3-5-2; destined for van Gaal glory or a Dutch disaster?
There have been many changes within Manchester United in recent months from Moyes’ sacking, LvG’s appointment, change of technical staff and players going and coming into the club. But there has always been one constant with Manchester United and something which their renown for; their width. When Sir Alex was manager of United, which now seems like an eternity ago, always have had wingers and or fullbacks. When David Moyes took over he carried on the wide play, although at Everton he played a very narrow game, which was evident from the way The Reds played last season, going wide and crossing in balls aimlessly. When Louis van Gaal was announced as the new manager of the club, it was widely talked about as to which formation he would use at United. He used the 4-3-3 formation whilst managing Ajax and Bayern Munich, and most notably using it with Barcelona who still use the 4-3-3 to this day as he introduced a system which would help Barca reach great success, even long after he had left the club. His most recent job as Netherlands manager in this year’s world cup; he used a 3-5-2 formation, having 3 centre halves with 2 wingbacks to provide the width, 2 holding midfielders although one would be free to roam and push forward with the other staying back and helping the defence and with Sneijder occupying the hole and Robben and Robin van Persie as the striking force. This formation worked wonders for Holland as they managed to reach the semi-finals and won the 3rd place play off 3-0 against hosts Brazil. Before the world cup Holland were viewed as underdogs and not serious contenders to get the coveted trophy even though they had world-class players such as Robben and Sneijder as most of their squad were world cup debutants and didn’t have much previous world cup experience as compared to teams such as Spain.
Now at club level the 3-5-2 isn’t commonly used as many managers see having only 3 orthodox defenders as a weakness that can be exploited by teams but one team that use it successfully at club level is Juventus. Conte implemented the 3-5-2 flat(with no playmaker role and one dm role) and this system helped pave the way to 3 consecutive titles from 2011-2014.
Now with Louis van Gaal wanting to implement the 3-5-2 or 5-2-1-2 depending on how you want to view it, how will the current crop of Manchester United players adapt to this drastic change of tactics? Let us start at the very back with the goalkeeper and there is virtually no argument to the fact that David de Gea will be United first choice shot stopper and this season will be a real test for the Spaniard as this season he has lost a lot of defensive experience is the form of Vidic, Fredinand and Evra and with the back 4 now becoming a back 3 of centre backs, he’s going have to protect his goal even more. As good as de Gea is, one thing I see lacking in his game is him actually commanding his box, making it his own, which will hopefully come with age. Another thing is catching crosses; this links back to him being commanding, he needs to show that bravery and will to come and collect balls without parrying it out for example, for an easy tap in for the other team.
Now on to the defence, an area which is suddenly depleted after the departures of 4 defenders and with 2 of those 4 being central defenders, this leaves a very big hole in van Gaal’s 3 man defence. The first to announce his departure was captain Nermanja Vidic, who stated he would leave around the end of January and in the coming months he signed a pre-contract with Serie A giants Inter Milan. The next to leave was Rio, who was deemed surplus to requirements by van Gaal and was allowed to leave on a free to QPR. Alex Buttner’s move away from the club was purely due to the fact he wanted Champions League football although he was a squad player so his departure was not as severe as the rest. The latest to leave was little French club legend Patrice Evra, who’d only signed a new contract a month or two prior, leaving also for Serie A, for champions Juventus.
After Buttner was sold, United were left with only one left back and with Evra in the latter stages in his career, Manchester United bought highly rated and sought after defender Luke Shaw from Southampton for a fee around £30m. The 19-year-old was bought as a long-term replacement for the departing Evra and slots in well as the LWB in the 3-5-2. LvG recently bought another defender, Marcos Rojo from Sporting Lisbon for £16m+Nani on loan, who is a left-sided centre back by trait by can also play as left back and left-wing back. The rest of the defence is quite worrying as they have Chris Smalling and Phil Jones who are both very good, but are also very prone to an injury. Also in the ranks are home-grown players such as Johnny Evans and Tyler Blackett who impressed in pre-season although, may not be ready for the Premier League. Their right side is well equipped with Rafael, Valencia and Ashley Young who can play on either flank. Manchester United need another centre back before they can confidently use the 3-5-2 without the worry of defensive cover.
Manchester United’s midfield has been neglected for many years and it has finally caught up with them. After Paul Scholes retired for the 2nd time, United only had two types of midfielders; the barely average/past their best players and twinkle toed grace players, they had no real hard tackler and engine of a man, something they missed after Roy Keane left the club, he left 9 years ago and the problem is still not resolved. Now what does that say about Manchester United? After Keano left the club, Scholes grew into the hard tackler midfielder although retaining the unbelievable passing ability we love and admire. United are so weak in midfield it is almost unbearable to watch them every week, although they have bought Ander Herrera from Athletic Club for a fee of £28m and although the Spaniard can giving a crushing tackle, he does like to roam forward a lot, a box to box midfielder if you will. If you look at United’s central midfielders, Tom Cleverley, Michael Carrick, Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and now Ander Herrera, how many of them would make it into Manchester City’s team? Chelsea’s team? Or even Arsenal’s team? Most likely only Juan Mata, and that is because he came from one of those clubs after being deemed surplus. The 20 times Premier League champions have been linked with the whole of the Netherlands midfield from the world cup it seems including the injured Kevin Strootman of Roma. The names that pop up the most are Arturo Vidal and Angel Di Maria, the Arturo Vidal transfer saga is as tedious as the Eden Hazard saga back in 2012 or even the ongoing Wesley Sneijder saga, which has been around since 2009. With Carlo Ancelotti announcing that both Angel Di Maria and Sami Khedira both want out of Real Madrid, this makes the swoop for the both of them even more valuable as they would plug holes in United’s midfield and spur them on to their target of getting back in the top 4.
Up front is Manchester United’s strongest part of their play and the new 3-5-2 formation allows key players to play in their preferred positions. Last season David Moyes played both 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1, using the latter mostly before the January record purchase of Juan Mata. At first when 4-4-1-1 was being deployed there were very few complaints as it allowed Robin van Persie to play up and Rooney to play in the hole, in his ‘preferred’ position as centre forward. During Rooney’s 10 year Manchester United career, he has often been criticised for his massive form swings, from the great Rooney of 2007-08 to the moody Rooney of 2012-13; I personally think this is because of the position he has been playing and him being second fiddle often times. When Cristiano Ronaldo was on from for United, Rooney’s form plummeted. This is because Rooney likes to be the centre of the attack and when Ronaldo left for Real, he reappeared out his shell and recaptured form again. Another example is in the 2011-12 season, Rooney was played up front and had an excellent season but when Robin van Persie joined the following season, he was pushed back and was over shadowed by the Dutchman. People seem to forget that at Everton, where he set the league alight, he was played up front as a lone striker or with a striking parter right up the pitch. Now with this formation with two strikers up front and a playmaker behind him, Rooney should relish and rekindle a partnership with RvP as well as Juan Mata being behind the two. Danny Welbeck also impressed in pre-season, adapting well to the new formation and I’m surprised to read reports that he could leave. If any forward is to leave it has to be Javier Hernandez to me. He has not been good and likes to be a strictly a lone forward to have balls played ahead of him for him to run onto. A host of teams are apparently in for him and with a market value of around £8m-£15m, he would be a great signing for any team.
I think the 3-5-2 will work for Manchester United as long as they can bring in more players to fill the gaps by switching formation.