Manchester United’s problems with Van Gaal’s 3-5-2

Louis Van Gaal’s honeymoon period with Manchester United seems to be over with his 3-5-2 formation and his tactics coming in for a lot of criticism from fans and experts alike. With the defence still looking shaky and the attack toothless, Louis Van Gaal is under pressure to rethink his tactics and especially do away with the 3-5-2.

Angel Di Maria

The clubs’s record signing and the best player of last year’s Champions League did have a bright start at Old Trafford but injuries have disrupted his form. His form after returning from his latest injury is anything but good. But is that due to Di Maria himself or the position he is playing. Di Maria for the last couple of matches has been selected as  a striker alongside Van Persie or Falcao. Although Van Gaal might have his own reasons to play him there,it beggars belief that Di Maria isn’t allowed to play in his favoured position which is in central midfield or as a winger. Di Maria’s abilities are best put to use when he is allowed to run with the ball.

Di Maria in his last season at Real Madrid(Possibly his best season till date) played in the  Left Central Midfield position in Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 formation, Di Maria was again essential in negating the main tactical flaws of Real Madrid. In defense, he was able to provide the energy and physicality to provide the defensive cover for Modric and Xabi Alonso so Real Madrid was not overrun in central midfield.  When Ronaldo chose not to track back and mark the opposition’s Right Fullback, Di Maria left his midfield position and marked the attacking Fullback, thus negating Real Madrid’s two main defensive weaknesses.  In attack, from a central position, he made wide diagonal runs from central midfield down the left touchline. These attacking runs were valuable for two reasons. First, the extra width from Di Maria’s runs forced opposition defenses to expand creating more space for Ronaldo and Real Madrid to attack centrally.  Secondly, Real Madrid now had a natural crosser down the left flank.  With Ronaldo playing centrally partnering Real Madrid’s Center Forward, Karim Benzema, they had a two versus two advantage against their oppositions’ Centerbacks because the defending team had no defensive cover.  During the 2013-2014 season Di Maria played in 52 matches, started 43 matches, scored 11 goals and had 22 assists.  Di Maria capped his season off by having one of his best match performances for Real Madrid.  In the Champions League Final he was by far Real Madrid’s most dangerous attacking player.  The addition of Angel Di Maria to Real Madrid’s central midfield, and his energetic and technical play, balanced their defense and attack, bringing stability and cohesion to Real Madrid’s play. 

 -Nicholas Peters

Van Gaal has to play Di Maria in a position where both he is comfortable and his abilities align with the United’s system. It doesn’t make sense to waste such a talented player whose abilities are useful both in attack and defence and brings a balance to the team which United have been missing since a long time.

Build Up Play 

Manchester United’s build up play this season has been slow and laborious at best. They have dominated possession more than usual but to no effect. One of the main outlets for this United side has been the full backs. But most of the times,its a simple out ball to wide and the full back is faced with multiple defenders and ends up losing the ball. There is no inward movement by the full back nor is there any support from the midfield to create new passing angles to the full back,so in the end the full back ends up crossing blindly. One more important factor to be observed is the lack of movement by the strikers. Both the strikers in the United team this season tend to stay central and are very static. Strangely whatever little movement we can see is to the right flank and to deeper positions and nothing to the left. And in fact there is more of vertical movement than lateral. In a system like 3-5-2 where the center is congested and the space is out wide it makes no sense to drop deep where United have already got three central players. With Rooney,Carrick and Mata all occupying the center,there are a lot of easy passing options for everyone(which results in lot of possession) but there is no penetration.

The combined heat map of Carrick,Rooney,Mata,Van Persie and Di Maria against Southampton
The combined heat map of Carrick,Rooney,Mata,Van Persie and Di Maria against Southampton

United’s greatest sides all had very good wingers and their attacks were based on quick movement of the ball in the final third and high tempo,sadly both the managers after Ferguson,Moyes and Van Gaal have struggled to replicate this.

Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney easily the player on whom the most number of articles on where he should play have been written. Even on The False 9, there has been much written on the England captain and his best position on the pitch. It remains to be seen,whether Rooney becomes a good central midfielder in the future but at the moment he is NOT. Rooney can play that occasional hollywood crossfield ball but his short and forward passing are not upto the mark. His first touch and his close control are extraordinarily inconsistent,which in the center of the park is a big disadvantage.

The Center Backs

With three at the back,you expect the base of your attacks to start from the back. With all of Manchester United’s center backs shot in confidence(especially Evans who is decent with the ball generally has had a horrid time this season), there has been absolutely no creativity from them. It has either been sideways passing or backwards to De Gea which makes Carrick(The deepest midfielder) to drop deeper to pick up the ball. With Carrick deep and only Rooney and Mata ahead of him,there is no movement and very little scope of starting an attack. Both Rooney and Mata don’t have the ability to beat players nor have the pace to run with the ball so the ball ends up going wide to one of the full backs. There is rarely any movement from the center backs to provide any passing angles to the midfielders ahead of them.

A switch to 4-3-3 would mean that only one of Van Persie,Falcao and Wilson will start and also with Januzaj out of form,United don’t have two good wingers. So a back four with a midfield diamond is possibly the best formation Manchester United can play with as it allows Van Gaal to play 2 strikers and it utilizes Di Maria’s talents to the maximum.