Cries of “Attack Attack Attack” are heard around Old Trafford more frequently than ever and fans of other teams often take great pleasure in pointing out that the number of goals scored during Van Gaal’s first season as manager was less than when David Moyes was in charge.
Although the team has undoubtedly improved under Dutchman they have rarely channelled the swashbuckling thrust that was taken for granted during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. This trend has continued this season with United dominating possession but creating chances much less frequently than fans are accustomed to.
In Fergie’s final season, which saw United stroll to the league title and score 86 goals (11 more than the next highest scorers), the team created 438 scoring chances over the course of the season.
Even under Moyes the team created 389 chances and this figure stayed consistent last year with 391 goal openings. However, so far this season the team has created a measly 48 scoring opportunities which is less than West Brom, Aston Villa and Watford.
In fact, only four teams have created less scoring openings than the Red Devils. Extrapolated over 38 games, Van Gaal’s team is on course to create just 304 chances this season. That figure would equal the total achieved by Sunderland last season, the lowest from any Premier League side.
That is not to say that the team is destined to play as rigidly as it has all season but it is surely not good enough for a club that prides itself on its attacking culture.
The last time United scored three or more goals in two straight Premier League matches was during the six-game run near the end of last season that went a long way to securing a return to the Champions League. A dominating 3-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur was followed by an outstanding display against Manchester City, when the 4-2 score line flattered Pellegrini’s men. In both matches United played at a high tempo and displayed variety in their play.
During this period, easily the best of Van Gaal’s tenure, the team was set up in a 4-3-3 formation that only featured one true holding midfielder in Michael Carrick.
He was flanked by Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera, the team was able to use Fellaini’s physicality and Velcro-like chest control down the left side, and Herrera’s creativity and attacking thrust on the right side. In the process both wide centre midfielders forged a good understanding with their wide forward players, Young on the left and Mata on the right.
Instead of reverting back to this successful formation this year Van Gaal has opted to try and control games more than ever. With the purchases of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger, along with the evergreen Carrick, United now have an enviable trio of holding midfielders. While playing any of those two in a 4-2-3-1 may work well in difficult matches away from Old Trafford, for example all three played an important role in Sunday’s win over Southampton, home matches against bottom half teams should not follow the same script.
Already this season United have struggled to break down Newcastle at home. What appeared to be an easy three points became a game laced with frustration. Few clear chances were created and the score finished 0-0. Against Sunderland on Saturday it is time to switch back to a 4-3-3 that plays to the creative talents available. With all due respect to Sunderland, two holding midfielders are not necessary.
A return to the 4-3-3 that was so successful last season would give the team more attacking options and variation. By allowing Herrera to play on the right side of a middle three we may see more of the connection with fellow Spaniard Mata that sliced the Liverpool defence open for the first goal in April’s 2-1 win at Anfield.
Restoring Fellaini to the starting line up could allow two of his holding trio to rest and give the team the added threat the awkward Belgian undoubtedly brings.
Louis Van Gaal has proclaimed himself open to change in the aftermath of meetings with senior squad members, and his flexibility with formations has been obvious during last season and Holland’s successful World Cup run, so it is time to adapt to the opposition at hand.
4-2-3-1 will make United hard to beat in the biggest matches but it is time to take the shackles off, at least at home to a team as bad as Sunderland. An attacking performance and a big score line would set United up for the far more difficult challenges lying in wait after Saturday.
Liam Maguire (@)