Tactical Analysis: Sunderland 1 Man United 1
There has never been such a furore surrounding tactics at Manchester United. New manager Louis van Gaal arrived with a legacy of being a tactical genius but so far it has been a bit of a mess. After the disappointing opening at Swansea last week, United really needed to hit back at Sunderland. The abandonment of 3-5-2 at half time against Swansea was short lived, as it lasted the distance at Wearside, although the same cannot be said for the team. They were awful. Van Gaal’s philosophy failed as there was absolutely no correlation between defence, midfield and attack. Confusion was rife among the defence and the team really have no idea how to protect the flanks without fixed full backs. In attack, the service was non-existent leaving the three most quality players isolated and frustrated. Knee jerk reactions are usually poor when analysing any team but it is difficult to see the current players adapting to this formation any time soon. Will Louis give it three months?
The root cause of a three man defence malfunctioning is when its personnel have never operated this way before. Change management might describe what is going on at United but so far there are very few signs of improvement. Jones, Smalling and Blackett never held a line throughout the game. They were dragged into midfield, across one another and into the flanks, primarily by the impressive Will Buckley. Smalling at the centre of the three could not marshal those beside him and the backline stank of nervousness. Any defensive set up that looks incapable of defending long diagonals is going to struggle and I really fear what will become off the current composition against relentless pressing sides such as Chelsea or Manchester City. Either new signings or a new system is needed.
Valencia’s return to fitness saw him take up, along with Young, the wingback position. Any excitement in the wingback roles during preseason is now long gone, with Young looking hopeless and Valencia appearing lost. Defensively there exists massive confusion between the wing backs and the wider centre backs. No one seems to know who is marking the opposition wingers or even what area they should take up. Large gaps lay in United’s flanks which teams expose with ease. Optimism can be taken from the fact that full backs, not wingers, make good wing backs so Rafael and Shaw could grasp the system. Offensively United’s goal did come from Valencia but there was very little penetration otherwise. Young had a torrid evening with his tackling being as wayward as his crossing. Having virtually no take-ons from the wings, United played the game looking to pass backwards or hit a long ball forward. It made them notoriously easy to outmanoeuvre as they were void of creativity.
Strong powerful midfields are crucial to the success of Premier League teams. Driving runs from the centre create space for attacks to be launched and also close space to prevent counter attacks being sprung. At the Stadium of Light, Man United’s central midfield was dominated by an extremely average player in Lee Cattermole. Tom Cleverely and Darren Fletcher did not have the energy or craft to have any impact on the game. United played in front of Sunderland for the vast majority of the match and only pushed up the pitch in the final ten minutes once Sunderland felt they had something to loose. The midfield failed the team by leaving the back exposed and the attack barren. For all the faults over the pitch, this is one area that cannot be revived by the current players as United do not have the type of player they need within the squad. Unless a strong box-to-box midfielder is brought in, performances will continue to suffer.
Witnessing Mata, Rooney and Van Persie standing waiting for service was as frustrating for spectators as it was for the players themselves. So much power at the top, yet the team failed to work the ball to their most dangerous men in good positions. Mata, like last week, was completely shut down as there was no threat from the flanks or midfielders with pace to concern the Sunderland midfield and defence. United were lifeless. Rooney was forced to drop deep in order to gain possession but this cluttered the midfield and left Van Persie even more isolated. The introduction of Welbeck helped as he stretched the game instead of dropping deep but it was not enough to facilitate a prolonged period of positive attacking pressure.
With the transfer window still open, van Gaal has a chance to bring in the type of players who can successfully operate under his philosophy. Di Maria looks to be joining the club which is a magnificent start to an important week. For me, the philosophy the manager constantly stresses is not the formation but a certain way of paying. It can be played in any formation of van Gaal’s choosing so I expect the addition of Di Maria, and any subsequent players who follow, to be aimed at tinkering the 3-5-2 to hopefully a system that operates with four at the back. United’s last two performances cannot be repeated and with the new team being built, the season re-starts at Turf Moor.