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Should Van Gaal revert back to 4-3-3?

hi-res-3b1d5b59f90200670c80001641ba9b65_crop_northFor only the second time since Louis Van Gaal took charge of Manchester United, his side have scored 3 or more goals in two consecutive league games.

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 (@Sixesand_Sevens)



  1. bestie

    25 September 2015 at 17:32

    fewer chances than WBrom, Villa and Watford! And yet we’re in 2nd place. VG is the luckiest manager in the PL, and he (we) can’t expect to keep scoring from virtually every shot on target; our luck will eventually run out. PS: If we start 2 holding MFs again this weekend, vs. Sunderland at home, i’ll throw my TV out the window

    • Julian

      26 September 2015 at 08:08

      @bestie: Lucky? Not entirely, with injuries once again taking a toll – particularly Shaw’s after he was playing so brilliantly.

      As regards the formation – its probably 4 4 2. The Rooney/Martial combo must be given time to develop. As for the DMs – I’d always play Schneiderlin because he’s the only one of our midfielders who’s a true ball winner. Scheinsteiger or Carrick can play a more attacking role in midfield – so one DM effectively. On current form it has to be Schweini but I don’t think we should forget about Herrera there either.

      • bestie

        26 September 2015 at 14:47

        @julian:injuries are part of the game. and in any case, we’re discussing United’s inability to create goal scoring chances and overall boring style. Shaw is a defender, and he’s only missed one PL match so far, so clearly VG can’t use his injury as an excuse for our poor attacking
        And here we we go again: two DMFs vs the worst side in the league at OT…..

        • Julian

          27 September 2015 at 11:18

          @bestie: Your view of things has been overtaken by events. United top of the league as well as scoring three goals in four of the last five games. Its nearly not as bad as you make out!

  2. colver

    25 September 2015 at 19:35

    I think a 4-4-2 would work much better giving Rooney the chance to form a partnership with Martial. Of course the problem with that is the only genuine wingers we have are Young and Valencia and it would mean dropping Mata and Memphis (quite deservedly IMHO) and only playing two out of our four central midfielders (Carrick and Herrera would be my pick). But we’ve spent too long playing convulted systems to try to fit our first XI and a return to basics would be welcomed.

    • Julian

      27 September 2015 at 11:27

      @colver: Well it’s really 4 4 1 1. Mata cant be dropped on current form – so unfortunately Herrera has to give way. Schweinstei ger in a more attacking role – as he’s been playing recently – with Schneiderlin covering is probably our best midfield option. Unlike Carrick, Schweinsteiger should be able to play 90 mins now.

      From an attacking viewpoint, I quite like the idea of Valencia as wing back because Mata tends to drift inside in order to create things – so Valencia provides the width. Damian looked ok at left back. How this works defensively in an away game to a decent side is another matter.

      It’s probably a toss up between Young and Memphis on the left but I’d continue with the latter as he has the ability to be a game changer. Also he’s still settling in – so to disrupt that would be wrong.

      Meanwhile, Martial has brought a whole new dimension to the attack and if Rooney plays off him and is not tempted to drop too deep, then we have the makings of a potent upfront partnership.

  3. bestie

    27 September 2015 at 18:54

    @julian: what “events” overtook my view mate? Beating Sunderland at home? Not quite. On the contrary, I saw a ManU side play at home vs the the worst team in the league with no conviction whatsoever, before the 2nd goal. I saw us play with 2 DMFs again, a striker (Rooney) wasting time and space in a deep-lying role, and i saw us manage 2 shots on goal (both tame attempts straight at the GK by Depay) for the first 45′. thank god we scored in the last seconds of the 1H otherwise who knows how the 2H could’ve gone. As i said, so far this season we have been very poor creating chances (mainly because of VG’s tactics IMO) , but good taking them. Problem is, we can’t expect to go through a season creating just 2-3 chances a game and scoring on 1 or 2 of them every time. No team maintains that conversion rate for a long period. We need a more attacking, creative style than the one we’ve seen so far. How do we get there? Use 1 DMF, not 2, get Rooney out of CMF and into the penalty box where he belongs, along with Martial, play Herrera in an attacking MF role (or A Young out wide) move Mata behind the 2 strikers, and let them attack the opponents instead of trying to bore them (and us) to death with ball possession. I’m happy with the result, of course, but let’s not get carried away: it was Sunderland FFS. we need to get better in the last 1/3rd of the pitch if we are going to challenge for titles this season

    • Julian

      28 September 2015 at 08:09

      @bestie: Well the events are: we appear to be on a bit of a winning streak, we’re top of the table, we’ve scored three goals in four out of the last five games and the football has not always been quite the drudge you make it out to be. There are a lot of positives right now.

