For the first time since 2012 United go into the season without a change of manager, and that after a period of 27 years of continuity.
That doesn’t mean that aren’t plenty of changes around the place as the manager seeks to build a team that can challenge for the major honours. So there are some players in and some players out, as well as a few anticipated tactical changes. We will start with players and then go on to consider strategy, but it’s worth making the point that as ever the two are inextricably linked.
By the end of last summer’s transfer window sixteen players had left the club as the new manager looked to trim his squad, removing player’s surplus to requirements. Some of those players had retired or moved on of their own volition and several were sent out on loan. It was clear that a significant overhaul of the squad had begun and this has continued, motivated by Van Gaal’s stated desire to “re-balanace the squad”. Several players loaned by the club from last year have now been moved on permanently; Tom Cleverley, (loan to Aston Villa, now moved to Everton), Nani, (loan to Sporting now moved to Fenerbahce).
This year several players who were part of last year’s squad have left whilst the future of others remains uncertain. Anderson left during the season. United have not taken advantage of an option to permanently secure Falcao after his season long loan and has moved to Chelsea. Robin van Persie, advised at the end of last season that future opportunities would be limited has followed Nani to Fenerbahce. That seems to leave United light in terms of strikers but Hernandez, on loan to Real Madrid last year returns to the fold. Whether he has a long term future at the club remains to be seen but picking up a broken collarbone at the Copa America meant that United could not move him on in this transfer window even if they wanted to.
The loss of Rafael seems to have upset a lot of United fans, and in all honesty that has taken us by surprise. He’s a nice chap and he clearly was very loyal to United and passionate about the cause but in truth he never really developed as a player. He was a good full back but was impetuous at times and we never really felt he was far away from a sending-off. Last year Valencia was Van Gaal preferred option; perhaps he remembered the players being sent off against his Bayern side a few years ago.
The story around Angel di Maria is another matter altogether. After an initial bright start the player had a generally disappointing first season at the club, often losing the ball and with teams seeking to exploit space behind him. Despite this he contributed a significant number of assists. By the end of the campaign though Van Gaal seemed reluctant to play him.
Event on the pitch are only half the story with Di Maria however. The player and his family suffered an armed break-in at their home last January when they were in the house eating dinner. This must have affected his immediate form but it is widely reported that since then his family have found it hard to settle in Manchester and his wife wanted to move on. That’s perfectly understandable and it’s regrettable that it hasn’t work out here for a player who is clearly world class on his day. His failure to report for duty on the pre-season tour is unacceptable however and leaves a sour taste. But he’ll always have Paris.
The players whose futures still remain uncertain are David De Gea and Victor Valdes.
The soap opera surrounding De Gea has been tiresome. Real Madrid want him, he wants to go, United won’t play ball unless they get what they believe the player is worth. Quite right but one hopes that they have the courage of their convictions to maintain this stance as we approach the start of the new season; unless that is they have an adequate replacement lined up. Losing the player late in the transfer window would leave United in a difficult situation especially if they don’t sign a replacement as Van Gaal has confirmed that Valdes will be sold this summer due to his refusal to play in a reserve game and whilst the arrival of Sergio Romero may go some way to compensating in a depletion of goalkeeping options, he has not played a lot of club football recently so it would be a gamble to rely on him. We look at Romero later in this piece.
Just before the end of the season there was a consensus view amongst many United fans about areas of the squad that clearly needed to be strengthened. Most people considered that we needed a right back, a commanding footballing centre-back, a defensive midfield player and a striker with pace. In addition some considered that we needed a quick right sided attacker and a box-to-box midfield player although not everyone we talked to agreed that these last to areas needed attention.
So how have we done?
For the right back position United have recruited Matteo Darmian. Matteo who? That’s what some said when most people expected United to compete for the signature of Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne? Well if you didn’t know who he was where have you been? He was identified as a potential target for this position back in May by @DaveSelini on our site. You should also be aware of him from the World Cup where he starred against England for Italy in the opening group game. A solid defender, quick, likes a tackle and is not averse to the occasional forward run. At the end of the day he is an Italian international defender. Full back? Job done. You can read more about him here http://manutdtactics.com/?p=4697. It is rather surprising then that Van Gaal has alluded to the player being signed as a back up to Valencia. Should we take that idea seriously? Probably not.
