The Netherlands’ demolition of Spain in their opening match of Group B gave Manchester United fans – and in fact football fans in general – a lot to be excited about. After all, this was Spain, the team which revolutionised the way football was played at both international and club level, the champions of the beautiful, fluid, ‘tiki-taka’ football which has, over the past 8 years, been impossible to overcome.
Until Friday night. The Netherlands methodically picked Spain apart, leading some particularly zealous viewers to declare “the death of tiki-taka” and the end of an era for Spain and football as whole. At the heart of the heroics was Robin van Persie, wearing the captain’s armband handed to him by Louis van Gaal. It was a very good evening indeed for Manchester United fans. United’s next manager gave a masterclass and took down a supreme footballing force, but could van Gaal’s world-beating tactics be effective in his new job?
Holland’s formation will have been unfamiliar to United fans who do not watch much football outside of the Premier League, of which I am definitely one. Essentially, the Oranje lined up in a 5-3-2 (or 3-2-2-3, depending on your preferences) with a ‘back three’ of centre backs Stefan De Vrij, Bruno Martens Indi and a sensational Ron Vlaar, wing backs Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat playing the role of both full back and wide midfielders, and a midfield three of Jonathan de Guzman, Nigel de Jong and perennial United target Wesley Sneijder supporting Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben up front. Although briefly experimented with by Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers, playing five at the back remains largely unpopular with English teams.
The accepted wisdom is that with two centre backs, any time an attack approaches, one man goes to the ball whilst the other covers. Proponents of the back four claim that three centre backs disrupts this dynamic, leading to a lack of balance in defence increasing the chance of an error. What’s more, one more defender means one less attacker, which could be a tough sell to fans so passionate about attacking football.
To counteract this potential negativity, the formation relies on ultra-attacking wing backs to both offer a quick route out of defence and provide quality crosses for the forwards. This element of a 5-3-2 could be very well suited to United’s playing staff, particularly if the signing of Luke Shaw is completed as expected. Both Shaw and right back Rafael are known for their attacking prowess as full backs, and both have shown themselves to be capable of delivering high quality crosses.
However, whilst Daley Blind’s probing runs and excellent service were absolutely key to the Netherlands’ victory, against teams that play with out and out wingers – as most Premier League teams do- the defensive role of the wing backs will be much more seriously tested. It is a position which requires a tremendous amount of discipline, which is certainly not one Rafael or Patrice Evra’s strong suits. This problem is surmountable, but increases United’s requirement for two proper holding midfielders who can sacrifice attacking intent to cover for the surging full backs.
This highlights a slight problem for United should van Gaal try to implement this system, as looking at the current midfield crop of Carrick, Cleverley, Fellaini, Anderson, and an ageing Fletcher, it is hard to see where this solid midfield base is going to come from. Even Nick Powell, who will surely stake a claim to first team football next season, and who many (including me) see as a potential answer to the club’s midfield issues, is a player far too creative to sit protecting a defence. Rumours have linked United to Portuguese youngster William Carvalho, who is exactly the kind of player needed in this position. There are issues at centre back, too, where the departure of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic and the almost comical injury record of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling means that United could struggle to find three central defenders to field, even if van Gaal manages to bring in reported target Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund.
Going forward, though, the formation makes a lot of sense for United’s squad. The signing of Juan Mata was a surprise (a lovely, handsome surprise) given the abundance of ‘Number 10s’ already at the club – Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj are most effective there, and Wayne Rooney has to be played in the hole for fear of him sulking – but the lack of wingers in the 5-3-2 system makes space for more of these supremely creative centrally-based players in the same team.
Any front three selected from Kagawa, Mata, Januzaj, Rooney, Welbeck and van Persie would surely strike fear into any defence, and with two holding midfielders behind them, they would have the freedom to interchange and pull out wide without having to worry about defensive duties – a move which could be the making of a player like Shinji Kagawa, who has been held back by his duties going backwards in his time so far at Old Trafford. The effectiveness of this tactic was proven on Friday night with van Persie, Robben and Sneijder all taking turns being the furthest player up the pitch for Holland, and none of them being afraid to head to the wing or drop further back to create space for the other members of the triangle. United certainly have the players to play a system like this going forwards, and the excellent movement and direct running of Danny Welbeck could add yet another dimension to the attack and give fans a further reason – as if it were needed – to be genuinely excited about the new era of the club under Louis van Gaal.
It is true that the system means somewhat abandoning the United tradition of ‘flying wingers’, which is something which many fans may feel uneasy about. I personally believe that van Gaal will use a much more en vogue 4-2-3-1 formation, more like his system at Bayern Munich than the one deployed against Spain. However, off the field Old Trafford is undergoing a revolution, with changes in the back-room staff and the end of the Ferguson age. Louis van Gaal will be keen to forge his own team, and given the success of the system against arguably the best team in the world, it is possible that there is no time like the present to move forwards into a new era on the pitch too.