Will Louis van Gaal Persist With Three at the Back?

In recent weeks, there has been a large amount of discussion regarding Louis Van Gaal’s newly adopted 3-4-1-2 formation, and the question has been posed; is it going to work? In light of recent results – perhaps the most notable being the 4-0 defeat at the hands to League 1 outfit MK Dons – this question seems like a pertinent one. There seems to be two schools of thought regarding the formations’ recent problems. The first will tell you that the formation itself is inherently flawed, and is no longer a viable option in top level football. The second school of thought believe that the formation itself can be effective; but the players need time to adapt their games to operate efficiently within it.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider, are the reasons for the implementation of the formation; van Gaal arrived at United and instantly seemed to judge that our best chance for success on the pitch was to accommodate the attacking threat posed by attackers Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, and Juan Mata. There are, of course other formations that can accommodate two strikers and an attack minded midfielder; such as the 4-1-2-1-2 formation with a midfield diamond, often deployed by Brendan Rodger’s Liverpool team last season. I would argue, however, that our midfield options at the time of van Gaal’s arrival lacked the quality or versatility to support the front three by covering them defensively and constantly providing them with the ball. This formation can also be very narrow, with the full backs being much more defensive minded, potentially nullifying it as an option considering United’s reliance on width.

All of this meant that van Gaal has opted to adopt the 3-4-1-2 formation that suited him so well in the World Cup with Netherlands. This formation was chosen over van Gaal’s favoured 4-3-3 for Netherlands due to an injury sustained by key midfielder Kevin Strootman, which effectively forced him to change his tactics. He found himself in a similar situation to that Manchester United; lacking genuine quality in midfield. He concluded that his best chance for success hinged on the goal-scoring prowess of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and perennial Manchester United transfer target Wesley Sneijder, deploying hard working defensive minded midfielders Nigel De Jong and new  United man Daley Blind behind them. Given the well reported over-achievement of his little fancied Netherlands team in that tournament, it is of little surprise that he brought the formation with him to Manchester. This success could also provide proof that the formation does allow teams to compete at the top level of football. While it is true that a team has never won the Premier League title playing three a the back, it can also be argued that no team has ever really given it a fair attempt. The 4-4-2 formation, and more recently various incarnations of 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 are so deeply ingrained in the psyche of English football, that a formation with three centre halves seems alien to us. In other European countries, this is not the case; Juventus lifted their third Serie A title in as many years last season, playing 3-5-2.

After the World Cup, most Manchester United fans were justifiably excited to see the new look system in place, and the pre-season tour of the U.S.A will have done nothing to deter the excitement. The negativity soon returned however; with the season kicking off to a 1-2 home defeat to Swansea. Results still haven’t improved; with a draw away at Sunderland followed by the 4-0 humbling at MK Dons, and most recently a 0-0 bore-draw away to newly promoted Burnley. After the acquisition of world class winger Ángel Di María and centre forward Radamel Falcao, there are many that expect Louis van Gaal to revert to a more familiar formation, such as 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 or his favoured 4-3-3. It would perhaps be surprising to see this happen for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the fact that van Gaal was unwilling to play Kagawa anywhere except behind the strikers is evidence that he is unwilling to play a player outside of their natural position; a fact that surely means that he would like to avoid reverting to a formation with one striker, as this would mean having to pick one out of van Persie or Falcao. Neither player is tactically versatile enough to play anywhere except centre forward, and neither would be likely to welcome a place on the bench, so it seems important that both start. This however, could cause an issue for Juan Mata, who could find himself on the bench if club captain Wayne Rooney takes over his position in advanced midfield.

Secondly, van Gaal has bought well in the summer; acquiring players that should be well-suited to the formation that he has committed to; Marcos Rojo looked extremely comfortable with the ball at his feel at the World Cup, and should slot right in at left centre back ahead of Tyler Blackett. Ángel Di María had a fantastic season last term, playing centre midfield for Real Madrid. He is extremely hard working, with incredible stamina and a fantastic carrier of the ball; he could be an asset for United in the middle of the park. Daley Blind and Ander Herrera are both perfectly suited to be Di Maria’s midfield partner, and will fight it out to claim that position. Luke Shaw is a fantastic young full back, with great attacking instincts, who should be able to adapt his game to perfect the wing back role; despite apparent concerns over his fitness levels. Radamel Falcao was perhaps more of an opportunistic deal, obtained because a player of his ability cannot be turned down when available.

Thirdly, and finally; Louis van Gaal is one of the most confident managers in football; he will not lose faith in his tactics, and he will stand by his decisions. He has said from the start that it can take time for players to buy into his philosophy and understand their role within his system, but he remains adamant that when the system clicks, then this extremely talented squad can realise their potential.

The obvious problem United have with the formation at the moment appears to be the lack of confidence of the defenders. In the match against Burnley, the defenders often looked for the safe pass to a nearby team-mate – the most common pass being Jonny Evans to Antonio Valencia (right centre back to right wing back) -, or the seventy yard long ball up towards the front men, cutting the midfield out entirely. This has to stop; the defenders need to be confident carrying the ball, and look to give it to the deep lying midfielder (Fletcher in this instance), as his is the man that bridges the gap, transitioning the ball from defence to midfield. The uncertainty should diminish slightly when Rafael and Luke Shaw return to fitness, as these two are the more natural options at wing back, and as such, they should offer better defensive cover than the more attack minded wide men Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. The other obvious issue at the back is the uncertainty of the young defender Tyler Blackett, a fantastic player operating above all expectations, but World Cup finalist Marcos Rojo should add more some much needed experience at the back upon his inclusion.

Whether you think that United need to return to a more familiar ‘four at the back’ formation or not, it’s hard to argue with the quality United have at the moment, especially in attacking positions, and Louis van Gaal is a manager with a proven track record of not only providing success, but setting the wheels in motion for sustained success at a football club, just look at the success enjoyed by Barcelona and Bayern Munich not only during his reign, but in the seasons following his departure in 2006 and 2010 respectively. He may well revert to more conventional formation, though it seems unlikely given his desire to accommodate the attacking personnel at his disposal, but one thing he will not change is his ‘philosophy’, which is so much more than just how he lines his players up. With van Gaal at the helm of a United team with such quality, the results will surely come, and the 2014-2015 could well become a memorable one, regardless of formation.

About Jack Duffy 4 Articles
Jack is a Mancunian, born and bred. He is a lifelong red, world class Sunday League goalkeeper and hobbyist writer. He tries to be unbiased, but can't make any promises.

4 Comments

    • That’s a fair point, the team was made up of unproven youth, and unwanted fringe players. Still, I throught the system looked alien to them all and I thought it was worth including based on that.

  1. It is hi time he get it dat dis 3~5~2 can not work in English league.We don’t wnt to go bak to where we re last season.LVG shuld go bak to d formation dat will allow d him to get d best out of dem n shuld stop about using a team like Man U as experimental club or he will do worse dan David Moye.pls go bak to 4~4~2 or 4~3~3

  2. The way I see it is :

    3 / 2 / 3 / 2 – Left to Right –
    Rojo, Jones, Rafael / / Blind, Herrera / / Januzai, Mata, Di Maria / / VP, Falcao

    Januzai and Di Maria are the wide players. No need for wing backs. They can get back if needed. Blind drops in and out of central defence (into 4-1-3-2). Rooney can play in Mata’s, VPs and Falcaos positions. All four are rarely going to be fit as is the way these days. Rooney will always get a game.

    If we want a more defensive set up we start with Blind in defence and play Fletcher with Herrera.

    All this talk of Mata going?

    The guy is top class.

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