It goes without saying that we shouldn’t read too much into friendlies at this early, pre-season stage, but if there’s anything we can take from Manchester United’s 7-0 demolition of LA Galaxy it’s this: Louis van Gaal is no mug.
Whilst it may have only been a kick around, the massive difference in the way United operated compared to the Moyes’ regime was inescapable. Here was a side playing with a spring in their step, a side full of ideas and ingenuity – a world away from the laboured, torturous and timid ‘style’ of play under the Scot last season.
So what have we learnt about United from their game in America?
Well, first thing’s first, it appears pretty likely that they’re going to switch formations this season, and if you don’t think that’s interesting, then you’re probably not a very big football fan. United have ostensibly played a variation of 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 for many years now, and yet it doesn’t look like van Gaal is planning to field a formation even slightly similar – he’s going to rip it up and start again.
The 3-5-2 formation favoured by van Gaal in his opening game is interesting primarily for two reasons.
Firstly, it indicates that the Dutchman is planning to draw heavily on the success he gained playing that style with the Netherlands. With three at the back, two quick wingbacks, a strong midfield base and two up top, the Dutch somewhat surprised everyone at the World Cup. They were able to tear teams to shreds (most notably the champions of the time, Spain), and the formation was key to that.
Opting for wingbacks allows the side to remain thoroughly compact and hard-to-break down in midfield whilst still providing the width required to get in behind opponents. With two strikers to deal with instead of one, the 3-5-2 can cause massive problems for defences much more used to dealing with one threat in the centre forward position.
It seems very clear that van Gaal is planning to create a high-energy, pacy side with the ability to really kill games off in the early stages. The 3-5-2 will no doubt be an extremely welcome sight for United fans; if only because it indicates that the safety-first approach of the Moyes era has now finally been consigned to the rubbish tip.
The other thing that makes this 3-5-2 formation so interesting is that it indicates van Gaal is going to have a ruddy good go at fielding all of his best players in their best positions.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but the reality is that this is precisely what David Moyes didn’t do. Having spent plenty of time placating Wayne Rooney last summer, the Scot continued to deploy the England striker in the withdrawn number ten role that Rooney is willing to play in, but reluctantly so.
The Scot then compounded the issue by purchasing Juan Mata for a record fee only to field him out wide – a position that had already proven to be a less than prolific role for the Spaniard.
The 3-5-2 obliterates those issues. Rooney and van Persie can play as the two central strikers with Juan Mata behind them. Two of Herrera, Carrick, Fellaini and Cleverley can fill the two central midfield slots. Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Rafael da Silva can play in the wingback role, with the central defenders left to play in, well, central defence.
By changing formation, van Gaal is doing something that Moyes never did: giving his players the best possible chance of success.
However, the change of formation does illustrate a serious need for more strength in one particular position – central defence.
Against Los Angeles, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were fielded at centre back, and the reasons for that are very clear – there’s no one else to play there.
With Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic moving onto pastures green, Smalling, Evans and Jones are all that are left, and the Dutchman simply must take steps to strengthen this area. Smalling had a torrid last season, with many questioning whether he is quite up to the task; Jones has blown hot and cold, with many believing him to be better suited at right back or defensive midfield; and there still remain question marks over Evans’ ability at the very highest level.
If van Gaal is able to sign two top-quality central defenders in the next few weeks, this United side will look a whole different proposition. As I said at the start, there’s only so much you can read into friendlies, but the early signs are very good indeed. Should they carry on in the way they began, there’s every chance that United’s nightmare of last season will soon be regarded as a minor blip.
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