      I’ll agree that the fixture list has been kind but wins against Liverpool (always a difficult fixture because of the intense rivalry) and Southampton away, were very satisfactory. Ok so Sunderland are propping up the table but nevertheless even these sides can park the bus quite successfully against the better teams. Winning becomes a good habit and it engenders confidence. We can see that already and provided we don’t have a bad injury run (no worse than the current situation) perhaps the future looks a lot brighter.

      As regards the style of football LvG is trying inculcate, you must remember that we were a side, even under Fergie in recent seasons, which was prone to be overwhelmed particularly in midfield where we resembled the proverbial sieve at times. This was a major reason why we didn’t achieve more in Europe. LvG is trying to make United harder to beat so that we can take on the best – even in Europe – with a far better game plan. It hasn’t always made for the most exhilarating football at times but the days of the gung ho stuff have gone – nobody plays like that anymore.

      Nevertheless, we are still a side in transition and I’m still not expecting big things from this season. The new found confidence will, no doubt, be put to the test in October with some demanding fixtures.

      Like everyone else we need some luck, so fingers crossed!

      • storm

        28 September 2015 at 17:18

        @Julian: Whilst Utd’s recent results have been positive and there are encouraging signs, I can’t help but think that Utd are flattering to deceive a little. We’ll get a truer picture of the reality of Utd’s improvement over the coming weeks, I suspect. I have to agree with some of the other criticisms though, eg, why play such a defensive formation against bottom placed Sunderland? The formation and tactics are suggestive of a team lacking confidence, creativity and ideas. A team so scared of losing that they’re unwilling to risk anything. Which is a strange situation for a team at the top of the league. I still happen to think this is more reflective of VG’s fears than the team, and they are being stifled because of it, but time will tell.

        • Julian

          28 September 2015 at 17:39

          @storm: Yes the coming weeks will be a big test and we will soon see if we have been indeed flattering only to deceive.

          As regards the “defensive” line up against Sunderland, it was really only about one position actually. I agree that by playing Schneiderlin and Carrick we were effectively playing two DMs. Carrick did try and get forward but his usual passing range was off the mark more often than not. I’m not sure he has the energy anymore. So the alternative could have been to play Herrera instead of Carrick but with Schneiderlin, who needed a game, still settling in (by his own admission) LvG might have wanted Carrick’s steadiness. On current form Schweinsteiger, in an attacking role, is the best bet but he is still being eased in fairly gently. He must be ready to play 90 minutes very soon on a regular basis. A Schweini/ Schneiderlin combo is probably our best bet with Herrera making up a central threesome when required but not against the likes of Sunderland at home!

          I’m more concerned with the defence ultimately where injuries have taken a toll. I just hope Blind, who’s been excellent apart from Swansea, wont be found out again. Of course De Gea’s return has helped steady the defence too.

          With Martial so far proving to be an excellent focal point of the attack and with Rooney hopefully finding some form in his more favoured No 10 role, I think things look a lot brighter upfront. I’d like to see Wilson on the bench as back up for Martial. That would be another positive. Although I suppose the concern is he now needs lots of game time and not just another season of mainly sitting on the bench.

      • Karl

        29 September 2015 at 16:18

        4231 is here to stay…for a very long time, with 4411 providing “some” variation.
        We need to realise that in current guise, we unfortunately need to choose between entertaining football and winning. LVG’s interpretation of winning is rather simple…Not losing…in other words, LOTS of emphasis on defensive and possession football and depending on the odd opportunity to present itself for a goal. In other words, outscoring the opponents is not a part of his “philosophy”. What we are starting to witness is the coming together of the “orange machine”. (Brazilians have a nice term for it, but I can’t seem to remember it now – I think loosely translating to “clockwork orange”, in reference to the Dutch team). Very technical and efficient – like clockwork – but not very creative or entertaining. I think the sooner we can make peace with that, the better.

        The other sad truth is, we don’t have the firepower for 433. The reason? Rooney. Where is our best player going to play to his fullest potential and enjoyment in 433? He is not at his best up top, nor out wide. Deep in midfield is a joke. Nah. 433 or entertainment not going to happen. At least not consistently, and not before we are assured of the league like Chelsea does.

        In accepting this, I must admit that we’re not playing too bad in terms of entertainment. Or maybe I’m just becomming “accustomed” to below par entertainment?

        • Karl

          29 September 2015 at 16:27

          @Karl: With all said, as much as what I might hate our lack of entertainment value of late, I kind of feel strangely honored to be able to witness this transition into “a clockwork orange”. If LVG can successfully pull this off in the PL, he will go down as a genius. And prove once and for all that he is “superior” to Mourinho.

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