The new Premier League season is only two weeks old and Manchester United under Louis van Gaal are already playing catch-up. The pre-season tour feels like a very long time ago now.
The Red Devils have placed a significant number of eggs into an Ángel di María-sized basket and the spending may not end there with utility Daley Blind and defensive midfielder Nigel de Jong heavily linked to the Old Trafford club. Centre-back Mehdi Benatia has been mentioned as well, whilst van Gaal may have been a bit mischievous namedropping Arturo Vidal when answering a question regarding United’s transfer dealings.
This transfer window is not as bad as last year’s shambles – it would have taken a special kind of incompetence to surpass that level of ineptitude, but Ed Woodward and United shouldn’t look at this summer’s dealings with much satisfaction.
United’s fans were assured that lessons were learned and things would be different this time, but going into the last week of the transfer window it appears careless to the point of negligence that the club are still desperately trying to fill in key positions. If United do land their players, how and where would they fit in?
Let’s assume, dangerous a game as it is, that United sign their other realistic transfer targets and that no one else leaves and everyone is fit. Therefore, joining Ángel di María at United are Daley Blind and Nigel de Jong.
The additions will no doubt help but the next question to ask is who will best fit in van Gaal’s favored 3-4-1-2 system? One possible line-up could be:
In this line-up two expensive signings would miss out – namely Juan Mata and Luke Shaw. It is inconceivable that di María won’t start, so one of Mata, van Persie, or Rooney will have to be dropped. Robin van Persie has an extremely good working relationship with van Gaal and Wayne Rooney is the club captain so it is unlikely – though not impossible – that either of them will be dropped, leaving Mata as the odd man out. However, the Rooney-van Persie combination for one reason or another has never really sparked since the Dutchman joined from Arsenal. This season could well be a defining one to discover whether this partnership can really work.
Blind may be selected ahead of Luke Shaw because he is more accustomed to playing as a wing-back whilst on the other flank a fit Rafael simply offers more than Antonio Valencia, though van Gaal is reported to have his reservations about the Brazilian.
This lineup possesses strength and is complete with players who are comfortable in possession. In terms of pace there will be a reliance on Di María and Rafael to help stretch the game. There is an element of flexibility too as Ander Herrera could be encouraged to go forward to support the attack with Rooney dropping deep to allow van Persie to play as a lone striker. There’s even possibility of switching to a 4-4-2 with Blind dropping into the left-back role, allowing di María to play as an out-and-out winger.
De Jong’s role is important as he would provide a defensive screen for the back three as well as looking out for Herrera as the Spaniard adapts to the Premier League.
However, what if the 3-4-1-2 isn’t the best system to employ with the addition of the new personnel? Could van Gaal switch to a 4-3-3? If that were the case then the lineup could look something like this:
Rooney/Van Persie/Di Maria
Jonny Evans and Marcos Rojo should figure as the center-back pairing given their ability to accurately distribute the ball from the back. Phil Jones could well be shifted to right-back if the manager opts for defensive solidity over Rafael’s attacking prowess. If United play with a back four, that could open the door to Shaw and see him given a run in the first team. De Jong will once again provide the screen, allowing Herrera and Blind license to push forward and support the attack. The attacking trio once again poses the most questions. The odd man out could well be Mata again, but playing a 4-3-3 could also see Rooney deployed on the left or right of the attacking three – not his natural position. Indeed it was instructive to see Rooney play high up the pitch in the match against Swansea and to a lesser degree against Sunderland. It appears that he is being told to stay up, in part to cover for his lack of pace, and maximize his potential to score. However, if the skipper is to be part of a three and is deployed in a wide area, then his impact on a game may be greatly diminished. It’s arguable that United would be better advised playing Adnan Januzaj as part of a front three in order to create a more mobile unit.
But what if the playing squad is more suited to a 4-2-3-1?
This formation has the potential to see an extremely dynamic United with Jones, Shaw, Januzaj, and di María providing the pace United have lacked this season.
Van Gaal could trust the defensive midfield responsibilities to de Jong and Blind, giving the central area the right blend of silk and steel. Blind’s versatility may tip the scales in his favor ahead of Herrera and see the Dutchman picked for the starting XI.
Mata is arguably the best No. 10 at the club so should get the nod in that role, though his recent performances haven’t been great. If he doesn’t perform Shinji Kagawa provides an adequate alternative to the Spaniard.
The big decision is to who should play in the lone striker role? Van Persie may just edge Rooney for the role of lead striker. The Englishman may be club captain, but that doesn’t mean that van Gaal would be afraid of dropping him if it benefits United and van Persie is arguably the better striker.
In the unlikely event van Gaal opts for a 4-4-2 United could line-up as follows:
Valencia/Blind/De Jong/Di María
If it’s a straight, flat 4-4-2, then keeping shape will be vital so that could see the dependable, if limited, Valencia starting ahead of Januzaj. Di María could be given a license to roam though he may not be afforded as much freedom in a 4-4-2 as he would find in other systems. Again, Mata misses out but could figure if van Gaal opted to play a diamond formation:
If van Gaal used a diamond the emphasis would be on the fullbacks to push forward to provide the team with attacking width.
There are a multitude of formations Louis van Gaal could try but the smart money would be him persisting with a 3-4-1-2, and use the 4-3-3 system as a back-up option.
There are other tactical considerations van Gaal will need to make regardless of the formation. If he wants his team to press high up the pitch, then he’ll need to get David de Gea position himself around the edges of the box to allow the defense to do this. The Spaniard does have a tendency to stay deep in his penalty area, thus forcing his defense to drop to compensate. In de Gea’s defense, given how shaky United’s backline is at the moment perhaps it’s not a surprise that he’s choosing to anchor himself well inside the box.
Van Gaal could spring a surprise and opt to do something completely different, but whatever he does he will do whatever he deems pragmatic.
Come the end of the transfer window Louis van Gaal will hope to have made a few more signings. If he gets who he wants, then a couple of United’s stars could witness the Van Gaal revolution from the bench.