Colm Hayes discusses the potential change in formation that Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal may use this weekend as a result of the injury sustained by Phil Jones on international duty.
No Manchester United defender has covered himself in glory this season, but Phil Jones has still been the most impressive. A hamstring injury picked up on international duty looks set to rule the former Blackburn bruiser out of this weekend’s clash with Queens Park Rangers.
With United’s problems at the back well-documented and the acclimatisation to the 3-5-2 formation proving difficult, Jones’ injury could prove the catalyst for a potential formation change.
Now, Louis van Gaal is clearly not one to back down in the face of adversity and it could be that he persists with playing three at the back and sticks to his mantra that it will take three months for his methods to become second nature. With Chris Smalling’s fitness still in doubt after a groin injury, the back three this weekend would likely comprise of Jonny Evans, Tyler Blackett and Marcus Rojo, who has finally obtained a work permit.
While it is good to see van Gaal giving youth a chance in the form of Blackett, the England u-21 international has looked susceptible to mistakes during United’s opening clashes. Pairing him with a debutant in a still highly unfamiliar system could be a gamble too far for the Dutchman.
Jonny Evans also didn’t look entirely comfortable playing on the right-hand side of a back three against Burnley and would be more comfortable playing as part of a back four, which could be said for all of United’s defenders (Blind excluded) at the current time.
With Luke Shaw and Rafael both returning to fitness, returning to the tried-and-trusted back four is potentially on the cards for the Red Devils. Of course, neither young full-back is guaranteed an immediate place in the starting XI, with competition especially rife for the left full-back or wing-back spot.
With a back four in place, van Gaal would have the option of setting up in either a 4-3-1-2 or 4-2-2-2 system which still allows room for two strikers in United’s teamsheet. These formations will mainly require the full-backs to provide the team’s width but with the likes of Valencia, Rojo and Blind providing competition in these areas, whoever is picked will have to perform from the off.
A big question for the new United manager is how to squeeze all of the club’s new signings into the side. While United’s problems in midfield over the last few years have been obvious to see, a fit Ander Herrera along with the versatile Daley Blind can give provide options in the centre of the park.
Vice-captain Darren Fletcher will still be hoping to retain his place, while even the much-maligned duo of Marouane Fellaini and Anderson offer potential, though admittedly limited, options. The heavily underrated Michael Carrick is still on the treatment table but his return will further spice up the competition in the midfield area.
Of course, in Angel Di Maria United have a world-class player extremely adept at playing in the centre of the park. He had a brilliant season with European champions Real Madrid as part of a midfield three and van Gaal will no doubt be tempted to unleash him where he is most effective. The Argentine had a decent debut against Burnley but may find himself slightly restricted playing in a midfield two.
With a combination of, for example, Herrera and Blind playing beside him, Di Maria would have license to maraud forward at will and cause devastation in both central and wide areas.
One of the biggest conundrums facing Louis van Gaal is who to leave out of the side once he has a fully fit squad to choose from. For my money, it would seem highly likely that Juan Mata will spend a decent amount of the time warming the bench this season. Club captain Wayne Rooney looks to be immune to rotation, though he has looked a little sluggish in the first few outings.
If Robin van Persie can prove his fitness, he looks to be a definite option up-top for his former international manager. With his reputation as one of the deadliest marksmen in world football, coupled with the extravagant loan fee United laid out for his services, Radamel Falcao will be a dead cert in the front two over the course of the season, though it would be no surprise to see him introduced from the bench this weekend.
This is all without mentioning Belgian starlet Adnan Januzaj, who will be pushing hard for a regular starting role this time around after last year’s breakout season.
After the starting XI is finalised, van Gaal has the unenviable task of ensuring these players can produce the goods on the pitch time and again, as is expected of any Manchester United team. After an extremely poor start to the season, there will be no more room for excuses after the lavish outlays from the Old Trafford coffers this summer.
Ed Woodward has stated that this year’s budgets are based on a top three finish for the Red Devils, an exceedingly optimistic view even with all the new faces arriving at the club.
All eyes will be on Old Trafford this Sunday as United take on QPR and Harry Redknapp. The R’s manager has already scrapped the infamous 3-5-2 formation in favour of an ordinary 4-4-1-1, which worked to great effect in their last fixture against Sunderland.
Will Louis van Gaal follow suit, or stick to his guns? Whatever happens, it promises to be a highly eventful season for the red side of Manchester, and indeed for the Premier League, one way or another.
Colm Hayes, Pundit Arena.