At the time of writing, Louis van Gaal has just engineered an emphatic win over Tottenham Hotspur in the late kick-off at Old Trafford on Sunday. With this big win, United have moved that much closer to Champions League security, two points off second placed Manchester City. And with Southampton’s draw away at Chelsea coupled with Spurs’s loss, Manchester United are in pole position to finish fourth at the very least, albeit having to contend with a difficult run of fixtures that includes Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea before the end of the season.
Still, for now, this victory over Spurs could well be the turning point in the season, where United finally find their identity under the experienced Dutch manager. They had a superb game, akin to one of the many dominant performances Old Trafford witnessed in the Alex Ferguson era. The passing was swift and accurate, the tempo and intensity back in United’s game. The build up was incisive and with purpose. And the assault at the Spurs goal very much a throwback to the United of old. As Paul Scholes would probably say, the balls were back.
The first obvious thing to realize when finding a reason for this transformation against Spurs, would be the formation. Since the World Cup, Van Gaal has mellowed in his stubbornness to use the three at the back formation that worked wonders for the Dutch in Brazil. Here against Spurs, United played a 4-1-4-1 formation, which emphasized the two points Van Gaal had been getting wrong all season, but had always looked away when the problems were pointed out to him. First, the balance was back in the United team with four at the back. Van Gaal wasn’t twitching in his seat so much as United raced into a 3-0 lead with just over half an hour played in the match.
Second, captain Wayne Rooney was back where he is best. Up front, leading the line, playing the sole striker, Rooney was absolutely fantastic – holding up play, bringing the likes of Fellaini and Ander Herrera into the attack, pressing the Spurs back line and getting the goal with a determined dribble past the entire Spurs defence. Though his celebration will get more reactions, Rooney’s goal was a brilliant individual effort and he showed exactly what United had been missing in front of goal – drive, determination and class. Van Gaal must be appreciated for utilizing Fellaini in this formation well – more on that later.
However, one would be warned against believing Van Gaal has settled on this formation, with Rooney up top. The United manager has used six different formations this season, playing three at the back in 12 of the 29 Premier League games. Even when he has played four at the back, he has preferred a diamond 4-4-2, perhaps because it utilizes the embarrassment of riches he has up top – with the caveat that Falcao the entire season and Robin van Persie for most of it, have been either absent by injury or not present in the capacity they should be as Manchester United strikers.
Van Gaal would be well advised to stick to the formation he used against Spurs, for it works best for United to play, well the United way. The wingers threatened and the wing-backs overlapped against Spurs. Young and Blind on the left were especially effective, and the triangle on the left that Young, Blind and Fellaini formed simply terrorized the Spurs defence. Kyle Walker at the right side of Spurs’s defence had a torrid time, while Andros Townsend, playing on right wing and thought to be assisting Walker defensively was substituted with half an hour played.
More so than anything else, Van Gaal must be implored to stick to a formation since it gives a sense of regularity and practiced familiarity to the players. It is no wonder that Chelsea lead the Premier League with manager Jose Mourinho never having deviated from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation for the entire season. In all of Chelsea’s 28 matches this season, they have persisted with this formation. Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger have also tinkered little with their sides, putting out just three different formations each the entire season.
Van Gaal might offer the explanation that he had to adapt with players injured early on in the season, but he should now, with players back from injury, pick one formation out of the six he has played with this season and go with it, if United are to finish strong this season. The question is whether he will pick the unavailable Angel di Maria and the injured Robin van Persie when both become available after this emphatic win. We finish by looking at the players who have had seasons at opposite ends of the spectrum during Van Gaal’s time.
David de Gea, Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Wayne Rooney, Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling, Michael Carrick
These are the players who have excelled under Van Gaal. De Gea has completed the transformation into a world-class goalkeeper, the one Alex Ferguson must have imagined when he brought the youngster to Old Trafford three and a half seasons ago. Ashley Young has been in inspired form, back to his best days as an Aston Villa winger, with the kind of form he showed during the first few months of his Old Trafford career. Wayne Rooney has been immense wherever he has played – something not out of the ordinary for the skipper, but he does seem happier playing the midfield role under Van Gaal than under Alex Ferguson – undoubtedly a trick Van Gaal has played on the English forward’s mind. Chris Smalling has been ever improving, having statistically been one of the best English defenders in the Premier League this season. Marcos Rojo also has proved to be a decent buy.
Two players who have been more influential than the others have been midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick. Fellaini has found his mojo again – being the kind of nuisance to opposing defenders that he was in his Everton days. He wins more than 90% of aerial duels and Van Gaal has cleverly used Fellaini in a similar advanced role his predecessor David Moyes had used him in during their Everton days together. The Belgian has been ever-present, ever since he came off the bench at the Hawthornes to score the goal that set United on their way to earning a draw against West Bromwich Albion. His physical presence has been too much to handle for Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool this season. Van Gaal gets the credit for stubbornly persisting with Fellaini’s obvious effectiveness even after bring criticized for United’s long-ball approach. The Dutchman wants to win in the most effective way possible – it matters not what others say about it. A glance at Fellaini’s excellent performance in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea earlier in the season where he marked Cesc Fabregas out of the game:
Michael Carrick has had the more subtle effect on the team than Fellaini. He has made sure he kept the game ticking with his passing, while closing out opposition attacks with his positioning and interceptions. United have lost only one of the last 13 games he has started in. Carrick adds a certain intelligence and experience in midfield, whereas Daley Bind only possesses the former for now. Carrick’s comebacks have coincided with United’s best runs in the league. His adamant call for the ball from Blind on the left in the game against Spurs and his first time through ball to release Fellaini set United on the way to their most impressive victory. He needs to stay fit for the next nine games United have so that he can have a similar influence over their attacks.
Radamel Falcao, Angel di Maria, Jonny Evans, Juan Mata, Rafael, Luke Shaw
Perhaps the word losers is a little harsh on Rafael and Luke Shaw, but there is no denying the fact that Falcao and Di Maria have flattered to deceive this season. Falcao’s alarming fall in stock reached an all-time low as he was hauled off in an under-21 game on Tuesday after 70 minutes, having failed to score. The Monaco forward has been so abject this season, that Van Gaal has had to contend with smirks from reporters who have questioned his decision to put his faith in the Colombian striker, while letting local star Danny Welbeck depart to Arsenal. Falcao surely is coming to an embarrassing end to his Old Trafford stint.
Statistically Angel di Maria has not been too bad, chalking up 3 goals and 10 assists this season. However, much more was expected from the ex-Real Madrid winger, who has looked jaded ever since that infamous 5-3 loss to Leicester City early in the season, the last game Di Maria looked worth the cash shelled out by United for his services. Di Maria should survive the chop however, as he has shown glimpses of brilliance and understandably needs time to get used to the rougher English game. The same cannot be said for Jonny Evans who game after game makes amateurish mistakes that make life difficult for goalkeeper David de Gea. Evans has been around long enough to realize he is not cut from the same cloth as past United defenders, and he might be heading for the exit door as Van Gaal strengthens his defence this summer.
Juan Mata, Rafael and Shaw are not favourites of the manager by any means, but they are likely to stay. Rafael can be given the benefit of the doubt given his injury worries and especially on the back of a wonderful goal in the same under-21 game Falcao was subbed off in. Mata has looked to have improved since his horror showing on the opening day loss against Swansea, playing slightly wider on the right hand side against Spurs than in his Chelsea days. Luke Shaw has not stamped his authority over the new Van Gaal system, but he has age on his side, and like Mata, is likely to avoid the boot come summertime.