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Is it time for Louis van Gaal to forget the 3-5-2 formation?

What exactly is the ‘Manchester United way’, or the ‘Busby way’?

It’s something often thrown about in countless footballing discussions and is often heard echoing around Old Trafford. But what actually is it?

Being somebody who has only been going to Old Trafford since 2005, it’s a tricky task to illustrate the entirety of a club’s footballing philosophy in one paragraph. But for the sake of the article I’ll have a go.

Essentially, the ‘Manchester United way’ is a forward thinking, brutal approach to winning games; the style, flair and professionalism that is expected in each Manchester United performance was founded and encapsulated by Sir Matt Busby, and that level of expectation still pervades around Old Trafford to this day. The image of red shirts, charging towards the Stretford End, metaphorically pinning their opposition to the floor and imperiously battering them into submission is the image that rings through somebody’s mind when they think of Manchester United at their devastating best.

So is the 3-5-2 system in any way a system that remains loyal to those traditions set in stone by Sir Matt Busby and expertly maintained by Sir Alex Ferguson? To put it bluntly, not at all.

This formation is extremely difficult to watch; it necessitates a turgid, neurotic, unstimulating and painfully pragmatic brand of football. If Sir Matt was aware of this formation’s prevalence, not just at Manchester United but also everywhere across football today, I’m sure he’d have a long and slow shake of his head.

The 0-1 home defeat to Southampton last Sunday displayed everything that Manchester United as a club has tried to avoid for decades. Louis van Gaal’s team was bereft of any cutting edge or menace, and failed to deal with the one attack that came their way in the second half.

It was a performance that was the complete polar opposite of the expected forward thinking, brutal approach that is mandatory for a club of Manchester United’s stature – this was abut as brutal as a box of newborn kittens – you could easily pick up that display and drop it straight in amongst last season’s horror shows, it would look right at home.

Football is a simple game. A large portion of Manchester United fans (including myself) grew up watching Sir Alex Ferguson win everything possible without being a master tactician. Instead, the Scot focused on perfecting the teams’ attitude and confidence as a whole, turning them into an irresistibly vicious unit full of bold, ruthless players.

It seems only logical that if your team is faster, stronger, bolder and fitter than the opposition then success has to follow (no matter what formation you decide to use). This philosophy saw Sir Alex Ferguson remain at the top throughout the coming and going of several football generations.

What appears to be happening today is a comprehensive renaissance in tactical importance within football. Where tactics were, at one point, a very ‘on-the-surface’ commodity for managers, they’ve suddenly turned into this vital component to every single side at a professional level. You very rarely hear of teams being ‘outrun’ or ‘outmuscled’ anymore, instead we have to put up with pundits saying one team was more ‘tactically astute’ than the other. But more often than not, when it gets to the real crack of things, a ‘trequarista’ or an ‘inverted winger’ can be about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. In a physical sport, brawn and sheer chutzpah always prevails.

Louis van Gaal has a wonderful group of players to play with. No doubt about that. The sad thing is that the current formation fails to acknowledge the plethora of attacking prowess available. The keystone for the 3-5-2 system very much lies with the wing-backs; if the wingbacks do their job, the system can begin to function in its full pomp.

Placing the responsibility on Antonio Valencia to be the catalyst for this formation seems a nonsensical action with the number of ‘game changers’ in the middle of the park (Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria being examples). The 3-5-2 system bypasses Manchester United’s attacking showpieces and that makes for difficult viewing.

So with that in mind, using a formation that gets Manchester United’s best players on the ball gives Louis van Gaal the best chance to witness his team outrun and outmuscle their opponents more often. That’s simply an unwritten law in football, surely?

Maybe this is why more or less every Manchester United supporter I speak to wishes for Louis van Gaal to revert to the 4-4-2 diamond. Earlier in Louis van Gaal’s reign, we saw underwhelming displays against Swansea, Sunderland and Burnley with the 3-5-2 system being used, the Dutchman switched to a 4-4-2 diamomd for clash with QPR and the visiting team were taken apart. The system gave license to the likes of Di Maria, Herrera, Mata, Rooney and Van Persie to run riot; it meant Manchester United rightly out-paced, outmuscled, and out-passed a weaker team. With the return fixture at Loftus Road approaching, switching to a more exciting system following some pretty cagey displays wouldn’t be a bad move whatsoever.

But should the 3-5-2 be abandoned on a permanent basis? Given that most of this piece has been me lambasting this nasty looking formation, you’d think the answer would be yes. But actually, the 3-5-2 can actually be quite a useful tool if used correctly by Louis van Gaal.

The 2-1 win at the Emirates last November is a wonderful example of the 3-5-2 working harmoniously. After Kieran Gibbs’ second half own goal, Arsenal failed to produce anything. This was down to the 3-5-2 stifling their passing and movement. How can a defence, which contains confidence and ability deprived players like Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, and young players like Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett only concede 2 more Premier League goals than a Chelsea defence that is often heralded as one of the ‘best in Europe’? Simple. 3-5-2.

With all its flaws aside, this formation does actually make Manchester United a solid unit, one that scraps and fights for every ball and is increasingly difficult to break down as the game wears on – with the 3-5-2 system in use, Manchester United have only conceded 4 second half goals in the Premier league this season – it doesn’t make Manchester United an elegant football side, it makes them hard to beat.

So in away matches where the hosts are likely to be the dominant side, (upcoming games at Anfield and Stamford bridges spring to mind) it would be a worthy decision to switch back to pragmatism in order to give Manchester United the chance to put on the ‘smash and grab’ performance that saw them come away from St Marys and the Emirates with wins. But if Louis van Gaal is to make use of a squad that easily eclipses all but 2 of the teams in the Premier League in terms of pace, passing ability and energy, a move away from a formation that Johann Cruyff labeled as the ‘death of football’ is vital if this current team is to play ‘the Manchester United way’.

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By Leo Nieboer

Mourning the loss of Danny Welbeck

3 replies on “Is it time for Louis van Gaal to forget the 3-5-2 formation?”

Brilliant article Leo, you’ve absolutely nailed it.

As a vintage red, I am so impressed by the insight and clarity shown in your analysis..

Van Gaal can keep his 3-5-2 for one-off arm wrestles with Mourinho, but the rest of the time he should follow the United Way. Van Gaal needs to adopt the United philosophy not the other way round.

That is about right,it mght be ok if they had the right players.even so it,s.Just so very crap boring and slow and frustrating to watch and a bit of an insult to entertainment value.You get the feeling with stuborn VG that he will persist till the end with his strange tactical choices,not unlike Moyes.VG has got to keep winning but something tells me even though he is a good manager,he is still wearing Dutch cloggs and is,nt really in the grove of the premier leage.Thumbs down for 352.

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