During the World Cup 2014 at Brazil, millions of soccer fans and thousands of experts saw the renaissance of the 3-5-2, the classical continental formation of the 1970s and 1980s. Louis van Gaal, who throughout his managerial career has stood by a philosophy akin to the Dutch “Total Football” but been highly flexible in terms of formational choice (e.g., 4-3-3 at Ajax, 2-3-2-3 at FC Barcelona, 4-4-2 at AZ Alkmaar), was one of the coaches who employed 3-5-2 with his Dutch national team, that is, with players who for the most part have been educated in the traditional Dutch 4-3-3. It certainly raised some eyebrows, not least in his home country, but Van Gaal’s experiment paid off as Holland won the bronze medals.
I have already written in an earlier piece what consequences the conversion from 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2 inevitably have on a team’s attacking profile. Just to repeat the main point: The creative epicenters of the 4-4-2 are the two wingers, that is, the team creates most from the peripheries, whereas the creative fulcrum in a 3-5-2 is associated more with the classical number 10 playing centrally behind two attackers. It seemed to make a lot of sense that Van Gaal made the switch with Holland since Wesley Sneijder had a good tournament (although not a dazzling one), Robin van Persie scored the goal of the tournament and of his career, and, not least, Arjen Robben was the star of the World Cup (together with Toni Kroos). However, in several matches it was also clear that Holland had some difficulties in dominating the game, in keeping ball possession, and in creating chances. It was as if the team comprised one very good attacking midfielder and two brilliant forwards and six pretty ordinary defensive oriented players. Too much depended on Robben’s speed and dribbling and on Van Persie’s moments of clinical or breathtaking finishing. But still, two things point in the direction that Van Gaal got it right: With the types of players he had at his disposal, it seemed logical to adapt to a system which basically was meant to create free roles for Robben and Van Persie, and with the players available it was an achievement in itself to reach third place.
Taking over the manager’s seat after David Moyes at Old Trafford, it couldn’t surprise anyone that Van Gaal chose to stick to his successful World Cup formation. After all, it had secured him a bronze medal, and fans and experts alike did agree that the Dutch Iron Tulip was one of the master tacticians during the World Cup. Apart from having been triumphant with the 3-5-2 formation in Brazil, Van Gaal immediately took a look at the squad he had inherited from Moyes, and his verdict was clear: it was unbalanced. What did he mean by that? First, the squad consisted of too many number 10s (Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, perhaps even Adnan Januzaj and Marouane Fellaini) and too many number 9s (Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez, and James Wilson). Choosing a 4-2-3-1 would mean either playing the Rooneys and Matas out of position or putting them on the bench. Second, the other thing he meant by “unbalanced” was that the squad lacked wide players, or, as he corrected himself, “world class wingers on the same level as Cristiano Ronaldo or Angel di Maria”. It was a pretty damning verdict on players such as Nani and Ashley Young, whereas Antonio Valencia had already proven himself capable of occupying a more defensive wide position (right back) under Alex Ferguson and David Moyes. As for Januzaj, he never had any reason to belief Van Gaal’s verdict included him. So, Van Gaal realized that he had loads of creative talent centrally and not enough of it on the wings. So far so good. The conversion to 3-5-2 still makes sense. This opinion was only strengthened after Manchester United’s preseason tour to the United States where the team came out as (undefeated) winners in a highly prestigious tournament including opponents such as Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Roma. In addition, Rooney was named the best player of the tournament. Finally, Ander Herrera, the Spanish midfielder bought from Athletic Bilbao seemed to hit the ground running, and Darren Fletcher, out for so long with what could have turned into a life-threatening bowel disease, appeared to be back to his competitive and combative best.