In what was a disastrous first outing for a supposedly resurgent Manchester United, John Murphy claims that some positives can be taken from their shock loss to Swansea. First analyzing the potential frailties of Louis van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation, he finds reasons for optimism in what was another black day at Old Trafford.
As thousands of United fans trundled out of Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon, the overwhelming feeling of despair was a familiar one. United were sluggish in possession, lacked pace in attack and the defense was, with the exception of a fantastic performance from Phil Jones, entirely exposed. It was as if David Moyes had never left.
For United fans there were a number of concerns going into the game, chief among them was the, newly adopted, 3-5-2 formation. Although this lineup clearly has a purpose in that it is designed to accommodate United’s three best players; Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie the system has still raised a lot of eyebrows due to the knock on effects for the rest of the squad.
Looking at the formation’s undoubted purpose as a starting point, the Rooney, Van Persie, Mata conundrum was one that Moyes was simply unable to solve. In selecting a conventional 4-4-2 or the now more fashionable 4-2-3-1, the Scotsman was never able to ensure that his three most gifted attackers were simultaneously operating in their best positions. With Mata cast out to the wings or Rooney being forced to drop further into midfield, he was unable to draw the best out of a potentially lethal trio.
With Van Gaal’s new system, Van Persie and Rooney will both be able to operate in their preferred advanced positions while Mata will be granted his optimal role as a central number 10. However, despite the unquestionable benefits of this attacking front three lineup, other areas are being compromised as a direct consequence.
In defence, United realistically have only three senior centre backs at present, one of whom is quite clearly not of the requisite Manchester United standard. Chris Smalling should at best be a squad player yet in the new system he is a starter, this is obviously not a selection that gets the best out of the squad available. Any formation with a four man defense would accommodate a centre back pairing of Evans and Jones. Although this is perhaps not exactly the strongest in the league, it is far from a weak partnership.
The frailty of United’s defensive options in the 3-5-2 formation was highlighted by the forced selection of Tyler Blackett on Saturday. The recent injury to Evans led to the youngster starting his first premier league game. On loan at Blackpool and Birmingham last season, most Manchester United fans had never even heard of the young defender prior to kick off, and although he was undoubtedly calm in possession, his inexperience was evident for Swansea’s winner when he seemed entirely lost as Gylfi Sigurdsson stroked home the winner.
Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 also raises a number of questions about United’s historically most lethal area; the wings, the club are traditionally synonyms with attacking fluidity and pace in wide areas. However with this new formation, van Gaal is no longer looking for wingers but wing backs, a type of player who has a work horse attitude and a level of fitness to get back when needed and forward to simply support the buildup, but not with attacking brilliance to get behind defences.
One need only look at the best wingers in the world to realize that they will fit this defensive role. Di Maria, Ronaldo, Hazard, Bale… these are players blessed with flare and the ability to ghost by defenders with ease. However what they have in attacking brilliance, they lack in defensive application. These types of players can only thrive in a side that lines up to extract the best of such exceptional talents. In Valencia and Young, most frequently selected in United’s pre-season games, Van Gaal has shown that his 3-5-2 does not accommodate the gifts of a world class winger but the efforts of a run of the mill work horse. The starting formation on Saturday saw Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard lining out with Januzaj and Nani on the bench.
What all of this suggests is what Manchester United fans feared most. Van Gaal was selecting players that fit his formation rather than a formation that fits the players available to him. Although the system may indeed get the best out of Rooney, Van Persie and Mata, the selection available on Saturday clearly did not fit the bill and the costs outweighed the benefits.
However, it was not all doom and gloom. After a dismal first half display, van Gaal reacted in a manner that showed he is not stubborn in his philosophy and has the ability to read, interpret and react to the situation at hand. United shifted to a 4-4-1-1 with Rooney as the lone striker supported by Mata as number 10. Van Gaal introduced Januzaj and Nani on the wings who had an immediate impact.
The loss was undoubtedly hard to take but United dominated possession and opportunities in the second half. Van Gaal showed that he has an innate intuition to read a game and react to what’s required. Rooney equalized early in the second half and had his follow up free kick rattled the net rather than the post, there is every possibility that United would have went on to win the game by three or four. Football, as they say, is a funny old game.
Over recent weeks, Van Gaal’s side has been linked with a number of high quality transfers. There is no doubt that the defense will be strengthened in the coming weeks. Vidal may indeed arrive to bolster the midfield but one name has had fans scratching their heads. If acquired, how would Angel Di Maria fit into Van Gaal’s 3-5-2? What Saturday showed was that, although it is most probable that he will continue with this strategic formation for the near future, the Iron Tulip is not unwilling or incapable of adapting to new circumstances. If for example United succeeded in signing Di Maria, it is very likely that United would shift back to a 4-2-3-1 with Di Maria and Januzaj supporting on the wings. The young Belgian, as another positive was truly exceptional when introduced on Saturday.
United lined up against Swansea missing Robin van Persie, Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans. These are, in the current squad, all certain starters. Removing five key players from any top side will no doubt raise difficulties. Although they have already left it late, there is no question that United will make one to three more acquisitions before the current transfer window closes. The Marcos Rojo signing is all but complete, and from Di Maria, Vidal, Hummels, Benatia and Blind, I would expect at least one more to arrive before the first of September. With those returning from injury and Van Gaal’s evident tactical adaptability, there are many positives to be taken from a poor result on Saturday.
United have Sunderland, Burnley, QPR, Leicester and West Ham as their next five opponents. The silver lining should be their position in the league table come the end of September.
John Murphy, Pundit Arena.