With another international break upon us, and as we having now played 13 games across three competitions it feels like a good time to take a look at United’s start to the season and identify various issues, positive and negative. It always important to avoid jumping to hasty conclusions, or reinforcing in one’s own mind pre-conceived assumptions about issues and personalities; there will always be plenty of that amongst fans and the football media. Opinion varies from fan to fan and media outlet to media outlet; certain newspapers appear to have gone into this season with a clear and preconceived take on Van Gaal , and whatever transpires they appear set on reporting with a negative spin. They may be proved wrong, they may be proved right, but they won’t let any of that get in the way of whatever is the most marketable story.
But what are the issues? We are going to look at them now and use a few recent games as points of reference.
Overall the squad looks to have a far better balance this season than last. This is particularly true down the spine of the team where Van Gaal now has plenty of options. The balance between the number of attack- minded players and defence- minded players also seems to be better, although one or two issues persist. We have highlighted these before but we should now add that the long term injury to Shaw adds to our existing concerns around the left side of defence. This may mean that in time the manager will have to compromise on his preference for left footed players on the left and right footed players on the right (and he is already done so in the case of Matteo Darmian). We have enough defenders, but if the manager sticks to his preference the balance across the width of the pitch may become an issue. There remains an ongoing question as to whether our defensive players are good enough.
The other area where the balance of the squad may be an issue is at centre-forward and the right side of our attack. The system that Van Gaal currently prefers requires only one central striker and Martial’s prolific start to his career at Old Trafford may at first seem to alleviate concerns, but – as has been pointed out by many – you can’t expect consistency across a full season from a 19-year old. This view is reinforced by Van Gaal’s decision to retain James Wilson rather than allow him the loan move that would give him the game time he needs to develop. This area remains a concern and United may need goals from the support cast to make a continuing impact at the top end of the table. The right side of our attack is an issue because of Mata’s lack of pace and his natural tendency to come inside. That inclination isn’t a bad thing in itself and he has perhaps been United’s best player over the last month, but this can leave Darmian exposed at right back. We saw this recently in the games at Southampton and Arsenal when the defender has been withdrawn at half-time. Post-match analysis has focused on the form of the new full-back and has generally ignored the factor of Mata’s movement, which can rob Darmian of any protection.
Case for the defence
To look more closely at the defence as a unit in addition to the issue of the left side of our central defence, the other concern which stands out is defensive leadership.
In the early season, United’s full backs were in excellent form, with some observers suggesting that we had the best full back pairing in the Premier League. Unfortunately Shaw’s injury has complicated matters and Darmian has since had a couple of difficult games. Despite this, we wouldn’t have too many concerns in the medium to long term about the full back positions. In the game against Sunderland Darmian was switched to the left side, allowing Blind to remain on the left side of the central defence. He did okay there, but Sunderland didn’t pose too great a threat. That decision to move him across may have been considered necessary by Rojo’s hamstring injury. The alternative course of action if Rojo had been available would have been to play him as the left sided central defender and put Blind at left full back where he played a good deal of his football last season. That would have allowed Darmian to stay at right back. Darmian can play at left back however, as, like Blind, he played a good deal of his club football there last year. The option of playing Valencia at right back though is not necessarily an issue although he had a mystifyingly bad game against Wolfsburg.
This discussion illustrates that United have options across the back, but what it also shows is that currently United need to juggle to make things work. Perhaps to do so they will have to put Van Gaal’s principle of left footed players to the left and right footed players to the right to one side, at least for now. Of course, the other topic is the number of players being played out of their natural and favoured position. Van Gaal has consistently made the statement that he is a manager who likes “multi-functional” players. This is fine in principle, but you can go too far with this, one or two players across the whole team “doing a job” in an alternative position may work for a while, but too many, and too many in one area of the team is likely to be more of an issue. For example against Wolfsburg as the visitors mounted a late push United had a right back (Darmian) at left back, a left winger (Young) at right back and a left sided defensive midfield player (Blind) at left centre back. To stiffen things up in the face of Wolfsburg’s late charge Van Gaal moved Blind to left midfield and introduced Jones (a right sided centre back) moving Smalling (a right sided centre back) to the left. It remains a mystery how they survived those last fifteen minutes.
Blind or Rojo on the left of the defence?
