“Process” is not a word Louis van Gaal is shy of using. He is a process manager – believing in a seemingly detailed method to bring the teams he manages to the top. The said method is held in high regard by Van Gaal, who has led many teams before from lackluster starts to league title wins in his impressive career. The process is demanding for the players. In his own words, the players have to un-learn what they know and re-learn his process till such a time that they are equipped to make decisions for themselves on the pitch without requiring words of wisdom from the touchline during games (apparently Van Gaal only says “one line” as part of his pre-match team talk because the players know what they have to do).
It should therefore not be a surprise that after a faltering start to the season, Manchester United now lie in one of the Champions League spots in the Premier League table. From starting off with a three at the back system to the current 4-1-4-1, United have finally found a system that works with the “process”. We look at the various positions across the pitch (and the players who have been used in them) that have had an impact on United’s system this season.
David de Gea has been immense this season. He has single handedly saved United at least 9 points this season while thwarting opposition attacks. He was a player who took time to settle in the more physical English game after his 2011 move from La Liga, but is now one of the most complete goalkeepers in the world. His composure has been brilliant this season, with victorious one on ones against Jack Wilshere, Eden Hazard, Raheem Sterling, Mario Balotelli and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain spring to mind. United now face a tough battle to keep the Spaniard at Old Trafford, with Real Madrid lurking. Below is a clip where United legend and Sky pundit Gary Neville analyzes David de Gea’s improvement, especially this season.
When Van Gaal came in beating the drum about the 3-5-2 formation that had worked so well for Holland during the World Cup in Brazil, he was either unaware of the lack of players in the squad who could work towards pulling off this system or he believed they would be good enough to learn the system quickly and put his ideas into practice. However, the inability of the team to embrace the system quick enough, and pressure to at least finish in the Champions League spots has made Van Gaal concede that it is the system that needs a change from the 3-5-2. And what a wonderful change it has been.
In spite of the 3-5-2 being seen as something of a failure now, the massive improvement of Chris Smalling has been a direct result of having played in both the formations. Smalling started off as the central defender in the three at the back, who was expected to play the sweeper role, bringing the ball forward, playing it out of defence and linking up moves with the midfield. Smalling was average at it. He lost the ball far too often, and even when he did get into promising positions, he ran out of ideas and the final ball to make his foray forward count, was missing.
The Chris Smalling that plays now in a back four is more composed. Perhaps because he knows he has more security at the back if he plays the ball out of defence or because he has practiced his ball playing role often enough to become good at it, Smalling now shows confidence and composure going forward with theball. He is one of the first names on the team sheet and is the best English defender on current form. Against Chelsea, Smalling won 80% of his tackles. The rise under Van Gaal has been obvious, and Smalling is the best example of benefitting from the 3-5-2 system. Paddy McNair is another youngster who looks confident bringing the ball out of defence. He looks like the real deal, and barring his mistake against Everton in their last game that got James McCarthy though on goal, has been secure at the back. In fact, McNair showed what he was capable of as he brought the ball out from defence on one occasion against Chelsea and had a commendable effort on goal at the end of a superb run.
Wing-backs play a very important role in the success or failure of a 3-5-2 system. Unfortunately for United, the players to play the wing-back position were mostly makeshift. Although Ashley Young did do a decent job of it, he looks far more threatening as a winger than a wing-back. He’s at his best when he has a full-back overlapping him, to use as a decoy against the opposing defenders. He has been without doubt Manchester United’s most improved player over the last two seasons. His rise no doubt must be attributed in some measure to the confidence Van Gaal has shown in him. You’re doing something right if you keep a player like Angel di Maria on the bench.
Antonio Valencia’s determination and work-ethic made him a preferred choice over Rafael at right wing-back, a position that is unforgiving if a player lacks discipline. Valencia did a fair job at right back and should Van Gaal revert to a wing-back system, he should be preferred over Rafael. However, now that he plays right full-back in a 4-1-4-1 formation, the door of opportunities must open up for Rafael, who is a better defender even if he is not as disciplined as Valencia.
The wingers have been instrumental in United’s recent performances. On the left, Ashley Young has combined with left full-backs Daley Blind and Luke Shaw to devastating effects. Adding Marouane Fellaini on the left side of central midfield has made the Young-Blind-Fellaini triangle impossible to play against. Kyle Walker, Emre Can and Pablo Zabaleta will not disagree. However, opposing teams have become wise to the threat posed by this triangle. We saw instances of Chelsea and Everton handling the threat well. Kurt Zouma was given the role of marking Fellaini at Stamford Bridge to some success. On the right, United have Juan Mata play an inside winger role. Mata does not offer a lot of width and pace and United’s right hand side often does not look as threatening as the left.
It is precisely this lack of threat that makes Mata work in this position. As the left wing hogs the ball and the limelight, the right goes fairly quiet, only to suddenly appear in threatening positions that result in goals. Indeed, Juan Mata gave the Liverpool defence the slip in both his excellent goals at Anfield not too long ago, by being sufficiently anonymous during the game to lose his marker. He does not hog the ball in midfield – that role has been given to compatriot Ander Herrera, but he cleverly uses his experience to get into positions round full-backs to offer United an option on the right. Antonio Valencia complements his well by overlapping ahead when Mata cuts inside to his stronger left foot.
