Currently, Van Gaal’s team have won one more game than they had at this stage last season under Moyes. Initially, It was clear that Van Gaal wanted to replicate his 3-5-2 formation deployed with the Dutch at the World Cup. However, it became clear that this formation and style was not working in the short term with the players at his disposal, therefore a plan B had to be hatched.
In recent weeks, Manchester United have set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation both at home and away.
The defence is a flat back four and when out of possession, Rooney is the only player who remains up front on his own. Fellaini, who supports Rooney as a secondary striker from an inside left position, drops back into midfield, tracking runners and pressurising the opposition’s deepest lying midfielder. Here is an example from their recent match vs Arsenal as Fellaini is almost man-marking Francis Coquelin.
Fellaini is a very good box to box to midfielder, a role he has perfected with Belgium. Fellaini is a good athlete and is effective in both areas of the pitch. The stats back up Van Gaal’s deployment of him in that role, his recent man of the match performance against Spurs showed he made 56 touches across the pitch, scored the 1st and played a key role in the second goal. Here is dropping back into the midfield.
The midfield are tight together and compact, allowing United to press the opposition in effective areas as well as remaining a strong unit. Danny Blind or Michael Carrick anchor the midfield in a central defensive midfield role with Di Maria/Mata and Young tucking in to make it a midfield 5. Mata has been impressive on the right hand side with his understanding with Herrera and also the fact that he moves centrally to help United in midfield and which allows Valencia the space on the right to exploit.
The Attacking Style
During the course of the season, United and Van Gaal have been criticised for not playing with any tempo, style or penetration. The loss of form and injury to Van Persie, Falcao’s failure to live up to the ridiculous expectations placed upon him and Van Gaal’s reluctance play Rooney upfront have resulted in United being toothless in attack.
When Van Persie and Falcao played upfront together, they both played with their back to goal, looking to get the ball to feet and this resulted in United not playing deep enough in the opposition box to cause any real danger. Even when the ball was in wide areas, both players made the same runs, making life easy for the opposition.
In their last few matches, United have attacked in a 4-1-3-2 formation. Rooney has played as an out and out front man, with Fellaini supporting him as a second striker. Rooney predominately plays between the centre halves or on their shoulders, looking to take the ball to feet or to have the ball played through to him along the ground. When United are in possession of the ball, Fellaini takes up some clever positions between the midfield and defence.
Here is some examples of that against Spurs. Rooney is playing in between Dier and Walker, with Fellaini floating in the space between Mason and Walker. Van Gaal has clearly encouraged his wingers (in this case Mata & Young) to stay wide and play high up the pitch. Walker is keeping watchful eye on Young, Mason is dropping deeper, mindful of Fellaini’s position leaving key space in the centre of the park for an advancing midfielder or centre back to exploit. Carrick does exploit this and plays a great through ball for Fellaini who finishes magnificently.
As afore mentioned, another key to United’s play in recent weeks is the role of the wide players and the advancing full backs.
The pictures above show Valencia passing Di Maria on the touch line as he cuts inside on his stronger foot, looking to deliver into the box. This has clearly been worked on in training as you can see the United midfielders and forwards anticipating the delivery and packing the box. Interesting to note that Fellaini often pulls onto the right back or into the space between the right full back and right centre back when attacking the ball. This allows Rooney to sit in the space between the two centre halves and anticipate the cross. The same occurs on the wing with Ashley Young and Shaw/Blind.
This formation and style of play was not Van Gaal’s first choice but as a coach he has tried, tested, learned, adapted and been successful, therefore deserves credit. United have big matches coming up against Chelsea,City and Arsenal and it is likely that Van Gaal will stick to 4-1-4-1 formation for these games.