If in the medium term the full back position positions are resolved, the real issues are at centre-back. Smalling has improved immeasurably over the last year and is without doubt our first choice right-sided central defender. Assuming Van Gaal picks a left footed player the choice on the left is between Blind and Rojo. That is a choice between the physicality and pace of Rojo, or the football intelligence, game reading ability and passing craft of Blind. With Rojo returning to training late, Blind has been the first choice to date and although he has done far better than many anticipated when the manager suggested he could hold down this role, a pattern has appeared in recent weeks where he has played well in home games, but struggled in away games. Blind struggles in one-on-one situations and is often beaten for pace or outmuscled. This was most evident recently away against Swansea City and Southampton and serves as a contrast with his performances against Liverpool and Sunderland. Here, under less pressure at home and with more time available on the ball he made significant contributions to help break down the opposition’s defence -his pass to Mata in the build up to the first goal against Sunderland was sublime. Away from home he is more likely to be exposed to pressure and will have less time on the ball. This may also be an issue against the better sides at Old Trafford. In these games, if he is fit, the option of playing the more robust Rojo (or Jones and his right foot) is there. But neither will bring the passing craft that Van Gaal requires from his centre backs. We wouldn’t think that would be quite such an issue against the better sides who are less likely to employ a low block, more likely to show more ambition and so are more likely to leave gaps for others to pick open.
The other big defensive issue is leadership. Who is the defensive leader, the talker on the pitch, the organiser? This appears to be United’s biggest weakness at the back and one to which we can’t suggest a solution. A few years ago we expected Phil Jones to become that player, but he hasn’t made anywhere near the level of progress he should have made. Can Smalling, who has moved ahead of Jones in the pecking order, become that leader? This leadership is needed not just to marshal the defence but also the defensive midfield players who are a significant part of Van Gaal’s defensive strategy. Who was telling Schweinsteiger to sit deep and remain compact in the game against Arsenal? Anyone or no-one?
Shape and movement
The default shape so far this season has been 4-2-3-1. It has served the team well generally and suits Van Gaal’s preference for a 6/4 split of the defensive and attacking function. He has had success with this shape elsewhere in the past and we can see no real reason why he would change from this now. He sees this shape as a form of 4-3-3, which in many ways it is, although to most people it seems like eccentric thinking. But if it produces winning football this is a minor point.
United against Tottenham and Liverpool; the personnel changes but the tactical shape remains roughly the same.
Using the system, the Arsenal game aside, United are maintaining their shape well; a little too well at times for some who would like a little more unpredictability and adventure. The system uses two midfield pivots to screen the defence and instigate attacking forays from deep positions, switching play and recycling the focus of attacks.
There are a number of issues here, though. So far United have used Schneiderlin, Carrick and Schweinsteiger as the pivots in most games although Fellaini and Herrera have featured there occasionally. If we focus on the three most regularly used here, the obvious issue is that they all bring something slightly different to the party and United need a balance of all these talents. United have looked at their best in recent weeks (the Arsenal game aside) when they have featured Schweinsteiger in the side. He is the most accomplished footballer of the three. He brings vision, good movement on and off the ball and is usually successful at pressing opponents in front of him when they have the ball. He is always prepared to receive a pass even in the tightest positions, and brave in his positioning, appearing less hamstrung by a concern not to get caught out of position. Perhaps it is because he reads the game so well that he makes good judgements about where and when to move around the pitch. But that all deserted him at the Emirates and he was consistently caught out of position in dramatic fashion as Arsenal passed around what was initially a one man press. On the ball he links well with his teammates further forward and so is creative. His forward passes ask questions.
Schneiderlin, Carrick and Schweinsteiger
So what happened at Arsenal? There is a question around Schweinsteiger’s fitness and mobility. He appeared to be struggling for fitness in the first few weeks of the season but looked to have improved in this respect. What is clear from the Arsenal game is that he needs to temper his tendency to push forward, perhaps he should press less and only push forward when United are on top. He also needs to focus on staying compact and helping to maintain the team shape down the middle of the pitch because, like Blind at the back, once the opposition moves the ball past him he is usually unable to recover. With Shaw missing that means that the left side of United’s defence/midfield lacks pace. Any pressing should also be co-ordinated with teammates; a one man press will never work.
Schneiderlin and Carrick are generally more cautious, more static and more likely to find themselves inter-passing with their central defenders rather than the number 10 or wide forwards. In fact one of those central defenders, Blind, is often the more creative option as he steps out from the back towards his more natural defensive midfield position; that is not necessarily a bad thing and is part of Van Gaal’s plan. The problem is that the pair has tended to focus more on the defensive side of the game so far this season and so when they have played together the balance between the two elements of the pivot’s roles isn’t there. If Schweinsteiger plays with one or other of this pair then United’s play is far more dynamic, far more fluid, but what the Arsenal game showed is that United still need to do significant work in developing balance and co-ordinated play between the two pivots, whoever is selected.
