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Red Devils’ Advocate: Pedestrian United Struggling to Find Formula

Louis van Gaal was appointed by Manchester United to replace 10-month flop, David Moyes, at the start of the current Premier League season. He took charge after he led the Dutch national team in a successful World Cup campaign. The Dutchman had a fantastic pre-season in the United States, remaining unbeaten, despite playing some of the European big boys who also visited the country. Among them were Real Madrid, Roma, Inter Milan and fellow English club, Liverpool.

Pedestrian United Struggling to Find Formula

Winning the International Champions Cup was an impressive feat in his first spell, with the 20-times English league winners. During the tour, United played a 3-5-2 formation, which van Gaal used successfully at the World Cup, too. There was a sense of that well-known attacking swagger returning to United’s play, which was lost during Moyes’ disastrous tenure as manager. That returning attacking flair made some critics and fans believe United may have been able to challenge for the title sooner than expected.

red devils advocateSince the start of the Premier League campaign in August, United have looked far from convincing in front of goal. Having signed the likes of Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria, which further improved the fantastic attacking calibre the club already possessed, the results have not been good enough. United have only scored 36 goals, 15 fewer than leaders Chelsea. This comes as a surprise to most fans as they would have expected the attacking skill of the team to have paved the way for a successful campaign. Instead, they have seen United become slower and more predictable over the last two months.

One evident problem is the lack of pace in ball possession. Both in terms of fast, pacey players and the tempo of which the team passes. Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool have been increasingly successful in the past few years due to an attacking style of play which is based on moving the ball quickly; quick touches and passes are the key to winning matches. United have players who are more than capable, but for some reason, van Gaal still chooses to play a slow build-up, pass the ball in defence, take the ball wide to the wing backs, and hope a cross can find a head sporting a red shirt. To an extent, it seems similar to the tactic ex-manager, David Moyes, deployed when United made a club record of 81 attempted crosses against Fulham.

United have had the highest number of long-balls in the league; this is the main reason the strikers are not getting enough service. Having players like Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Daley Blind and Di Maria ensures that the team can in fact play through the middle. This is where van Gaal could be questioned. Robin van Persie, Rooney and James Wilson have never been the heading-type of strikers. Considering that, van Gaal has played the crossing and long-ball tactic abundantly – maybe something he needs to take a look at. The ball-playing ability the players have at United is almost unmatched in the Premier League, but none of them can impact games if the tactics don’t suit the players’ style.

On January 17th 2015, Manchester United made the trip to Queens Park Rangers. They made hard work of the game, failing to score a goal in the first half, while using the increasingly infamous 3-5-2 system. In the second half, things improved as Wilson was brought on to accompany Falcao upfront. The substitution also meant a change in formation, as United switched to a back four for the first time since the beginning of December. This meant Di Maria dropped a bit deeper into the No.10 role, where many see the Argentinean as most effective. This change in personnel and shape had an instant impact, as Marouane Fellaini scored shortly after. The team looked much more fluid, comfortable and threatening in attack. The game finished 2-0 as Wilson scored from a swift counter attack in the dying moments, adding to Harry Redknapp’s woes.

Surely this was a noticeable observation for van Gaal. The Dutchman must look to find a winning formula – a solution for the long-term, but one that also helps the club in the near future. It was evident that the 4-4-2 structure massively helped United achieve only their third away win of the season. Louis van Gaal is certainly a man of interesting ideas and philosophies, but it will be fascinating to see how he chooses to play his team in upcoming fixtures. With Manchester City already seven points ahead, he must act soon in choosing his preferred line-up and formation, if they want to stand any chance of catching the reigning champions.


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Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Mark Leech Sports Photography/Getty Images


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