The first half of Saturday’s match against Queens Park Rangers had me rubbing my forehead and temples with frustration, disbelief, and most of all, confusion as to why Louis van Gaal was still sending out a 5-3-2 formation.
Firstly, I know that some would argue the formation United use is actually a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-1-2, but a wing-back is essentially just an outside back who also has to take on the responsibility of an outside midfielder as well. And in the modern age of outside defenders, players like Branislav Ivanovic, Patrice Evra, and Dani Alves – all technically deployed as outside fullbacks – still fill the role of a wing-back, while each playing in their respective flat-four defensive formation that do in fact use wingers or outside midfielders as well. Thus, to me, calling the position “wing-back” is simply a justification for the elimination of attacking wingers – at least in United’s case.
Moving on. During the first half of yesterday’s match, I couldn’t help but feel that the main issue with the Red Devils’ attack was a missing player in the midfield. Too often did Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata collect the ball, look around for a quick pass, and see no teammate within twenty feet of themselves. Michael Carrick, as great of a holding midfielder as he is, sets himself up directly in front of the defensive line and primarily fills the role of a midfield “sweeper” or a deep lying play-maker who is not as much involved in the offensive scheme as he is in ensuring defensive stability (these days, at least). The offense lacked width, and the one player who could provide the team with such width – Angel Di Maria – was wastefully used as a striker with barely any dribbling room, which many would argue is his greatest asset. I counted several times where Rooney, oddly playing as a pure central midfielder yet again, fed Di Maria the ball on the edge of the 18 yard box with no room to turn, and immediately lost the ball to the QPR defenders (I also question why Rooney played in midfield and Di Maria as a forward, when clearly their preferred and most dominant positions would be the opposite, but we’ll get to that later).
As United’s midfielders swung the ball from side to side, there was no channel running, slow off-the-ball movement, and surprisingly common passing errors, one of which had lead to an impressive volley from Charlie Austin that forced David De Gea into a phenomenal flying save. There were few scoring opportunities, and the shots that did hit the target were far from those of the attacking prowess one would expect when seeing a lineup consisting of Rooney, Mata, Di Maria, and Falcao. And as the first half dwindled down, I felt United were almost lucky to still be in a deadlock – something I used to rarely say about this team.
The second half started similarly, with the introduction of Marouanne Fellaini in exchange for Mata not doing much to help the flow of the game. But after ten minutes of rather useless play, van Gaal must have finally realized that maybe, just maybe, it was time to ditch the five-man defensive formation and add another attacking player. Swapping Johnny Evans for young James Wilson and shifting to a 4-4-2 formation proved immediately effective, with Fellaini getting on the end of a low Antonio Valencia cross just two minutes later and putting the Red Devils ahead. From then on, it seemed the team had regained its confidence, maintaining midfield possession and generally looking more comfortable with the ball. Of course, there were a few errors that led to QPR breakaways and goal-scoring opportunities, but no one would argue that the shift to the 4-4-2 formation made the team play any worse. And in the end, it was wonderful to see Wilson score his first away goal in a United (senior squad) shirt.
So, what can we learn from the game against QPR? Clearly, the 3-5-2 doesn’t have a future in the United squad (right?). By playing three center-backs, two wing-backs, and a defensive holding midfielder, van Gaal uses six primarily defensive players while leaving four offensive players to attack Premier League defenses that generally consist of four defenders and at least one holding midfielder. The lack of width (yes, I don’t consider Blind and Valencia’s positioning just ahead of the back three to be width) leaves the front four players outnumbered with less quick passing options, thus losing the ball rather quickly as we saw so often yesterday. And as I mentioned earlier, there were barely any channel runs that opened up opportunities for the forwards. I would assume that van Gaal is attempting to play Di Maria in the same role as Arjen Robben played for the Netherlands squad during last summer’s World Cup – hanging just behind the striker with license to run wild with the ball. But the Argentine doesn’t look too comfortable in that role, and would be much better suited as a central or outside midfielder/winger – a position he excelled in at Real Madrid and the Argentine national team over the past few years. And as solid of a central midfielder as Rooney is, swapping Di Maria and Rooney’s positions might yield some better play and perhaps more goal scoring opportunities.
At the end of the day, the team collected three well earned points and hopefully a few hard-hitting lessons as well. It seems that just about every United fan is begging for a switch back to either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation (or any similar variations). But the only man who seems to be against such change permanently is the only one who matters. We’ll just have to wait and see what King Louis has in store for us next week.