Many felt that Manchester United had turned the corner when they went on an 11 game unbeaten run in the Premier League, picking up notable wins along the way against the likes of Southampton, Liverpool and Arsenal. But poor recent performances against the likes of Southampton and QPR, coinciding with United’s inability to unlock a League 2 Cambridge, has made many question whether Manchester United are really any better off then what they were under David Moyes. Moyes this time last year was knocked out to Sunderland on penalties in the Carling Cup Semi Final, through to the last 16 of the Champions League, out of the FA Cup against Swansea (3rd Round) and languishing down in 7th in the Premier League. However United are only currently 4th due to the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham having an indifferent season of themselves.
Louis Van Gaal has spent £150m on a wealth of talent whom have not hit the dizzy heights that many had expected. Like Moyes, the Dutchman will say that he needs time, and unlike Moyes he’ll probably get that if he sees United to a top-four finish, but the quality of the football played by his team is nowhere near what’s expected from United. Van Gaal is set on his possession based philosophy, hence the constant selection of the much debated 3-5-2 formation. United are leading the charts in terms of possession in games however whilst in possession the players seem scared to be positive, the message clearly seems to be we can’t concede if in possession. Additionally United are 2nd to only Burnley for the most attempted long balls forward this season, players are clearly not reproducing the slick football that they produced in preseason when fans saw some outstanding play against LA Galaxy, Roma, Liverpool and Real Madrid but got brought back to reality with that opening-day defeat against Swansea.
In the recent Premier League game away to QPR, fans were pleading ‘Attack, Attack, Attack’ and the chants of ‘4-4-2’ rung around Lotfus Road, United had less possession but were more of a potent threat when they switched from the infamous 3-5-2 to 4-4-2. Van Gaal stated after the game that he wouldn’t give into the fans demands and that the 4-4-2 formation gives him a ‘squeaky bum’. Manchester United face Leicester at Old Trafford on Saturday and will be keen to avenge the 5-3 defeat to the Foxes, United were 3-1 up and cruising before defensive deficiencies and naivety came back to haunt them. In that famous defeat the likes of Herrera, Di Maria, Rooney, Falcao and Van Persie all started the game an attacking line up which would drive fear into any opponent. Since the 5-3 Leicester defeat in September, Van Gaal’s football has become far more cautious. His team concedes few goals (three in seven games in the last month), but also scores few as well (eight in seven, with three matches in which United didn’t manage a goal).
Van Gaal has to be more positive with his formation, teams are finding the 3-5-2 formation easy to defend against, allowing the likes of Smalling, Jones and Evans to have time on the ball knowing that the defenders do not have the confidence to be positive in possession. United seem lethargic and pedestrian in possession there needs to be a significant upturn in tempo. United’s most dominant performance to date this season was arguably the 4-0 home win against struggling QPR, yes QPR are extremely poor travellers but it is no coincidence that the formation played in that game by Van Gaal was the 4-4-2 diamond which allowed Angel Di Maria freedom to roam.
Di Maria needs to be at the heart of everything good United do, in recent games Van Gaal has deployed the Argentine in a striker role, Van Gaal tried to vindicate the move claiming it was down to utilising Di Maria’s pace. Di Maria was at his best earlier in the season when he was playing in midfield, picking up the ball in deep areas and using his dribbling ability to drift past players and striking fear into the opposition. Question marks also continue to be raised over Ander Herrera’s continued omission, Herrera’s energy and creativity makes him a livewire when on the pitch. However Van Gaal clearly doesn’t have full faith in the Spaniard hence the constant selection of Fellaini and Carrick. Van Gaal has confirmed that Michael Carrick will be out of action for a minimum of a month due to a ruptured muscle. Carrick’s misfortune could well be Herrera’s gain,Herrera has scored two goals and provided three assists in the league.
Van Gaal needs to focus on ways of hurting the opposition, not worrying about nullifying the opposition. The names that United have make teams worry but coming up with a formation that allows Van Gaal stars to flourish will automatically make teams quiver. On far too many teams this season United have dilly-dallied in possession, allowing teams to reorganise. Van Gaal’s focus should be on getting his players to shift the ball with purpose, turning defence from attack in the blink of the eye. Many United fans believe that Van Gaal will get it right but murmurings are starting to occur and discontent is starting to circulate around Van Gaal’s negativity. Van Gaal will get time but failure to get a top four finish this season would be inexcusable.