The road to resurrection: LvG’s formation

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A picture speaks a thousand words, they say. While the world looks at this situation with a hint of borderline indifference, it is nothing short of a watershed moment for a devout Manc. The kind of money we should’ve spent over the last few seasons and the kind of manager who should’ve followed Sir Alex.

There is nothing left to say about Louis van Gaal and the new signings that hasn’t been put to paper yet. The most intriguing prospect of the current scenario at Manchester United is where and how a drawing-board connoisseur like LvG is going to use the new signings. I have given in to the temptation of trying to take a ride through the possibilities. Here goes..

The 3-5-2

Truth be told, there have been more articles on this than shots on goal by United so far this season. Louis van Gaal used this formation with the Netherlands throughout the World Cup and with United through the rather successful (and somewhat deceptive) pre-season tour of USA. The players seemed to take to it like fish to water. When Ashley Young is running rings around a Real Madrid defense, you are certainly doing something right. Or are you?

It didn’t take LvG long enough to figure out that he didn’t have the players to sustain this for a season, and the United board’s largesse has given him 6 new players. Now he can choose two variants to play with, one with a single pivot ahead of the defense and one with two central midfielders and a “number 10”.

3-5-2_single

The former allows the rather inexperienced defense to have a shield. Lest we forget, United’s three most experienced defenders have left in the summer, which leaves us with options you wouldn’t bank upon to keep clean sheets week after week. Hence someone like Daley Blind could well be a huge boost as a defensive-midfielder, a position he’s often played in for Ajax. Provided everyone’s fit, Angel Di Maria will take up the left central-midfield position he made his own at Real Madrid last season, with Ander Herrera on the right. Both of these players have a knack of putting in a lot of defensive effort, something van Gaal looks for in his midfielders. With two of Rooney-RvP-Falcao upfront, this formation leaves a quite awkward sight on the bench: one of Juan Mata. Should this variant be employed, it is hard to see Mata starting and finishing a lot of games. He’s an excellent number 10, but not really a central-midfielder.

3-5-2_double

The other variant opens up the space for him right where he wants. It is a more attacking formation from the looks of it. From a single-pivot in Blind, there’ll be two deeper central-midfielders in Di Maria and Herrera. Juan Mata takes his beloved number 10 spot. Looks good, but can be found out defensively. Mata isn’t a great tackler and should the opposition counter through the middle, the defense is exposed. If it comes down to Shaw vs Blind for the left wing-back position, Luke should start looking for his spot on his bench.

Pros

Van Gaal knows how to work with this formation. It gives a lot of players enough space to play in, without last season’s cramped up 4-4-2. In Herrera, Blind and Di Maria, United have the players who can carry a ball and/or look for the Hollywood pass if it’s on. It’s a prospect United haven’t experienced since Owen Hargreaves in 2008/09, and that was their best season in terms of the quality of football displayed in recent memory. The players, the manager and the fans would absolutely love this.

Cons

None of the midfielders are physically very strong, hence this can be tactically vulnerable against teams like Manchester City and Chelsea who boast of a lot of skill and strength through the middle. It is a weak defense and they will be going in with a high chance of getting out-numbered in the middle of the park.

The 4-4-2 diamond

Wait for it United fans, this isn’t the Young-and-Valencia-crossing-it-at-the-drop-of-a-hat variant. This is one similar to what Carlo Ancelotti mastered at AC Milan. Again Daley Blind will have to play the defensive-midfielder-cum-regista role. Di Maria and Herrera to make it a compact midfield with Juan Mata taking up the number 10 role at the tip of the diamond.

4-4-2

While it seems to make all parties happy at their favorite positions, it leaves a major problem. Di Maria and Herrera are both runners with the ball. They like carrying it forward and making inside-runs. In this formation, if they choose to do it, they’ll be cramping up the space for Mata, Rooney and RvP to do their thing around the opposition box. If there’s one thing United need to learn from last season, it’s how not to take up someone else’s space while they’re there.

Which leaves them the byline to go forward at, and that’ll negate the point of having attacking full-backs like Luke Shaw and Rafael. None of these two will be content with playing ninety minutes inside their own half and van Gaal would not want just Blind, Jones and Rojo to bank upon should a counter-attack happen. Hence it is a risky formation to play.

Pros

A quite fantastic counter-attacking formation. If one of the defenders can get the ball out, Di Maria can dart across the pitch at lightning speed and he’ll have 3-4 top class players to lay it off for. If at all LvG toys with the idea, United can be deadly on the counter. Radamel Falcao is a fabulous header of the ball and it opens up the possibility of working with the occasional cross into the box. (sit down, Antonio)

Cons

Extremely fragile defensively. With two forward-thinking full backs, United will certainly be caught out a lot of times with 2 or max 3 players to stop the counter/block the shot. Looking at the attacking prowess City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have got themselves, it doesn’t look a very rosy picture.

The verdict

From the looks of it, the trademark Louis van Gaal formation, a 4-3-3 doesn’t seem likely with this current setup. They might manage the wide players in Di Maria, Young and Valencia, but it’s hard to see only one of Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao playing at a time. Even though RvP is likely to undergo a surgery soon and stay out for a while, the lack of competitions to play for this season will cut out the need for extensive rotation.

The 3-5-2 is what looks the most likely United formation for this season. There’s familiarity for the manager and a space for the odd experiment that his kind thrive on. The players have been bought keeping in mind this formation and it’s a welcome change from the usual 4-4-2 fans are used to seeing every weekend.

Possibilities aplenty, new players and a new manager who isn’t afraid to throw caution to the wind. As naive as it’ll be to suggest this is a guarantee of success, one can’t deny it is a step forward from feeling like underdogs at Old Trafford. Take it away, LvG!

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Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.