Instead of signing one defensive midfield player United have signed two! Bastian Schweinsteiger joins from Bayern Munich and Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton. United already have Michael Carrick for this role so this begs the question who will play where? This area clearly needed to be strengthened as Carrick struggled with injuries last year and as he is now approaching his mid-30’s you just can’t expect him to play every week or twice a week. Blind is an alternative but struggled at times to adapt to the pace and physical challenge of a midfield role in the premier league.
The recruitment of two players for this area of the team prompts two possibilities; a switch to a team shape incorporating a double pivot, or one or other of the players being pushed further forward into more of a box-to-box role. We can only speculate but in terms of a player adopting a new role Schneiderlin did play further forward on occasions for Southampton last season and Schweinsteiger, a player who has learnt the defensive midfield role having started his career as a wide player has been known to struggle when played higher. At Bayern Guardiola was thought to have concerns about Schweinsteiger as a single defensive midfield pivot. Will Van Gaal have similar concerns? This issue is one of the most fascinating tactically as we look forward to the season ahead. You can read more about Schweinseiger here http://manutdtactics.com/?p=4725 and more about Schneiderlin here http://manutdtactics.com/?p=4713.
Memphis Depay doesn’t really fit with our views about what United needed this summer, but perhaps he was considered too good an emerging talent to pass up. Clearly others thought so if the players statements since joining are anything to go by as he seems to think that all Europe’s leading clubs were after him! According to UEFA he is ranked as Europe’s leading young player. Van Gaal has floated the idea that Memphis could play as a striker; he did so for PSV on many occasions last year and was Holland’s top league scorer after all. In pre-season he has played as a Number 10 behind Rooney. Quick, strong athletically built; tricky with a great free-kick he contributes a significant number of assists. He should be a real asset. You can read more about Depay here http://manutdtactics.com/?p=4491.
The question regarding the recruitment of Sergio Romero is whether he has been signed as a potential replacement for De Gea or Valdes. Our view is that he has been signed as a replacement for Valdes and if De Gea were to leave United would look to sign an additional keeper. Nevertheless he is a welcome addition; another experienced international and one who plays for one of the world’s highest ranked international teams. Last year he represented his country in a World Cup final, but ironically he has played very little club football in the last two years. Why? You can read more about Sergio Romero here http://manutdtactics.com/?p=4827.
Last year could be viewed as one of experimentation or alternatively as a season where the manager was forced to chop and change tactic to get the most out of an unbalanced squad. There were certainly many more tactical changes than United fans have been used to in recent years.
Van Gaal’s preferred system historically is a 4-3-3 and by the end of the season he had returned to a shape similar to that having flirted with any number of different shapes throughout the campaign. The final orthodoxy was a 4-3-3 in the attacking phase and a 4-1-4-1 in the defensive phase. Answering a question from one of our own contributors to the site Edikan Umana, (@EddieTrulyReds ), in the press conference after the Paris St Germain game Van Gaal confirmed he would be using a 4-3-3 “more or less”.
But in pre-season and with a host of new recruits to accommodate the manager switched to a shape closer to a 4-2-3-1 and this would suggest that the “more or less” has some significance.
There is no doubt that the manager now has a more balanced squad at his disposal but it is the recruitment of Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin which seems to point in the direction of a system utilising a double pivot. Those two new players are an addition to Carrick and Blind who most commonly featured a defensive midfield role last year. United fans must hope that a strong deep midfield will help shield the central defence, the area of the side which is still a concern to many, as well as providing a resolute base behind a more fluid and dynamic attacking four.
United fans should not be surprised if Van Gaal favours a 4-2-3-1 this season. The manager is a pragmatist and so is flexible enough to use whatever strategy he considers appropriate in view of opposition and players available to him. He also has a history with this shape having won Championships with it in Holland with AZ 67 Alkmaar and Germany with Bayern Munich.
The pertinent question seems to be how different is this from a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 strategy and what changes are we likely to see in United’s play if he does persist with the tactics used in pre-season? But first of all we need to put these developments in context.
A Rebalanced Squad?
