Make no mistake about it, we’re still yet to see Manchester United hit top gear. Their campaign has included bitter-fought wins decided by last minute goals, a 3-0 romping of Liverpool at Old Trafford and an impressive 1-1 draw with Premier League leaders Chelsea, but we’re still waiting for them to emphatically steamroll an opponent or produce a performance that suggests future title holders in the making, without dependence upon the continuous heroics of David De Gea.
The consequential argument that’s ensued in recent weeks has centred around United’s formation – a carbon copy of the 3-5-2 that inspiring Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands to a shock third-place finish at the World Cup. Long considered alien to the Premier League and particularly adverse to Old Trafford’s back-four-double-wideman traditions, is this what’s holding the Red Devils back this year?
Football is a results-based business and considering United’s ultimate aim this season remains Champions League qualification, it’s hard to argue with what van Gaal has accomplished so far. The Red Devils are currently fourth and, barring early-campaign slip ups against Swansea and Leicester City, have lost only to those above them in the table. Along the way, the 3-5-2 formation has inspired wins over Arsenal, Liverpool, Southampton and Newcastle – vital results in the battle for fourth spot.
Former United defender Paul Parker, however, claims United’s current position is a false one, achieved only through the high quality of their players rather than any tactical nous or philosophical implementation on the Dutchman’s part. Admittedly, right now they’re more a loose ensemble of expensive, exotic talents than a cohesive unit and that’s reflected in recent performances, United limping their way past a ten-man Aston Villa, Tottenham, Stoke City and QPR to claim just nine points from the last six league fixtures, using the 3-5-2 system.
The stats too, are incredibly telling. Manchester United’s win ratio with three at the back is just 42%, averaging out at 1.7 points per game, whilst it jumps to 60% with four at the back, averaging at 2 points per game and also leading to 0.7 more goals per game.
Parker’s predominant criticism, shared by Gary Neville on Monday Night Football, is the lack of intensity in United’s build-up play, the ball cautiously shifted between the centre-backs without penetration forward and little to show for their lion’s share of possession. Currently, United are second in the Premier League’s possession rankings, averaging at 58.7%, only bettered by Manchester City.
Their lethargic 2-0 win over QPR last weekend provides the perfect case study. The Red Devils had 68% possession in the first half at Loftus Road, their centre-halves making 114 passes (the most of any centre-back combination that weekend by almost double), but only produced five efforts at goal and remained scoreless, albeit through some solid goalkeeping from Robert Green. After van Gaal changed to a four-man defence at the interval however, resulting in a more direct, dynamic and risk-taking style of play, they scored twice and could have ended the game with even more goals if chances had been taken.
To give credit where it’s due, the implementation of 3-5-2 has given United something they desperately lacked last season – a sense of unique identity. Whether it’s the right identity or not wasn’t too important a few months ago; at its least, 3-5-2 was an example of van Gaal taking philosophical initiative and differentiating himself from Sir Alex Ferguson. Compared to the overawed David Moyes, who only ever offered a banal attempt at continuity, LVG’s attempts to move the first team in a different direction of his own design suggests the level of self-confident ambition one would expect from a United manager.
Recent results however, suggest van Gaal’s efforts to reinvent United are becoming increasingly dogmatic – a problem recurring from his final season at Bayern Munich.
“The 4-3-3 formation brought the best out of many Bayern players [in his first season in charge] and gave their play a sense of identity, something that hadn’t been seen in Munich for quite a while,” wrote Raphael Honigstein in 2011. “The season after, the formation became a dogma. He never diverted from it. Not when the opposition had worked out a way to deal with, not when specific games warranted it, nor when key players were injured. Instead, players were shuffled around inside the system and often ended up in very unfamiliar positions.”
With Wayne Rooney in central midfield and Angel Di Maria operating as some form of roaming winger-forward, the pattern is beginning to sound worryingly familiar. But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that van Gaal addressed the inadequacies of his 3-5-2 at half-time on Saturday, rather than insisting upon dying by his own philosophical sword.
The question now is where does van Gaal go from here? Does he stick with a formation that attained vital results earlier in the season, or bow to those fans that chanted “4-4-2” at Loftus Road?
With springtime looming and British grass getting greener, the last 16 games of the season should be when the Premier League’s top sides, particularly those more dependent on technical football, come to the fore. The last thing United need in such a vital period is a formation that slows down the rate and tempo of their attacking play and for that reason, in combination with the arguments above, I believe it’s time the Red Devils return to a more familiar, free-flowing and ambitious system.