, but something much more difficult: it consists of generating superiorities behind each line of pressure. It can be done more or less quickly, more or less vertically, more or less grouped, but the only thing that should be maintained at all times is the pursuit of superiority. Or to put it another way: create free men between the lines.” Juan Manuel Lillo also alluded to this concept saying “Positional Play consists of generating superiorities out of the defensive line against those who are pressing you. Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean.” This explains why Van Gaal likes to have a back three when playing out from the back as more often than not it will mean United have more players than the opponents are pressing with which makes it easier to progress the play forward.

Build-up Theory

Louis Van Gaal recognises that most teams use the ball as a positional reference point, this simply means that teams adjust their positions in defence depending on the position of the ball. If the ball is on the right for example teams will shuffle over and occupy the spaces closest to the ball. Therefore in his system the aim of passing the ball is to exploit this and move the opposition, it is not done for the sake of it. The aim of United’s build-up is to move the opponent by moving the ball across the defence until that moment when a midfielder has freed himself of his marker and is thus available to pick the ball up from the defenders. It is common knowledge that ‘the ball moves quicker than the man’ meaning that the theory is sound. Consider the images below; in the first image Blackett had possession but Swansea had blocked vertical access to the midfield line. So the ball is shifted to Jones via Smalling now there is access but Herrera is being marked by Shelvey. Herrera then performs a double movement to lose Shelvey and receives the ball from Jones.

Side to side build-up

This is why speed in circulation of the ball is imperative as without it the opponent can easily shuffle across to the location of the ball and block progression to the midfield area. United struggled in these terms  last year which I believe was mostly due to the type of midfielders in front of the defence which I will touch on later.

Match Examples

Playing out from the back is done to pose a major question to opponents, they must either press which entails committing enough numbers forward and risk leaving gaps in their shape, or allow them to play out easily. Note this problem is not posed solely by playing out from the back but from the wide positioning of the defence and midfield. The safe option is to drop your ego, be more compact and allow them to play out which is usually done by so-called ‘smaller’ teams. However in the big matches teams are more likely to decide to press as part of their more attacking mind-set despite the risk of leaving space. The image below is a situation where Arsenal tried to press United however they have left a huge gap between their midfield and defence. In the shaded area surrounding the ball’s destination United outnumber Arsenal 4v2, meaning that they have a good chance of winning the second ball and creating a dangerous attack. As it turned out the ball ran through to Van Persie who unfortunately failed to get past Arteta.

Match scene vs Arsenal

The alternative however is to sit back and set up a compact block behind the ball. The danger with this approach however, is that you allow United to organise their positional attack fully which will then pose many problems. The image below is an example of how this positional attack can cause problems. Wayne Rooney positions himself between Demichelis and Mangala to occupy both of them to himself. If Rooney is successful in doing so when Juan Mata drifts across to the left flank an overload will be created. However it turned out to work even better, Demichelis (rashly) rushed forward to prevent City from being overloaded and initially won the ball but due to the heavy United presence in the proximity a counter press was easily executed and the ball was won back. Blind fizzed the ball into Rooney’s feet who excellently swivelled and released Mata who exploited the space that Demichelis left behind to score an excellent goal.

Match scene vs City

The image below is another example, this time Rooney manages to pin Dier and Vertonghen himself and the overload is created. Young’s width creates a huge gap between Walker and Dier, Mason initially fills it but rushes out to confront Carrick and thus vacates it. Carrick then plays Fellaini through with a first time pass and Fellaini finished superbly to round off a great team move. Of course in this game and the City game both teams did try to press United at times but these were examples of when they were pinned back and United organised their positional attack effectively.

Match scene vs Spurs

Under Pressure

There were a few games last season where United were pressed deep into their half as certain teams recognised the benefits that disrupting United’s build-up could have. The away match at Arsenal is a high profile example and United struggled severely to get any sort of rhythm in their passing. In this game United really struggled to gain a foothold in their usual manner, they attempted to play out from the back but were relentlessly subjected to heavy pressure from Arsenal’s hardworking front three of Welbeck, Sanchez and Chamberlain. There were several reasons that led to United’s failure to build attacks efficiently. Some of these reasons include the number of changes to the backline which reduces the cohesion, a lack of confidence combined with a fear of failure (from a psychological point of view) another is the personnel McNair and Blackett are young and have been thrust into a high octane affair which seemed to overwhelm them at times while Smalling appears very uncomfortable with the ball at his feet.

However I believe a major reason is that the positioning of the midfielders was very poor and made it difficult for the defence to play the ball forward. United repeatedly played the ball back to De Gea who played several poor clearances which fell directly to Arsenal players. They could then exploit how far spread out United were, which contributed to United putting in possibly their worst half of football under Van Gaal. This is due in no small part to the personnel, Fellaini for all his strengths is not the most intelligent player and (as we saw later on in the season) is far more useful further up the pitch. Carrick on the other hand is not very suited to playing in front of a back 3 as (due to the number behind him) he is required to position himself in more advanced areas where he will be put under more pressure and is thus required to be very neat and nimble. Carrick is far more suited to either being part of a back 3 or dropping in to create a back 3 from these positions Carrick can supply his trademark forward ground passes into more nimble (‘needle’) players in between the lines. For this reason it was quite surprising that LVG overlooked Herrera for much of the season as he is more suited to playing in front of a back 3 than any other central midfielder United had last season. Carrick’s propensity for dropping deep towards the ball brought unwanted attention with him and congested the space for the defenders to work with. In this position he is required to position himself further forward which would bring Arsenal’s midfielders back with him and give those at the back more time and space to build up.