This is all about balance, and it is the balance between maintaining a team shape whilst also moving enough on and off the ball to trouble the opposition. The pivots are key to this balance not just in respect of their own role but across the whole team. But the ultimate lesson from the Emirates is that in the first twenty minutes of an away game the golden rule must be to stay compact.
Which brings us to one of the most frequently discussed issues of the season, the role and form of Wayne Rooney. The ability of the pivots to create is dependent upon what is happening further forward in the side and the recent game against Southampton was a case in point.
After this game there was much talk amongst the TV pundits about the issue of whether United’s first goal changed the game, or whether it had already changed prior to the goal. Opinion was split but at the time no one thought to ask the follow up question: if the game had already changed, what made that change? They then went on to discuss Rooney’s “disappointing” season to date and how little impact he had made in the game, ignoring the fact that a big part of the answer to the supplementary question was in fact…….Rooney!
Much of the discussion about Rooney focuses on the number of goals he is scoring. That’s fair enough if he is seen as the main striker; it was a question we asked in pre-season ourselves. But with the arrival of Martial his role has changed (and he is our joint top scorer having scored 4 goals so far anyway).
But back to his overlooked game-changing display at Southampton. In that game Southampton dominated the first twenty minutes. They went man to man on our pivots, (Carrick and Schneiderlin), with Mame and Pelle closing them down whenever United had the ball coming out of defence. This worked for Southampton as they let Smalling and Blind have the ball. Carrick and Schneiderlin both dropped deep which meant that United had few forward passing options with the forward players, Martial and, notably, Rooney being isolated up front. After the game several commentators remarked about the fact that Rooney had dropped deeper to try to get involved and that this isn’t really what you want Rooney to do, completely ignoring the fact that this is what changed the game. In the first twenty minutes Rooney was high and Southampton could go man to man on Carrick and Schneiderlin. Around the twenty minutes mark Rooney dropped deep, giving United three against two in the central area of the pitch. Suddenly midfield players had passing options and United could start to build through the centre of the pitch. Further forward Mata moved in from the right, (something he often does anyway) into the area vacated by Rooney. This required an adjustment by Southampton but before they could effect it Mata was running into the box in the inside left channel to set up Martial and…………Boom! This was all from movement instigated by Rooney’s adjustment of his position.
Southampton’s adjustment, when it came, was to start to attack United’s right rather than left. Gary Neville made the point that he could not understand why they had done this when they had previously had so much success attacking United’s left. Was it not because that was where the space now was as a consequence of Mata moving centrally? As described above, the downside of this was that Darmian was now exposed on that side and looked vulnerable to Tadic. No surprise then that Van Gaal replaced Darmian with Valencia at half-time; his greater Premier League experience and pace benefiting the side in the second half.
The overarching point here is that United’s movement transformed the game – in the first twenty minutes, our passivity gave the initiative to Southampton. The movement of Rooney was proactive and asked a question. We got the answer we wanted.
The Lessons of Arsenal
So, movement’s natural, movement’s good, not everybody does it but everybody should……………..Actually, not everyone – you can have too much of a good thing.
It’s difficult to ascertain what the plan was at Arsenal because within no time at all United were 0-2 down. It seems as if the plan was to take the game to Arsenal and start on the front foot, presumably because of a perceived weakness in their defensive game. As a consequence Schweinsteiger played the first half not as a pivot but essentially as an adventurous box-to-box player. That in itself is not necessarily a problem and in a 4-2-3-1 strategy there is a not uncommon aspect of one of the two pivots, Carrick in this case, sitting in whilst the other pivot moves up and down the pitch as the so called “shuttler”. In this game, though, there were problems. Firstly, whilst Schweinsteiger can play this role, he isn’t the quickest over the ground, so when he does push on, if the game goes past him he can’t get back in time. Secondly, the other movement around the side necessitated Carrick dropping back. The consequence of this was too much space between Carrick and Schweinsteiger. If he is going to push on, then his midfield partner should be Schneiderlin not Carrick. Schneiderlin has more natural defensive tendencies and can more easily cover the German’s movements.
But there were other movement issues against Arsenal. Young was played as a left back but in the first half he seemed to be playing more as a wing back. What United needed was for Schweinsteiger to drop into the left and provide lateral cover as Young moved forward. He didn’t do this, which meant that Blind and Smalling had to move laterally to the left to cover. This left Darmian with about a quarter of the field to defend single- handedly, and, critically, left him exposed to two of Arsenal’s quickest players and their best performers on the day, Walcott and Sanchez.
