Louis Van Gaal promised change when he was made Manchester United manager. He suggested that a departure from the sadness of the previous nine months and a reversion to the confidence of the Sir Alex Ferguson era was in store. And all summer and preseason it looked like he’d delivered. The club brought in shiny new players that could work with his preferred 3-5-2 system, Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera, and they rolled through the competition in their preseason tour of the United States. But against Swansea on Saturday, United produced more of the same: inert possession and home disappointment.
Before delving into the tactical undoing of United at the weekend (and it was that, not mere bad luck or poor finishing), its important to give a bit of credit to Swansea who set up to deal with the system fantastically and were well organized at the back. A formation with one striker is always going to give the 3-5-2 difficulty, because you’re often put in positions where three players are marking one (in this case the central defenders and the lone striker). That “over-marking” leaves you short of players elsewhere on the park and Swansea’s first goal, a brilliant 29 pass move that has already been examined to death, was a perfect example of how winning the numbers game creates both time on the ball and space on the field. Angel Rangel and Ashley Williams both impressed in defense, while Ben Davies’ stand-in, Neil Taylor, had a game to forget. Gylfi Sigurdsson was immense in his return for the Swans.
The 3-5-2, like most football formations, is ideologically sound. It’s predicated on the idea that a team will earn a numerical advantage in midfield while attacking, and a numerical advantage in defense while defending. This is enabled by the use of wingbacks, players that serve either an attacking and defending role based on the possession and location of the ball and start higher up the pitch than the traditional fullback. The Netherlands team that the Louis Van Gaal coached to the third place trophy at the World Cup had two players perfectly suited to this role in Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat. In addition to wingbacks, the left and right centerback roles are also specialized for the system. These players need to be able to push up into midfield occasionally and (generally) have the footedness of the side they’re playing on as they spend more time in possession than they might in a four-man defense.
United’s failure on Saturday came down to a lack of understanding and a lack of specialization. The solutions to both of these problems will come with time. The team is still inexperienced in this new tactic and the new roles they’re playing within it. Players like Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia will provide a huge boost when they recover from injury. Until then, however, it might be a bit of rough sailing, as some of the mistakes on Saturday were basic and horrific.
- Juan Mata played far too high up the pitch the entire match. He was basically operating as a secondary striker/number 10. This would be fine in the attacking third, but he wasn’t coming back to receive the ball enough when United were deep and possession. As a result Herrera and Fletcher were anesthetized as they became swamped in midfield and could only really pass the ball to the backline and the wingbacks. Because of Mata’s positional error, United were always a man down in midfield and gaps started appearing between the lines for Swansea to exploit. I’m not sure he can even play in this system. It requires too much mental fortitude and consistency for an indulgent player like him. Jose Mourinho let him go because he lacked the discipline to perform in his Chelsea team and Van Gaal might be feeling a bit of history repeating itself. On Monday Night Football, Gary Neville did an excellent job of showing one of Mata’s situational failures; when United were in defense he left his man, Ki, to pursue the ball. This wound up giving him the space to score the opening goal. We already knew about his shortcomings in defense, but to also see him so lazy and tactically naïve when United were in possession was a surprise.
- The centerbacks clearly have not had enough time. Against a lone striker one of the three defenders has to move up into the midfield whenever the striker drops deep to mark him. When this happens the rest of the team drops into a flatback four and it works terrifically. Bruno Martins Indi got done a few times at the World Cup, typical for an inexperienced player, but also he did a tremendous job of tracking dangerous players into the midfield and stopping moves before they could start. He was instrumental to the Netherlands’ success. On Saturday, Wilfried Bony was ostensibly allowed free reign drop in between the midfielders and the defenders, receive the ball and hold it up for his fellow attackers. That time on the ball allowed Swansea a foothold in the game.
- The wing backs have been much discussed in the media, but the only point I’d like to hammer home is that, if your starting position is going to be at fullback (as it was in this game), you need a defensive player in that position or you’re not really benefitting from the talents that your wide players bring to the table. Januzaj was absolutely rampant going up against Taylor, but his introduction into the game also exposed how much better United were in attack when they played a 3-4-1-2 as compared to the 5-2-1-2 that they started out the match in. As the home side, and the side supposed to be attacking, United’s wingbacks should have been pushing Swansea’s wingers deeper into their own half. If Mata had actually kept a three man midfield in shape, this would have opened up the middle of the park for United and allowed the wingbacks enough the defensive space recover into when they lost the ball.
- In the second half, Manchester United switched to a 4-5-1, bringing on Nani, taking off Hernandez, and moving Jones over to fullback. Yet the problem with too few men in the midfield persisted. Many of United’s players just don’t have the right mentality as of now. You can’t have 4 players on the pitch (Mata, Nani, Januzaj, Young) who are only comfortable going forward. They’ve been asked to take on greater responsibilities and they just don’t currently have the mental or physical attributes to perform them. Look at the image below to see the effect that this imbalance has on a team. The lines between midfield and attack are stretched and there are few options to play out of the back. This led to the club revisiting the much maligned Moyes tactic of “lumping it up onto Fellaini’s head”.
- To Young’s credit, he worked very hard in a position that he has never played much before, but when he was clearly beaten for Swansea’s final goal all of his naiveté as a defender was on display. Keeping him on as an out and out fullback was a mistake that was going to be punished.
It’s not all doom and gloom for United. The signing of left-footed centerback Marcos Rojo is a perfect move for the team. The former Sporting Lisbon defender is comfortable at centerback or leftback, has skill and ability on the ball, and is a nice physical player with good speed and strength. These qualities are hugely important for the specialized position of left centerback in a three-man defense. Juventus’s Chielliini is the prototype at that spot, but I’d bet that Rojo can come in and do a great job for the Red Devils. Rojo has his flaws, he’s too aggressive, gets a little lost positionally, and has a tough time marking quick players, but they’ll be mitigated if he plays the stopping defender role and Evans plays cover (as seems most likely).
Make sure to check-in next week to see how the team is evolving. I wouldn’t bet against Van Gaal just yet, at least not until Shaw and Valencia return. United have too much quality injured or unfit to fairly judge their sour performance at the weekend. As is, its a minor hiccup on the road back to the top 4.