On the face of it Manchester United have improved significantly in this season’s Premier League. They are sitting second in the table and are three points behind their rival neighbours; this season’s pacesetters Manchester City. Sir Alex Ferguson eluded in a recent interview to the progress made by LVG and pointed out the Dutchman’s pedigree from his spells at Barcelona, Ajax and Bayern Munich.
“Louis has got a great background with Bayern Munich and Barcelona. He’s got the pedigree there’s no doubt about that.” Alex Ferguson on LVG
Yet not all of those at United share the same confidence level and excitement as their legendary manager. Performances this season have shown that United have developed their level of belief and an ability to grind out results even when under-performing. The most pessimistic of fans would point out to the loss against PSV, the inability to break down a horrid Newcastle team and the fact that their last two wins, albeit with three goals scored in both of them, came from their only shots on target in those games. This is a very satisfying fact from a clinical point of view but very worrying in terms of chances created in those games.
Squad Ability and Current Philosophy
Before delving deeper into tactical analysis and player choices let’s take a look at the players at LVG’s disposal and the way he likes to set out his team. There is no denying that the post Fergie era did not go as the vast majority of fans expected. The rapid decline from a title winning squad to a non-European contender under the short term tutelage of David Moyes came as an unwelcomed surprise even to the most pessimistic of fans. Moyes inherited an ageing squad that Fergie managed and used to grind out impressive results at a time where his title contenders were really struggling for form. Their last title winning season is an over-achievement in terms of the quality of players available at this point in time but it also signifies the psychological impact of the great Scotsman on the team. Moyes inherited what he thought was a title contending team but ended up realising that his ageing squad was unable to compete with the other riches available in the Premier League. This is by no means an effort to divert the blame away from the tactical failures of an under-qualified manager that was tasked with the most coveted job in world football – the second Manchester United manager since 1986. United coming in seventh prompted the board to act swiftly, bring on LVG and hand him a transfer kitty of over £250m to rebuild the team. With the likes of De Gea, Darmian, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, Mata, Rooney, Di Maria and Falcao at his disposal over the last two years, the available quality was there to see and yet they struggled to convince their fans that the United of old is coming back.
Throughout Alex Ferguson’s tenure United were known for fast paced attacking football that got hearts racing and was pleasing to the eye. LVG seems to favour a more possession based approach that emphasises the need for ball retention and control, slow build up play and a compact defensive unit. With a return to the Champions League group stage this season the results have definitely improved but the questions on everyone’s’ minds are whether LVG is getting the most of his attacking talent and why he has not strengthened an obvious weakness with the signing of a world class central defender.
When Vidic and Ferdinand departed United they undoubtedly left a glaring hole in the centre of defence. Smalling and Jones were two promising youngsters who never had a constant run in the team alongside one of the experienced pair. They were also used as makeshift right backs both at club and international level. All this had a significant impact on them developing into world class central defenders. Both Moyes and LVG were expected to plug that hole and add stability and solidity to the Manchester United defence. The lack of available world class players in this position has been the justification given to the fans by both managers. But what constitutes a world class defender and is that the only criteria needed to improve a squad? The Sky Sports’ commentator for the Atletico Madrid vs Getafe match on Tuesday gave a good example of fit for purpose is in this case: He defined world class players as players of the calibre of Ronaldo, Messi and Bale – evidently hard to find and when found are very difficult to lure away from their current team – but also added another class of players that have the potential to evolve into world class but even in their current form would be significant added value to almost any team. This class of players includes the likes of Griezman, Kroos, Hummels and Rojo. LVG splashed the cash last season on Rojo and in his first Premier League season the Argentine performed admirably and settled in relatively well.
When LVG did not secure new defenders in the summer transfer window, most attributed that to LVG’s satisfaction with a pairing of Rojo and the ever improving Chris Smalling. But when Blind became a constant figure in the centre of defence in all of United’s games this season questions were raised. Blind is not a natural defender and top managers are recognising that and are targeting him as the weak point in the United team. He is not built as a strong defender and is easily bullied off the ball. Gary Monk produced that recipe in Swansea’s comeback win and Koeman identified him as the weakness prior to the Southampton game.
“I think he can play very well out of that position but he’s not really a strong defender physically. That’s sometimes the problem. We know that Pelle is very strong and normally he’s stronger than Blind ” Koeman before Southampton’s game against United
In the first half Pelle was having a field day reminiscent of Gomis’ second half against LVG’s fellow Dutchman. The Southampton game also raised another concern regarding LVG’s player choices as Luke Shaw’s horrific injury against PSV was seen as an opportunity for Rojo to prove his worth as a centre back with Blind moving to his natural position as a left back – one that he impressed in under LVG in last year’s world cup. Yet the defiant manager still opted to solve one problem by fielding in two players out of position. Rojo looked very uncomfortable at left back and Blind was easily pushed around by the big Italian Pelle.
LVG favours a 4-3-3 formation that looks more like a 4-2-3-1. Analysing the player selection against Southampton, it was clear that LVG favoured what on paper looks like an attacking line up but with only three shots on target fans will likely be wondering why they are not seeing more incisiveness.
For a man with his experience LVG seems to be trying to accommodate a number of players in his line-up without considering the tactical implications of his selections. When lining up three attacking player behind a lone striker the team needs to have two central midfielders who are nimble, quick with good ball retrieval skills and an ability to distribute to the attacking players – think of Roma with De Rossi and Naigolan and Real Madrid with Kroos and Modric. Games are won and lost in midfield – when lacking defensive support from your attacking players the two defensive midfielders cannot afford to be run around by the opposition. United still instil fear in the minds of their opposition, but it has become a common occurrence that when taking a lead, they are pegged back in their own half with the opposing team gaining more and more control of the midfield and De Gea has to be relied on time and time again. PSV came back from one goal downs with United lining up their best players this season. Southampton almost came back from a 3-1 deficit with United having to rely on an exceptional one handed save from De Gea and Swansea came back after being a goal down in the second half.
Deep Lying Playmaker role
If LVG continues relying on a 4-2-3-1 formation, there is no need for a deep lying playmaker – Schweinsteiger or Carrick – because he already has an advanced playmaker in the number 10 position. Aside from the defensive implications this has on the team a deep lying playmaker is generally utilised to move the ball forward with pace and to deliver it to the onrushing wingers to exploit any gaps behind the opposition’s centre backs. There is no need for an out and out playmaker using this tactic. When Xavi used to receive the ball while at Barcelona, the first thing he would do was to look up for someone who is running between the opposition lines. A traditional playmaker like Mata, Carrick or Schweinsteiger would generally look up to see Mata dropping deep to receive the ball. As an example – look at United’s performance in the 0-4 away win against Club Brugge. United started the game with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Herrera supporting Carrick in midfield and the trio of Januzaj, Mata and Depay supporting Wayne Rooney upfront. Carrick did not assist a single goal in this game nor did he create any goal scoring opportunities because the three player in front of him were always available to get the ball. Taking one of the three out of the equation allows the other two to stretch the game, open up spaces in the opposition back line which is then easily exploited by a deep-lying playmaker to find a forward-running teammate in space. When LVG introduced Schweinsteiger to replace Januzaj United were finally lined up in a suitable setting for Schweinsteiger and Carrick and Schweinsteiger proved his class with a defense splitting pass to an advancing Herrera to score the fourth goal which fans and pundits have been raving about ever since.
Manchester United could still win the title this season but this will be down to their rivals handing it to them rather than LVG’s tactical superiority and will continue to be exposed in the Champions League unless drastic changes are made.
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