Louis van Gaal, on his appointment as manager of Manchester United, claimed that the system – that is, the formation or what he himself often refers to as “shape” – is basically unimportant. What matters, Van Gaal said, was the philosophy.
This, I would argue, is a load of rubbish – and deep down the Dutchman knows this, too. However, this does not mean that his distinction between system and philosophy is meaningless. Each of the two concepts is valuable, only they refer to two different dimensions of what we could call soccer tactics or a team’s “identity.”
On Sunday, at Anfield, the Manchester United team showed that Van Gaal’s philosophy – his much referred to “brain training” – of possession soccer, team ethos, and space exploitation/optimization had (finally) entered into a perfect symbiosis with his lately deployed 4-3-3 system. Van Gaal may still be convinced that the philosophy is the main thing and the system only secondary, but it is nevertheless symptomatic that when asked by their Dutch boss if they would like to revert to 3-5-2, Van Gaal’s players opted to stick with the 4-3-3 employed successfully (bar the Arsenal game) within recent weeks.
Some players function better in some systems, there is no getting away from that fact. It is ironic that Van Gaal initially balked at employing Manchester United’s traditional formations with wingers, the 4-3-3, 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 because, as he said, the team lacked world-class wingers. On Sunday at Anfield against Liverpool and the week before at Old Trafford against Tottenham, undoubtedly the team’s best performances under Van Gaal, Manchester United played 4-3-3 with Ashley Young on the left and Juan Mata on the right, the first deemed non-world class by the blunt Dutchman during preseason but slowly resurrected by the same Dutchman as a wingback, the latter initially intended to occupy the number 10 role behind Rooney and Van Persie.
Another weighty reason for Van Gaal’s reluctance to play the 4-3-3 was the same reason that made him change the successful 4-3-3 of the Dutch national team to a 3-5-2 just before the World Cup in Brazil: lack of balance. In case of the Dutch team, it was the injury to Kevin Strootman, the team’s number 6 and powerful holding midfielder, that caused Van Gaal to switch to the more prudent 3-5-2. At Old Trafford, Van Gaal didn’t see a player of Strootman’s caliber and in the first months in Manchester he talked about balance all the time, defending his decision to move Rooney into midfield even though Van Persie and Falcao were misfiring.
Now, however, it seems Van Gaal has found the balance. Michael Carrick is a less combative player than Strootman, but he has brought composure, intelligence, and urgency to United’s otherwise sideway and frigid possession play. Ander Herrera has recently shown the potential, skill, and power that everyone knew he possessed, and Marouane Fellaini has simply been a powerhouse commanding the midfield with both feet and head.
Two triangles in the United team have stood out as well-oiled engines, each with their own specific strengths. On the right, the Spanish-speaking triumvirate of Antonio Valencia at right back, Ander Herrera at right midfield, and Juan Mata at right wing brings slick movement and possession play with Valencia providing the power, width, and directness that Mata as an inside moving winger lacks. In both games, Mata was a revelation with his risk-free ball possession and intelligent movement, and of course his two goals at Anfield were the icing on the top of two brilliant performances. Herrera has learned to economize with his running and is becoming a very efficient end-to-end midfield player linking up with Mata as if they were soccer soul mates.
On the left, Daley Blind has occupied the left back position, and together with Fellaini and Young he has run havoc against the right sides of Tottenham and Liverpool. If Valencia provides speed, power, and directness, Blind is more intelligence, possession play, and composure. The muscles and presence are provided by Fellaini who starts to look more and more like a United player with the potential for cult status. If both Blind and Fellaini lack speed, Young makes up for this lack with his lightning pace. Like Mata on the right, Young prefers to cut inside, and this is why the full backs in the 4-3-3 become so important for the team’s attacking prowess. In both games, Valencia and Blind fulfilled their roles as attacking full backs brilliantly.