Without Michael Carrick, the United midfield looks weak and ineffectual. This was all the more pronounced by United’s losses to Chelsea and Everton in their last two games, but when he plays, United look a different team. We have all sung praises about his ability to make the play tick with his passing and his gifted talent for intercepting passes. But it was his vision that has made the big difference in United’s play this season. He sees the game spread out in front of him and makes intelligent decisions that trigger moves. United missed that as Ander Herrera replaced him against Chelsea, as did Daley Blind against Everton. Blind poses the most threat coming in from left back and does not compare with Carrick’s passing prowess from midfield.
Watch Carrick’s run at 0:17 as he demands the ball from Blind and plays it forward to Fellaini for United’s first goal against Spurs.
While Carrick has been a lynchpin in the Man United line-up for years now, it is Fellaini’s transformation that has been surprising. From being the forgotten man at Old Trafford after bearing the brunt of being the symbol of the disastrous David Moyes era, the big Belgian has found his form and got his confidence back under Van Gaal, who calls the midfielder “undroppable”. Van Gaal has designed the formation in such a way that it brings out the strengths in Fellaini. His aerial threat, his knack of protecting the ball up front and bringing his team-mates into play, and his goal-scoring abilities were well known at Everton, but rarely seen last season at Old Trafford. Until now.
Now, Fellaini does exactly those things that come naturally to him in an advanced left centre midfield position. This little tweak in the formation that lets Fellaini play in the space between the opposing right back and right centre back has worked wonders. With Young and Blind piling pressure on the right back with their runs, and Fellaini demanding the ball in the same area, the left side for United is overloaded with attacks. This causes confusion between the opposing right back and right centre-half, and also pulls the entire opposition defensive unit to its right, leaving ample space for Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia to exploit on United’s right. Fellaini’s use as a tower of strength despite possible opposition from the crowd must be credited to Van Gaal. The Belgian has now won 91 aerial duels this season.
The final piece in the midfield puzzle has been the young Spaniard Ander Herrera. Calm, incisive and authoritative in midfield, Herrera has taken the opportunity, that came late in the season to him, by the scruff of the neck. If Carrick is the controller of the tempo of the game, Herrera is the play-maker who finds the incisive pass. He plays the balls into the forwards’ feet and has built a good partnership with fellow Spaniard Juan Mata. The two of them seem to have some kind of telepathy United have benefitted from. Herrera is already a crowd favourite and he is not afraid to voice his opinion to his team members on the pitch, something lacking in the Tom Cleverley types.
United’s forward line has been a bit of a disappointment given the riches in talent they possess. A forward line boasting of Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie should be bursting with goals. However, Falcao has take longer than expected to settle to life in the Premier League, and Robin van Persie just doesn’t seem his usual self. True, Van Persie has had injury woes, and yes, he has missed the delivery that Carrick and Herrera now provide to the forwards, but it is worth noting that the unspoken understanding around Old Trafford is that Van Persie’s absence through injury was a blessing in disguise.
Wayne Rooney has taken the opportunity extremely well, and has looked in his element in his preferred striking role. This goal against Aston Villa could well be a contender for goal of the season. The energy Rooney provides up top, harrying the opposition defenders off the ball has been a key factor that is missing when Falcao or Van Persie play up front. Van Gaal will still regard the inability of Falcao this season as a big let-down and must not make the mistake of making the Colombian’s deal permanent. The Colombian came on for Fellaini against Everton to change things but posed little threat to Jagielka and John Stones, who were able to see him off without breaking a sweat. Van Persie, too looks out of sorts and it is probably best to cash in on the 31 year old striker now – Van Gaal is a practical man, with little room for sympathy.
Louis van Gaal came in with a lot of expectations and it is safe to say that he has done enough to restore confidence at the club. Some of his tactics haven’t worked and he has had to swallow his pride by discontinuing his preferred 3-5-2 formation when many had been clamouring for this change already, but credit must be given to his man management skills. Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, three forlorn figures from last season have emerged to be one of the most influential players this season.
Van Gaal also has turned a deaf ear to his critics who complained about his target man approach while using Fellaini, but he has incorporated that long-ball part in United’s now attractive play very well. However, he does seem to be opposed to working on a Plan B when things do not work out. Against Chelsea and Everton, it was clear that those teams came out happy to let United have the ball and hit them on the counter (which they did). United had 71% and 67% possession respectively against Chelsea and Everton, but having failed to break them down, there is no change in the formation of the team. Against Everton, for example, Van Gaal threw on Robin van Persie towards the end of the game with the team losing by three goals, but the Dutchman inexplicably took up a position in midfield as a like for like replacement for the role Rooney was playing. Why was Rooney not playing up top with Falcao? Why didn’t Van Gaal throw on Van Persie earlier so that there could have been three strikers on the pitch at the same time?
These are questions only he knows the answer to, but Van Gaal will seem to have done his job if United finish in the top four. Next season’s signings will be key for the team though, and Van Gaal will have to take a more hands-on approach to the summer transfer market than he does instructing the players during matches. For now, the team does look like a well oiled machine, where everybody knows what their role is. It looks like the “process” indeed is working. All he needs now is an alternate plan against opposition willing to put bodies behind the ball.