After half time Valencia replaced Darmian, and Young and Schweinsteiger stayed deeper. United had a better shape in the second half. Fellaini was introduced in midfield to form a three with the pivots, and Rooney moved to the left in front of Young. United were closer to a classical 4-3-3. Clearly Arsenal were prepared to adopt a “what we have we hold” approach and await opportunities to hit us on the break, but United improved massively, keeping their shape and enjoying more possession. Other plus points of the second half were Fellaini and Martial. Fellaini was presumably asked to play a slightly different role than usual, receiving the ball to his feet, dropping deep and playing simple neat passes around the midfield areas rather than pushing on to receive an early forward pass. He did this really well. Martial was superb in the second half. The thing to notice is how incredibly strong he is. He hasn’t scored for a couple of games and it’s his goals that will tend to get the headlines but this was arguably his best display to date. It is his movement and strength which mark him out as a player of great potential. He is going to be a big star.
Attack, Attack………Attack, Attack, Attack!
We have all heard that chant from fans over the last couple of years and there is no doubt that for many United fans the football recently has been a little tame. There appears to be a body of opinion forming, which is both shared and encouraged by sections of the media, that Louis van Gaal’s football philosophy is based around slow, cautious, boring possession- based football. We don’t believe this to be the case.
Of course Van Gaal’s philosophy is based on a possession based approach but a slow tempo doesn’t necessarily follow from that. He utilises a structured approach that requires players to maintain a positional discipline and stick to the tactical plan. It appears that this, and the emphasis on controlling the game through possession, has had an effect on some players, making them overly cautious, encouraging them to take three touches when two will do, and to generally select the safe pass rather than the pass which asks questions of the opposition.
We don’t believe that this is the intention because if you look back to last season it wasn’t always the way. There were periods in the season where United moved the ball quickly and their passing moved the ball up the pitch quickly. These periods coincided incidentally with runs of good results, notably in the spring when United blew away a series of teams with whom they were competing for a top four finish. The view that this over cautiousness isn’t part of Van Gaal’s plan is supported by the fact that both this year and last he has regularly made the point that he is looking for a better tempo in our passing.
Last year it took a while for the tempo to improve, and it did so when United utilised Fellaini to move the ball to the final third more quickly. This year United have a couple of new players in the final third, namely Memphis and Martial and it is going to take a little time for those players to become fully integrated into the methods and to find their feet in the Premier League. Add to this that two of the three regular pivots are new and that we need to allow players time to settle.
The key though is clear. In Van Gaal’s systems you retain the ball and circulate it to both tire the opposition and wait for them to make mistakes. Playing against United, our opponents can regularly be seen to tire in the later stages of games so these methods are working to an extent. But to really work to the optimum level we need to circulate the ball more quickly, move the ball towards the opponent’s goal more quickly and deliver passes which test the opposition. This is what will make them tire sooner and make more frequent mistakes because it will put them under pressure. Possession itself will give us control, but possession itself is not enough. If that possession is less patient, less cautious and exerts more pressure on the opposition then it will result in clearer cut chances, goals and the entertainment that we all want to see.
Late formation against Wolfsburg with the introduction of Phil Jones
But there are other concerns here. If the tempo remains low, the opposition will be more comfortable and against better opponents United can expect that they will take the initiative. We have seen two clear examples of this recently against Wolfsburg in the Champions League and in our most recent game against Arsenal. In both games, compared to our opponents, United looked slow and ponderous, and in both games the opposition took the lead. Against Arsenal there were other problems (as discussed earlier) but both illustrate that if United aren’t asking the questions the opposition will.
44 passes; Boom!
Evidence that these methods can work were seen in the second half at Southampton when United executed a 44 pass move leading to Mata’s goal. When asked about this goal after the game Van Gaal answered with a single word… “Fantastic!”
The goal encapsulated his philosophy in many ways. United moved the ball around the pitch from side to side and back to front for all of two minutes without Southampton managing to touch the ball. But it was a more adventurous pass by Scwhweinsteiger into the final third which asked the question and opened the opposition up. United almost lost the ball as a consequence of that Schweinsteiger pass, which kind of proves the point that you need to cede a little control, take a risk to increase pressure and force the opening. United scored and gained a 3-1 advantage in the game as a consequence. A 3-1 score line has to be the sort of control we seek, but thereafter United became cautious again, tried to kill the game and conceded a late goal. This confirms our point; either we ask the questions or the opposition will. At the end of the day it all comes back to balance again, a balance between control and taking a risk, movement and keeping your shape. At the moment United haven’t quite got that balance right. But we have to trust they will.