Carrick poor position vs Arsenal

Later on in the season though United learnt to deal with the press better and the win at Anfield was a good example. Before the match I (along with several pundits) was worried about how United would deal with Liverpool’s press as this was a severe issue for the team in matches throughout the season and Liverpool are known for their high-pressing approach. After the game Rodgers remarked “Our game was set up to press the opponent really high up the pitch, but our starting positions were way too deep from the early stages of the game and we handed over control way too easy”. The reason for this was the positioning of United’s players particularly Fellaini, Herrera, Young and Mata.

Advanced positioning vs Liverpool

As the image above shows Herrera and Fellaini were positioned in very advanced areas and this forces Henderson and Allen to remain deep to mark them so as to prevent them having easy access to their defence. Young and Mata were positioned high, wide and importantly behind the wing-backs which pinned Sterling and Moreno back preventing them from supporting a press. This meant that the only Liverpool players free to press were Sturridge, Coutinho and Lallana and with the help of Carrick United could easily outnumber them 5v3 and play around them. This was very brave from Van Gaal in an away match against a rampant in-form side but it paid off handsomely.

Breaking down compact opponents

In matches where opponents did not press and chose to sit back and be compact United’s objective became to break the opponents forward and midfield lines to get passes into these areas. As an earlier image demonstrated the approach was to move the opponents onto one side using the ball before switching it to the other and moving forward from there taking advantage of gaps created. The earlier illustration demonstrates the value of Herrera who is very subtle with his movement which helps him buy space to make himself available and to lose his markers. Without him however United often struggled to progress centrally as the midfield was often occupied by players such as Fellaini and Rooney who are better suited to more advanced areas. Neither are particularly subtle or good in tight areas and this is needed against teams who are particularly compact and try to congest space in central midfield. Compact teams usually leave the flanks relatively open as the centre of the pitch offers more dangerous attacking opportunities given that it is more unpredictable given the degree of angles available to move into. United were often forced to build attacks from wide areas which is far less dangerous and can lead to several ineffective crosses being swung in out of desperation a la David Moyes. Often when teams congested the midfield sufficiently United tried to bypass the midfield zone and find the depth runs of the forwards however these passes are difficult and most of United’s defenders are too limited technically to execute these successfully. Thankfully it rarely ever got to the stage of relentless crossing but it did lead to United having to re-start the build-up several times and meant that De Gea received the ball more often than he should. It also meant that United were very slow in building attacks and thus quite boring though on most occasions they managed to eventually wear down opponents.

Premier League goal times

The statistics however do not back this view as United scored a higher percentage of their goals in the 1st half of matches. I believe this is due to one of United’s major strengths which was their ability to score through various methods. According to United scored 12 goals from set-pieces which was the joint 6th highest tally in the league.

4-3-3 Positional Structure

As Van Gaal repeatedly promised United improved in almost every aspect of the game towards the end of the season. One of these areas was in breaking down compact teams. This was partly due to increased speed in ball circulation which was partly due to the familiarity the players developed with the system and their team-mates.  As Van Gaal said “We started at the bottom, unconscious, capable and then your next step is conscious and incapable. And then it is conscious and capable”, when describing the notorious ‘process’. It was also psychological as players demonstrated more confidence in possession which translated into more decisive actions and in turn a higher passing tempo.

4-3-3 positional structure

However it was mainly due to United’s improved positional structure in the asymmetric 4-3-3 formation. Herrera operated in advanced areas close to Mata where the synergy between the two destroyed many opponents and the central movements of the two was balanced by Valencia who provided width on the right flank. Fellaini in the left half space provided a direct outlet to beat a press and assisted in creating wide overloads. Blind and Young balanced each other’s movements with Young coming centrally Blind overlapping and vice versa. Carrick was always at the base of attacking moves and his presence ensured connection to the other side of the field. United played some truly sensational football and combined this with fantastic results, finally the team were providing what the fans were desperate to see.


The issues outlined in the November match at the Emirates transcend that particular match and instead represent the struggles that United faced for much of the season. It would manifest itself as either an inability to break down a compact defence or the failure to build attacks when under pressure. For much of the season this was due to incorrect personnel filling positions and it only really improved when United switched to 4-3-3 and Herrera & Mata were regularly picking up the ball between the lines and causing havoc.

Possible 4-2-3-1 (2015-16)

With the latest signings Van Gaal has moved to address these personnel issues and I think the new signings may indicate that he wishes to switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Schneiderlin, Carrick and Schweinsteiger can compete for the two holding midfield roles while Di Maria, Mata, Herrera, Depay, Young and Januzaj can compete to fill the three attacking midfield roles. With the central midfield players being excellent at showing for the ball the time taken to build up the play should be shorter. The dotted lines from the holding midfield positions represent passing options between the lines and the potential recipients are all suited to receiving these types of passes as many of them are ‘needle’ players (excellent in tight areas). From these positions attacks can easily be set-up and with two solid holding midfield players the full-backs will be fully licensed to move forward and create width. If this really is the system Van Gaal is planning to implement we could be in for a treat in the upcoming season.

Article by Judah Davies. Follow Judah on twitter @1415football or read more of his writing at