The words “defensively solid” and “boring” have both been used in equal measure when describing Manchester United this season and it could be argued that one of the reasons for this is Louis Van Gaal’s change in formation. Having found success at the back end of last season with a 4-3-3, he has moved to a 4-2-3-1 this year, which can be viewed in different ways.
On one hand, the system allows you to replace a central midfielder with an extra attacker – something we saw in pre-season and in the first few games of the season, as Memphis Depay was the man brought in, initially playing as a Number 10. On the other hand, it can also be viewed as a more defensive shift – United have now gone from one deep-lying midfielder to two, offering extra protection for the back four, but in effect one less player higher up the pitch. The responsibilities of the wide players have also changed, as in a 4-3-3 they can play higher up the pitch and closer to goal. In a 4-2-3-1 they generally have to start from a deeper position.
In many cases, it can also come down to the personnel involved. For example, a midfield duo of Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin will be defensively sound, but neither are likely to get beyond the forwards and burst into the box. Replace either of them with Ander Herrera however, and it automatically looks like a more attacking combination – however question marks remain over whether Herrera can play in a two man midfield. He has very rarely done so since joining United and on the few occasions this has happened, he’s been somewhat of a liability (see the first half of the Club Brugge game as an example).
Likewise, as impressive as Juan Mata’s stats may be, his inability to get up the pitch quickly also stops the 4-2-3-1 from being a real attacking success. Were United to play with two speedy wingers (like Van Gaal had in his Bayern Munich 4-2-3-1 with Ribery and Robben), then the emphasis would again change.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating as they say, and as many people have pointed out, United rank very low in key attacking stats such as chances created and shots per game. This isn’t just down to the formation, but could a shift back to last season’s 4-3-3 help United up their attacking game? Van Gaal has briefly flirted with that system again on two occasions this season – both times when the side were losing at half time (away matches against Arsenal and CSKA Moscow). On both occasions, United’s performances became much improved.
There’s no doubt that having two midfielders focused on pushing forward in support of the front man, as Herrera and Marouane Fellaini did last season, would give United more bodies in the final third. Right now there is too much pressure on the Number 10 (whoever that may be) to be the link between midfield and attack, as well as supporting the front man. With the amount of possession United enjoy, there is little need to have two central midfielders regularly behind the play, and an extra body in attack could also encourage quicker passes forward. Another option, another passing angle.
Anthony Martial seems like an ideal choice to lead the line in a 4-3-3, and this could also be a good move for Wayne Rooney, allowing him to move deeper yet still have the licence to break forward. Rather than receiving the ball with his back to goal and struggling to shake off his man, as is currently the case, he could pick up the ball in more space, with the game slightly ahead of him. He would offer more in terms of passing, mobility and switching the play than Fellaini did last season, whilst still providing a similar goal threat (providing he remembers how to shoot when near the goal!). He would also provide a healthy work rate and defensive cover in that position.
Both Carrick and Schneiderlin are more than capable of playing the “lone holder” role although admittedly there would be a question mark over whether the Frenchman has the range of passing and ability to control the game from that position – and in Van Gaal’s possession focused team this is crucial. However when he played there in the second half away at CSKA Moscow, he showed he had more to his locker than people think, with some especially good switch passes from right to left.
The 4-3-3 would also suit Herrera and Mata, allowing them both more attacking freedom. Herrera would have two defensively aware players to his left, whilst Mata would have an extra central midfielder who could cover his position on the right when United lose the ball. The link-up between the two Spaniards was one of the highlights of last season and positioning them on the same side of the pitch would see more moments like the opening goal at Anfield.
Van Gaal is nowhere near the 4-3-3 disciple people assumed him to be before he joined United – not only has he shown this during his time at Old Trafford, but also at Munich, AZ Alkmaar and the 2014 World Cup. However not many people would argue with the fact that United’s best displays under him have generally been with that formation in place. It’s more of a risk as it requires specialists – particularly in the holding role and up front. United actually do have specialists in these positions though, so moving back to that system might just be what the doctor ordered in the final third.
This piece was written by Nilesh Pandey. Follow him on twitter @NileshP7