At this moment, the games against Tottenham and Liverpool seem to be the turning points for Van Gaal’s revolution at Old Trafford. It didn’t take three months for his philosophy to seep into the backbones of his players as he warned everybody upon his arrival in Manchester. It took seven months. This has proved to be too long for any title challenges this season – Chelsea is in all likelihood too far away in the league, and the cup defeat to Arsenal came a week before everything clicked. But it bodes well for the future.
This is not to say that everything is perfect at Old Trafford. It still remains to be seen if the team can continue collecting victories and playing dominant, vibrant soccer and thus securing the vital UEFA Champions League spot.
A few other important issues are to be dealt with. David de Gea’s contract situation is a worry for United fans, and if he is bound for Real Madrid, the club must buy a replacement ready to take over for the Spaniard without needing much time to acclimatize to the size of the club and the demands of the league.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones may have done well against Tottenham and Liverpool, but they are still fragile as a pair. If both of them have qualities similar to Nemanja Vidic’s defensive ruthlessness (although it is still questionable if they ever reach the Serbian’s level), neither possesses Rio Ferdinand’s composure and skill. Manchester United are still in desperate need of a central defender à la Ferdinand. Mats Hummels is of course the one on everybody’s lips. It wouldn’t hurt if Raphael Varane joined him on United’s list of incoming players during the summer.
People have also talked of a new right back. While the criticism of Valencia has often been too harsh, and while Rafael might still have a future at Old Trafford (although it seems more and more unlikely), the club have been on the lookout for someone to take over from Gary Neville ever since he retired. Today, we can see that the Da Silva brothers never fulfilled the prophecy of Sir Alex Ferguson who predicted they would revolutionize the full back positions. So why not think British and try to lure Nathaniel Clyne or Seamus Coleman to Old Trafford.
Van Gaal will also be in search of a midfielder. Carrick is 33 years old and may have been a vital part of the team’s positive performances this season, but he either needs back-up or someone to replace him. Strootman’s long-term future is in doubt after two knee surgeries, but if he proves his health Van Gaal will no doubt move for him. Two other candidates are Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal, both slightly more offensive midfielders than Strootman, but still welcome additions to a United team where Blind could still become Carrick’s long term replacement as holding midfielder.
The average age of the forward department must also be a worry for Van Gaal. If it has been age or, rather, exhaustion from the World Cup and repercussions from a serious knee injury respectively, Van Persie and Falcao have not looked like future options for Manchester United. Rooney has, together with Carrick and the outstanding De Gea, been United’s best performer this season, but at 29 he also has a time limit in terms of being a lone striker. It must be a priority for Van Gaal to bring in someone around the age of 25-27 with a proven record at the highest level (Edinson Cavani, Robert Lewandowski), or, alternatively, someone younger but with vast potential (Harry Kane, Saido Berahino, Danny Ings, Paolo Dybala, Mauro Icardi).
Finally, we should not forget Ángel Di María’s situation. If Van Gaal continues to employ a 4-3-3, Di María is born to occupy one of the wing positions, but his form has been miserable lately, and his future at Old Trafford is in doubt with rumors continuing to link him with PSG. On the one hand it would be admitting defeat by both Di María and Van Gaal if they gave up on the effort to make Di María a success at Old Trafford after just one season. On the other hand, however, it could also be a sign of Van Gaal’s ruthlessness and history of not shying away from big decisions if Di María was to leave during the summer. Leaving or not, Gareth Bale is in all likelihood a player Van Gaal and Ed Woodward will try to sign in the next transfer window. Undoubtedly, he would be a welcome addition, pure star quality and a real “Gaalactico,” but his arrival will also put a big question mark over the role of Adnan Januzaj, one of the most gifted youngsters in world soccer.
However, all this is name talk – and Van Gaal doesn’t like to talk about individual players. He is more into talking philosophy and shape, team ethos and brain training. After Anfield, we perhaps begin to realize what he has meant all the time by all his strangely fascinating (that is, David Moyes-contrasting), yet also rather vague observations, statements, and explanations about philosophy and brain. But a few additional and fresh brains are definitely needed at Old Trafford next season.
Editor’s note: Søren Frank is author of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, which is available from all fine booksellers.
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