It’s become a common theme throughout this year in light of Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal’s persistence with a range of formations: what is the best way to set up this current United side?
The problem relays purely from the strength of their squad, which embeds a foundation for Van Gaal to pursue any formation he wants to some effect.
But like David Moyes, Van Gaal must still appease a fan base who’s fondest memories point to Sir Alex Ferguson. Nostalgia always teaches them that 4-4-2, width, wingers and outright attacking football are key. Van Gaal, being Van Gaal, doesn’t especially care for current opinion and alternative ideas to his own (which in many ways isn’t really a bad thing), and there’s a resulting sense of frustration brewing amongst their huge fanbase.
That frustration is probably brought about because of Van Gaal’s stubborn approach, which they know will probably not be swayed. Holding up long-ball diagrams in press conferences to refute assertions that his side play in a certain way epitomises how he refuses to be labelled and categorised to an unattractive mould.
With that in mind, there’s probably only three realistic formations worth discussing. First is the most contentious 3-4-3, which has been fruitful in spells. Next is the midfield diamond that is seemingly Van Gaal’s reactive default if three at the back is failing. Last is the traditionalist’s favourite: a bog-standard 4-4-2, which appears arbitrarily.
The 3-4-3, for the record, has been more successful than perhaps people think, but it’s weakness is that it omits the use of traditionalist wingers which is an ingrained Manchester United philosophical feature. That isn’t really a problem generally, more that when things go wrong it offers it’s doubters some ammunition to take aim on ‘what the club is about’. In more basic terms, it also demands playing three central defenders, calling upon what many will unanimously agree is the weakest area of United’s squad.
The midfield diamond flares up the similar you’re-not-playing-wingers argument, but is more accommodating for the host of attacking players that Van Gaal has. It allows, like the 3-4-3, for Van Gaal to play with two strikers, a no.10, and two central midfield players, which reflects his general preferences from his formations.
That’s where the core weaknesses of a conventional 4-4-2 lie. United get the width they need, but there’s no space for a no.10 – which chokes one of Wayne Rooney or Juan Mata, or both, depending on who starts up front.
Hence, to accommodate all of United’s best players and stick to Van Gaal’s preferences, the best option is probably to persist with a midfield diamond, as used in the defeat to Swansea two weeks ago (hardly the best example, granted).
The key to that is primarily Angel Di Maria. Play him up front, as Van Gaal has done, in a 3-4-3 and he doesn’t quite exert much influence on the game. Play him as a left winger (as Van Gaal did against Chelsea earlier on this year) and he seems strangely unfamiliar with his role. Playing him on the left side of a diamond is where he is best suited – it’s the role that he took up at Madrid that coincided with the best six months of his career, the role that he performed expertly in the Champions League Final..
Once Di Maria is suited and booted where he belongs, you can then play either Daley Blind or Michael Carrick as a holder in front of a stable back four, keep Rooney and Mata in the loop for an advanced role further on, and still keep two strikers up front.
Di Maria, of course, shouldn’t be the key to choosing a formation, but a diamond seemingly also plays to the strengths of United’s other key protagonists. The other key is to formulate what you do up front, with Falcao continuously disappointing and Rooney situated too far from the opposition’s final third.
The questions are numerous, the options copious, the doubts plentiful. Van Gaal will no doubt do whatever the hell he wants regardless, but if he’s to get the best out of his wonderfully talented squad and adhere to his own basic principles, a midfield diamond seems the most plausible way forward in his ongoing plight to re-establish Manchester United as a dominating force.