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Scoring Few, Conceding Fewer: The New Manchester United Philosophy?

The last few months in the Premier League have brought about many different situations and opinions related to Manchester United’s increasingly poor performances. There have been comparisons with the Moyes era and criticism about how the renowned Manchester United philosophy of an attacking style has vanished. On the upside, they have not lost a single game in 11 fixtures – the last loss being away at Manchester City at the start of November. Most of the problems have had one thing in common, though: his new-look squad seems to be injury-plagued. The long list appeared to be improving, when United were hit again during the FA Cup tie against Yeovil Town, when Rafael and Shaw picked up the 55th and 56th separate injuries of the season – both being subbed-off at halftime.

Having said that, the main issues United are facing are not in defence any more. Louis van Gaal seems to have found a temporary solution to the leaky defence that was conceding goals for fun at the start of the season. Ironically, they face major problems in attack. Being lucky enough to have added the likes of Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Ander Herrera to Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata in an already top-heavy squad should be guaranteeing goals galore. United have instead only managed 7 goals in their last 5 matches in all competitions – clearly not enough for a team with such attacking calibre.

The lack of dynamism and pace is what is costing Manchester United points away from home in the Premier League. They have only managed to win 2 away games all season. The loss of Angel Di Maria to a hamstring injury was huge in that respect, as there isn’t any other player who brings similar qualities to the squad – who can create chances out of nothing. Juan Mata has been a standout performer, to an extent filling that void left by the former Real Madrid star. He has had a hand in almost every goal United have scored, being either directly or indirectly involved in play leading up to the goals.

The most talked about issue between United fans, however, is the formation the team has been playing in. Louis van Gaal has stated previously that his “philosophy” is more important than the system they play. He admitted that the constant change in system was mainly due to injuries the squad has not been able to wriggle off. It is clear by now that these defenders are not cut out for the 3-5-2 formation as it is something completely new to the Premier League. The likes of Jonny Evans, Paddy McNair, Marcos Rojo, Tyler Blackett, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are not ball-playing centre backs, and thus have all struggled. They lack leadership – something this formation demands. It is evident that playing four at the back suits United much better and the players look comfortable playing in it. The recent record shows United scored more goals in the 4-4-2 diamond shape they deployed before the switch to 3-5-2 was made.

Despite these evident problems, Louis van Gaal has stuck to the formation he successfully used at the World Cup coaching the Dutch National Team. While this makes them defensively stable, attacking-wise they lack creativity, and numbers around the opposition penalty area. The lack of clear cut chances created by United is a troubling sign that the Dutchman must look into. Having being known for an attacking style of play over the last few decades, this is very unlike the Manchester United of the past. Maybe Van Gaal has his sight set on the defensive side a bit too much. Maybe he thinks the attacking prowess he has may help him across the line. Either way, fans and pundits around the world are sensing a change in philosophy in the “United Way”. Some marquee signings in defence may help with the stability of the back line, enabling him to improve the offensive play they have recently lacked in. Whichever way, Van Gaal knows what he must do to accumulate points as the season goes on. The problem being, many fans are already growing impatient with the mindset of keeping possession but not looking to score goals and kill games off.
Angel Di Maria and Ander Herrera have recently returned from their respective injuries. This comes as a huge boost for Louis van Gaal as he looks to extend the unbeaten streak of 11 games to a possible 16. Life will be made much easier by the expected return of Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Marouane Fellaini in the next couple of weeks.

Van Gaal’s men face a mixed set of fixtures in the coming month: Southampton at home, away to QPR, Leicester at home again, followed by a trip to West Ham, and finally Burnley at Old Trafford. A title charge looks highly unlikely even though Chelsea and Man City continue to drop points every now and then. Manchester United must make sure they have a strong January both in terms of results and performances, and in investing in top class players once again in the transfer window. It is high time United show their overall strength and start dominating games and winning comprehensively. If things continue the way they are going currently, fans will start questioning the philosophy the former Dutch manager follows. One thing is for sure; the next month will be key in cementing a top 3 position or even a title push if things go their way.

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