The arrivals of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin plus Louis van Gaal’s thinly disguised admiration for Michael Carrick seem to have resulted in a slight, but nevertheless significant tweaking of the Dutch Iron Tulip’s favored 4-3-3 formation.
Another factor behind the tweak, somewhat more surprising than the abovementioned arrivals, is Memphis Depay, the Dutch winger whom Van Gaal has been employing centrally as a number 10 behind the striker.
If journalists during Manchester United’s recently completed US tour reported back to the European continent that Van Gaal in every match had opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation, the Dutch “trainer coach” (Van Gaal’s own favorite expression) insists that he has employed a 4-3-3 formation and even referred to the formation as the one his team used in the second half of last season.
For a man so obsessed with shape, form, and detail, he should know better though. The journalists were actually correct when referring to Manchester United’s US tour formation as a 4-2-3-1. Of course, Van Gaal is not in fault when he calls this formation a 4-3-3 (he sees the number 10 as part of the midfield), but he is wrong when he defines it similarly to the 4-3-3 he used in the spring of 2015. And the small but important difference between the two formations seems to hit Ander Herrera, one of the success stories of last season’s revival, the most.
But let’s look into the two formations in order to better understand the difference. If we begin at the back, there is no difference in regard to the goalkeeper position and only minor differences in terms of the defense line. Both formations employ two center backs and two full backs. The same story applies if we move to the attacking line: more or less no difference. Two wingers who operate rather widely flank one central striker.
The main difference is found in midfield where the triangle is inverted so to speak. That is, instead of operating with one defensive and two offensive midfielders, Van Gaal has – mainly as a result of the arrival of Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin – opted to operate with two defensive and one offensive midfielders. Before he had a distinctive number 6 plus two midfielders who floated between number 8 and 10. Now he plays with a distinctive number 10 and two midfielders who float between number 6 and 8.
The point is that Ander Herrera is neither an obvious number 6 nor an obvious number 10. His best position is as a number 8. Van Gaal doesn’t regard him as strong as Carrick, Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin in the number 6 role, and so far the Dutchman has employed the more attack-minded Depay in the number 10 role.
This is bad news for Herrera – and it is also bad news for Marouane Fellaini. But especially for Herrera, I would argue. Why? Because Herrera had his breakthrough at Old Trafford during the second half of last season, a period during which he showed he had the potential to be the next Paul Scholes at Old Trafford. True, Fellaini also had some good games and scored some important goals, but most fans of Manchester United still don’t regard him as a true United player and were probably expecting him to be one of the first casualties of Van Gaal’s and Ed Woodward’s summer transfer activity.
Louis Van Gaal’s “old” 4-3-3:
Louis Van Gaal’s “new” 4-3-3:
The tweaking of the 4-3-3 formation also means that the very successful triangles of last season – Blind-Fellaini-Young on the left and Valencia-Herrera-Mata on the right – will now not only depend on different names but also depend on different positions.
One very important new partnership will be the understanding and interplay between the number 10 and the number 9, between Depay and Wayne Rooney. If United’s lone striker during last season (Rooney, Robin Van Persie, or Radamel Falcao) was more isolated or at least had his points of orientation split between the two number 8s, this season he will have closer and more obvious company because Van Gaal will employ a distinctive number 10. The successful triangles of last season will then be a little more defensive this year. They will still consist of the full back and the winger, but the midfielder is no longer one of the two offensive midfielders (Herrera or Fellaini), but one of the two defensive ones (Carrick, Schweinsteiger or Schneiderlin).
Van Gaal’s new 4-3-3, the 4-2-3-1, is a formation that most United fans like. It guarantees the most beloved width, both in terms of attacking full backs and wide wingers, and it promises exciting and creative patterns of attacking soccer with the partnership between the number 9 and 10. But Van Gaal’s insistence of employing Juan Mata on the right of United’s attacking line may baffle some fans and prevent the more traditional wing play of United’s right side. And his decision to use Depay centrally, a player who became top scorer of the Dutch Eresdivisie from his position on the left wing, may also surprise some fans. When the Dutchman chooses to employ wingers and a distinctive number 10, most fans would probably have opted to move Mata into his preferred number 10 role and employ Depay on the wing. But regardless of the specific positions of Depay and Mata, Ander Herrera has a right to be disappointed with Van Gaal’s tweaking of his 4-3-3 formation. Of course the season is long, Manchester United will probably play more games than last year, and Van Gaal may re-tweak his system yet again, but so far it looks as though Herrera will – to the regret of many United fans because of the Spaniard’s Scolesian qualities – be the biggest loser.
If Van Gaal is still intensely occupied by contemplating which striker, central defender, and goalkeeper to buy, in midfield his main concern is now who to drop from the team.
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