Amazing how times change. Manchester United could be freely backed at 1.48 (around 4/9) on Betfair all Monday afternoon to win in 90 minutes over League One side, Preston North End at Deepdale that evening. The odds put United’s winning chance at just over 66% which doesn’t sound all that strange to the uninitiated at these things. But put in context, it wasn’t much more than 5 years ago that the Reds, not long shorn of the genius of Cristiano Ronaldo went off at a prohibitive 1/20 to beat Preston’s Lancashire neighbours Blackburn Rovers in a home game in the Premier League.
Chelsea went on to win the title in that 2009/2010 campaign. A different time, place, competition and more importantly a different manager in charge (and it was also in the midst of a spell where Sam Allerdyce liked to field weakened teams away against the top sides) but still the swing in odds is startling.
In hindsight, the odds on Monday night were out. United came through comfortably enough in the end despite nearly everything going wrong but the bookies generosity was prompted not due to “the magic of the FA Cup” but more the Red Devils’ underlying issues that have seen them struggle twice with League One opposition already this season and that is without going into an unimpressive cup win at Yeovil.
So how is the Van Gaal reign going? Satisfactory in terms of meeting the target of once again qualifying for the Champions League; things are on course. However long-term, United will look to once again compete with Manchester City and Chelsea. To make that further jump forward will require an improvement in performance and that is where efforts like last nights will lead to concern. United have been all-out to hold relatively moderate opposition on numerous occasions this season so where is that improvement going to come from?
Well it might be that Van Gaal could possibly set up his team in a different way to get the best from the personnel he has available. Some things may be beyond repair, Falcao looked so beleaguered coming off early on a night when everything bounced off him. Smalling did a passable impression of Bambi-on-Ice on a number of occasions and is prone to dither. Ironically, he is the exact opposite of Phil Jones who rushes headlong into everything.
This is only scratching the surface but with the money spent there must surely be plenty to work with. Formations don’t win games but the systems trialed by Van Gaal this season may well have been a factor in his team’s under-performance at different junctures this campaign. Having started the season with 3-5-2 and since abandoned it. The Dutchman famed for his tactical astuteness has now moved on to a 4-4-2 diamond system which, while giving the team plenty of possession and thus the control Van Gaal craves; has led to them lacking in width and penetration.
It might be a coincidence, but the last two games against Burnley and Preston have seen United turn things around when reverting to a variation of 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 and playing with width and pace. The much maligned Ashley Young added something from the left and involved Shaw on the overlap while DiMaria who is at his most threatening beating men in the final third rather than the centre circle looked far more comfortable cutting in from the right. These were the formations traditionally favoured by Ferguson and while they may lead to the possession stats being lower. They certainly seem to give The Red Devils’ attack far more thrust.
The fluid 4-2-3-1 is a system favoured by most of the major clubs in Europe and gives solidity as well as interchangeability in the line behind the striker. It is also deployed by domestic rivals City and particularly Chelsea to good effect.
To be fair to Van Gaal he inherited an inherently unbalanced side and the temptation which he may have succumbed to with the 3-5-2 for example was to shoehorn all of the stars into the team by hook or by crook. Yes Mata playing off of Rooney and Van Persie, a sitting midfielder like Blind and the security blanket of three centre-backs with marauding wing-backs like Shaw and Valencia sounds good in theory, everyone was playing a position that was theoretically correct but the team was unbalanced with little pace up front in a forward line that wanted to constantly move towards the ball rather than run in behind and stretch defenders.
The diamond is presenting the same issues with the only true attacking pace in the team, DiMaria, picking up the ball too deep. The wing-back assignment also proved far too much for the likes of Valencia and Shaw who provided neither the flair of the winger or the discipline of the defender.
Van Gaal is usually not one for turning, but he may have hit on something with the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 formations he deployed in the second halves at home to Burnley and against Preston. A 4-2-3-1 for example, would mean leaving out two or three big names every time the team took the field. But it may well be that this return to convention is the only way forward for the sake of balance. The team has certainly looked the better for it on the previous two occasions.
Perhaps this is the way to go. Take one from each position below, and just let them fight it out.
De Gea/Valdes (GK)
Rooney/Mata/Fellaini (Attacking midfielder/ Second Striker)
Rooney/Fellaini/Falcao/ Van Persie/ Wilson (CF)