Van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford last summer and tried in the time available at the end of the transfer window to reshape the squad he inherited. This was only a partial success, but the squad he has now is closer to what he would want. The three big words last season were philosophy, process and balance.
His philosophy is a given and we have explained what we feel is the difference between philosophy and tactical strategy here http://manutdtactics.com/?p=3017. His philosophy won’t change. The process of building a successful side is on-going, so that leaves balance. Balance applies both to the squad as a whole and the team selected for a game.
The squad he has now is closer to what he would want whatever the team shape or strategy employed. It is widely known that Van Gaal favours a balance of six disciplined defensive minded outfield players and four attacking players to whom he will give more freedom. In a 4-2-3-1 the defensive players are clearly the back four plus the two midfield pivots. If one of the pivots moved forward in the attacking phase one of the front four is expected to cover.
As far as the front four are concerned Van Gaal wants quick, intelligent highly technical players who will play with fluidity to open up defences in a way United seemed unable to do at times last season. He has talked about pace in pre-season even going as far as to suggest that one of last season’s quicker players and better performers, Ashley Young, isn’t perhaps quick enough for his liking!
A review of the squad as it is now suggests that Van Gaal now has a squad to play like this with reinforcements giving him options in the pivot positions and any number of quick mobile intelligent forward players to play around Rooney as the front man. We can therefore expect a United side this year built more closely in the image of Van Gaal’s philosophy.
Inverting the triangle?
So how big is the difference between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1? As 4-2-3-1 is a hybrid that seeks to combine the benefits of both 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, the answer would be different but not that different. As a disciple of the Ajax school of 4-3-3 Van Gaal approaches the 4-2-3-1 from the 4-3-3 end of the spectrum and we have previously written about that here http://manutdtactics.com/?p=2458. In line with his philosophy he values possession highly and in line with a 4-3-3 orthodoxy wants to avoid being outnumbered in midfield by keeping three men in the centre of the pitch at all times. This creates a passing triangle and ensures the man in possession always has options.
The issue last year was that minimal pace up front meant that most of those options were in deep areas rather than at the front and this led to much frustration amongst fans as United passed sideways and back more and recorded fewer shot than a United side traditionally has.
In the use of the 4-2-3-1 it is worth looking out for two key things in the year ahead; the movement of the wide players in the three and how the central three is set up and moves. First let’s look at the formation most commonly used at the back end of the last campaign.
The chalkboards below show a typical team shape in attack from last season, this was more of a 4-3-3 and then in a defensive phase the shape became more of a 4-1-4-1. The difference of course is clear; it is the position of the wide player. Generally the team would keep three players in the central square.
The next two chalkboards show a 4-2-3-1 in the attacking phase and then how that shape can easily change into a 4-4-1-1 in the defensive phase. Again this is achieved by an adjustment in the position of the wide players and again the side maintain a three within the central square.
In the next two chalkboards the 4-2-3-1 becomes a 4-3-3 in attack. This requires more sophisticated adjustments. In the attacking phase the wide players push forward either side of the central striker whilst one of the pivots will also push on. The number 10 might adjust his position and the remaining defensive pivot move across to a more central position. Looking at the central three the team again retains these players within the central square. Effectively this movement inverts the triangle between the attacking and defensive phase, with the point of the triangle facing forward in the defensive phase and backwards in the attacking phase.
This requires the movement of the central three, but especially the two pivots to be closely co-ordinated. This is something we have seen in pre-season, especially when Carrick and Schneiderlin have played together. We would like to see other permutations involving Schweinsteiger and Blind and Herrera tried at some stage.
The one area of the team where many United fans still have most concern is central defensive. United have plenty of options here now but do they have the quality as well as the quantity? United’s interest in Ramos has been widely reported but in all honesty with Real Madrid adamant that they would not sell this always seemed like a long shot. For United not to have explored an alternative seems a big gamble.
What United lack here is a leader at the back and if they are reluctant to spend on a player other than Ramos as they can’t get the standard of player they want then that’s fair enough but they are gambling on a strengthened midfield in front of the centre back pairing providing greater protection? This area could prove to be United’s Achilles heel.
So those are the changes to date and of course with a few weeks to the end of the transfer window there could be a few more. In the second part of our season preview we will consider the big question; can we challenge?