Can 3-5-2 succeed at Manchester United?

There were plenty of winners and losers at Brazil 2014. German football, Brazilian football, James Rodriguez, Luis Suarez, Louis van Gaal, spray-can technology, all left the World Cup with their reputations either greater or lesser than before.

But one undoubted victor of the tournament in Brazil that has thus far slipped under the radar is the re-emergence of 3-5-2. The formation saw Chile annihilate Spain, aided Costa Rica’s against-the-odds march to the quarter-finals and even facilitated for a rather ordinary Netherlands side to reach and win the third-place play-off. Does that make Hull City’s Steve Bruce one of international football’s leading contemporaries? Maybe not.

Former Oranje gaffer Louis van Gaal now wants to bring 3-5-2 to Manchester United – a system which actively defies every philosophical tradition at Old Trafford, most notably the exclusion of natural wingers. He’s used the formation during both of the Red Devils’ pre-season fixtures against La Galaxy and Roma, and has subsequently suggested the club’s recruitment this summer will be done baring it in mind.

In turn, the question must be asked; can 3-5-2 succeed at Manchester United?

Opinions on the system remain fairly divided in England. 3-5-2 is often seen as a foreign formation, particularly taking root in Serie A, with Steve Bruce and Glenn Hoddle amongst the few top flight managers who have championed the system in recent times. Even amid the utmost injury crises, most Premier League managers will resort to deploying midfielders as full-backs before they even consider the notion of constructing a three-man defence.

The last major club to attempt to adopt it was Manchester City during their infamously poor 2012/13 title defence campaign, a season which eventually cost Roberto Mancini his job. Following a 3-1 defeat to Ajax in the Champions League, Micah Richards summarised the opinions of the players; “We’re used to a straight four and it’s twice we’ve gone to a back five and conceded, The players just want to play. It’s a hard system because we’re not used to it.”

Gary Neville soon followed by declaring 3-5-2 ‘alien’ in the Sky Sports studio, citing his own experiences that adapting from a conventional, typically English system to a considerably more continental one with completely different individual roles, especially in defence, was the biggest challenge. For a club that that has implemented back fours and two widemen at every age group throughout Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign and yonder, adaption will be Manchester United’s ultimate obstacle too.

But Louis van Gaal’s ability to implement his ideas on the training pitch is renowned throughout world football. Endorsements such as Raymond Verheijen’s – “He’s an extremely good team builder, a good technical teacher. If a club wants to start from scratch and build a new team then he’s the perfect candidate,” the Holland coach recently told BBC World Service – are not hard to find.

And van Gaal has already undergone a practice run of training a squad around the values of 3-5-2 with Oranje. Before the 2014 World Cup, his Netherlands side had never used the system before but by the end of the tournament they were its leading champions, with the 62 year-old even converting Arjen Robben into an out-and-out centre-forward and Dirk Kuyt into a wing-back. Clearly he has a strong understanding of how 3-5-2 must be taught and the players who suit it best.

Furthermore, as van Gaal has argued himself, United find themselves venturing into the realms of 3-5-2 through necessity rather than design. The Red Devils squad is tremendously unbalanced, or in the 62 year-old’s own words, ‘broken’ – they have four strikers all capable of holding down starting roles, five No.10s and despite United’s enormous heritage otherwise, no wingers that can claim to be amongst the European elite.

Rather, 3-5-2 allows for Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata to be on the pitch at the same time – a disturbing conundrum that both David Moyes and Ryan Giggs failed to find a solution to last season – whilst also accommodating for the natural strengths of Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia, who has become far more defender than midfielder over the course of the last few seasons.

Likewise, a three-man centre-back set-up would hide the inadequacies of what has now become United’s weakest department following the bosman exits of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. As the Dutch demonstrated in Brazil, when quality is in doubt, strength in numbers becomes the safest policy. ¬†Furthermore, capable of playing at centre-back, full-back or even midfield, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling should transition to a 3-5-2 well.

But the most prevailing benefit will be that it gives United a clear direction and sense of identity – something they tellingly lacked under David Moyes. Whether it’s the best system for the Red Devils is open to debate, but more important is the fact 3-5-2 creates a separation between United and their past, and a strong, fresh philosophy that the players can believe in.

Of course, the ultimate test will be whether the system can work in England, with a top flight more ferocious, instinctive and competitive than any other and a footballing culture firmly entrenched in variations of 4-4-2. ¬†3-5-2 is by no means incompatible with the Premier League – it took Hull City to an FA Cup final and a 16th place finish last season, despite the Tigers being widely tipped to go back down. But we are yet to witness a club at the top end of the Premiership adopt the system successfully. That uniqueness could prove to be the Red Devils’ defining blessing, or equally their intrinsic curse.


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