Since the start of the season, United has gone through multiple changes in formation for multiple reasons, be it injuries or tactical necessity. United started pre-season with a 3-5-2 formation.
This is the same “revolutionary” formation that took Louis van Gaal’s unfancied Netherlands team to come third unbeaten – bar a penalty shootout defeat to Argentina – in last summer’s World Cup. Pre-season went well, with United winning the Guinness Champions Cup, beating the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool along the way. However, things took a a turn for the worse as the season started, with a loss to Swansea, and draws to newly-promoted Burnley and Sunderland.
This is a formation that even van Gaal is somewhat inexperienced with, let alone the players. This formation was only used in the World Cup to compensate for the injuries of midfielders Kevin Strootman and Nigel de Jong. Van Gaal also used a 3-4-3 in the World Cup, more resembling his favoured 4-3-3 system he’s used throughout his career.
Following a poor start to the season, United signed holding midfielder Daley Blind – among others – and started using a midfield diamond, with Blind as the anchor, fellow summer signings Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria as central midfielders and Juan Mata as an attacking midfielder. This formation worked wonders in it’s first use, resulting in a convincing 4-0 win against Queens Park Rangers, but a 5-3 defeat to Leicester City followed, before a slim victory against West Ham.
This formation served as a bridge between the 3-5-2 and the 4-3-3. New boy Di Maria performed brilliantly in this formation, as he was deployed in a similar role that he played in his previous season at Real Madrid, when they won the Champions League in a final in which Di Maria was Man of the Match. This formation also allowed Juan Mata, Robin van Persie, and Wayne Rooney to play in their preferred role together, along with summer signing Radamel Falcao, who scored his first goal for the club in this formation against Everton. The defence was also more solidified – apart from the Leicester match – in this formation as it employs a back four, which was a system they are more familiar with.
After success with the diamond, van Gaal made a leap to his favoured 4-3-3. He has hinted at the potential use of this formation in the summer, citing his need for a “world-class” winger and name-dropping Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo. This formation didn’t get off on a good start, with consecutive draws against West Brom and Chelsea, followed by a slim defeat to Manchester City. This formation yielded only one win, against Crystal Palace.
The weakness of this formation lies in the attack, or, more specifically, the wing. Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj played as wingers and were both left isolated and unable to create. In the game against Chelsea, Januzaj played well on the left wing instead of the usual right, but when he was moved back to the right for the second half, he was ineffective as he was unable to drift to a more central position, where he can create. Di Maria was also largely ineffective playing on the left, being left isolated.
For United’s next game against Arsenal, van Gaal reverted to the 3-5-2, to compensate following the injury of Daley Blind to defend against the pace of Alexis Sanchez. It worked, as United emerged 2-1 winners, but had to spend most of the game defending. United went on a run of four more wins consecutively against Hull City, Stoke City, Southampton, and Liverpool. However, United had to scrap for the wins against Stoke and Southampton, which shows that the players are not familiar or even not comfortable with this formation.
At this point, van Gaal stands at a crossroads of sorts. With Daley Blind back in training, and soon available for selection, van Gaal can either stick with the current formation, or change back to his other ones. Blind has been an integral part to both the diamond or the 4-3-3, as he has been the only player to have played in the holding role those formations require, and van Gaal will surely be tempted to revert to his favoured system. However, with the likes of Herrera, Di Maria, Marouane Fellaini and Luke Shaw still out injured, any potential changes to the formation would most likely be temporary.