Louis Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 has been the flavor of the month among pundits and fans. The Dutch manager is using the formation to transform Manchester United’s midfield and accommodate the talents of new signing Ander Herrera. Van Gaal historically has mixed formations, using the 4-3-3 at Barcelona and Bayern but also the 4-4-2 at AZ Alkmaar and a variety of formations with the Dutch National Team.
Last night, in Miami for the final of the Guinness International Champions Cup against Liverpool, Van Gaal once again employed the 3-5-2 formation. The Reds were set up in a 4-4-2, though often times in the first half, Steven Gerrard played so deep and fullbacks Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly pushed forward making Liverpool’s formation resemble a 3-5-2. Gerrard often filled the space between the two central defenders when the Reds were in a defensive posture.
Raheem Sterling’s mazy runs gave United’s back three fits throughout a first half that was controlled by Liverpool. The Reds created opportunities both on the counter-attack and when sustaining pressure in the United half. After Antonio Valencia was substituted in the eighth minute after picking up a knock, United’s 3-5-2 appeared toothless in creating opportunities from wide areas.
However, the second half was a completely different story. The Red Devils were able to exploit the wide areas using Luke Shaw and Ashley Young effectively, and the Liverpool backline was torn open on multiple occasions. Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata showed their quality and class with superb finishes for goals, while Herrera dictated the pace and tempo of the match.
Liverpool, by contrast, seemed slow in the buildup play and in possession. Brendan Rodgers stresses a quick short passing game, but last night much of the Reds possession was bogged down in midfield. Rickie Lambert, playing in place of the injured Daniel Sturridge, struggled with the pace of the match and was replaced in minute 63. Adam Lallana, like Lambert a summer signing from Southampton, was unavailable for selection.
Rodgers’ 4-4-2 did allow Phillippe Coutinho a certain amount of time and space both on the ball, and when he made darting runs into attacking positions. At times, these runs exposed the weaknesses of the 3-5-2 defensively, but ultimately the final product was not there for Liverpool on the night.
While Van Gaal stated after the match that the Guinness ICC triumph meant “nothing” in the bigger picture, he did concede later that it was better to win these matches than lose them. If nothing else, beating the Red Devils biggest rival who humiliated United just a few short months ago at Old Trafford should give the side operating in a new system under a new manager a major psychological boost.