Manchester United’s Tactical Malleability
Manchester United’s ‘easy’ start to the season is over and after three months of competitive games the shape of the team has taken form. The diamond has, thankfully, replaced the faltering 3-5-2 and United now play fluid, attacking football with a reasonable degree of certainty at the back. However from watching the team in recent games, it is clear that their tactics facilitate an orthodox diamond with quite a few possibilities. Di Maria and Herrera are chalk and cheese in terms of styles but their positions reflect each other and the knock on effect this has on the full backs is stark. Also, depending on how high the opposition presses, United’s player sitting, for me, should rotate subject to the midfield they are up against. Some may call this unbalanced but I call it flexible and I believe these tactical nuances in the line-up will become more apparent in the next five games and beyond.
The Empire Building Starts on Sunday
After six games, Manchester United find themselves in the same position as they finished the last, 7th. 2 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses. An underwhelming start for the club’s Gaalacticos.
West Ham win will be the making of LVG’s United.
To read some of the match reports from Saturday you would think we had lost. Ridiculous. I firmly believe Saturday’s victory will prove far more significant for the development of this new side than the stroll against a disinterested QPR. Here are a few reasons why…
Way to state the obvious I know, but this fact seems to have been lost in the clamour to condemn the actions of our number ten. We went into a game against a side coming off the back of their finest performance in recent seasons with a chronic injury crisis in our defence. In theory we were now fielding a weaker, less experienced back four than the unit that shipped five goals to Leicester City. I tongue in cheek predicted 5-1 on the pod but that was more due to wanting to get my money’s worth than a genuine expectation. Pre-match chat with several other Reds revealed a consensus of the unknown; we didn’t know what to expect and three points was a fantastic outcome.
Talk of ‘heart’, ‘spirit’ and ‘passion’ has generally become the domain of radio phone-ins but I’m willing to swim against the tide and argue they were key elements of Saturday’s victory. Two goals up and seemingly cruising it was natural for nerves to creep in once we conceded. Defending set pieces against two basketball teams is always going to be a challenge but when your tallest outfield player is that infamous aerial beast Robin van Persie then problems are inevitable. Add in the sending off and alarm bells are in full flow. As a stereo-typically south-east based United fan, I’d had a four hour journey to get to the match yet was willing the minutes to tick by double quick. Yet by digging in and battling as a team we survived. Six new signings and a stranger to the first team had forged a bond strong enough to hold out. Symbolic of this was the shift that Angel di Maria put in before his injury time substitution. In terms of quality it was undoubtedly his weakest game, yet the tenacity and determination he showed to fight for the team was a far cry from the meek surrender we saw so often last season. It is upon games like this on which team spirit is built.
Scarves and shirts around the ground screamed the names of ‘FALCAO’, ‘ROONEY’ and ‘VAN PERSIE’ yet it was the less heralded names who were the backbone of the victory. Ander Herrera is fast becoming a favourite of mine. The novelty of having an actual midfielder is yet to wear off and to watch the Basque is a source of great pleasure. His Leicester goal apart, Herrera relishes doing the simple things well. He is constantly on the move, playing on the half-turn, getting it, giving it and put himself about against more physically imposing opponents. Alongside him Blind put in another solid display – one Gerrardian back pass apart – showing the maturity to play more of a shielding role aware of the untried partnership behind. He needn’t have worried. McNair’s first couple of contributions were panicky shanks and the signs weren’t good. Screw the signs. Demanding the ball off De Gea, zipping the ball across the pitch, winning aerial challenges, taking up intelligent positions and even the odd marauding run. The highlight for many will rightly be the acrobatic header that prevented an equaliser. For me though, the moment I was most excited about was the simply act of staying close to Enner Valencia and running him out of play. Earlier in the game McNair had gone tight to the powerful Ecuadorian and been easily out-muscled. When the situation arose again McNair took a different approach and came out on top. He was learning and improving. His manager will have been purring. Marcos Rojo had a very different but no less important impact. I had (and still have) reservations about his ability to be a first choice centre back at elite standard but what cannot be questioned is his attitude. It was noticeable pre-match that Rojo was motivating his teammates and this carried into the game. He was a constant source of encouragement to others. Seemingly minor acts like embracing De Gea whilst the rest of the team ran to the goalscorer will quickly ingratiate yourself to teammates and fans alike. Luke Shaw also merits a mention – whatever the reasons behind his exclusion from previous games a debut by default brings with it pressure to perform. He carried out his job comfortably and I was struck by his sensible positioning and decision making having previously only really notes his attacking talents.
Overall, a display that certainly won’t go down in United folklore yet just as the slaughter of QPR should not be exaggerated, nor should the significance of this victory be understated. A new collective have shared the experience of prevailing in a scenario in which they could quite easily have caved. United will be all the stronger for it.
Viva Ronaldo! – United Must Seize Any Chance to Sign Our Former Superstar
In response to a recent article on why Ronaldo’s signature should be avoided, Kevin Levingston extols the virtues of bringing our former hero home.
In an extremely well-reasoned article, fellow CanTheyScore contributor James has recently argued that the negatives of re-signing a certain Mr Ronaldo would outweigh the positives. Whilst I agree that this is a move which could have some negative repercussions; on a basic level I believe it is an opportunity too valuable to pass up. Put simply; Manchester United must sign Cristiano Ronaldo if he’s available. Below I will directly address some of the points James has made as well as share my own thoughts on the situation.
First things first, one of the most prevalent sentiments being shared across social media and in United circles is a concern about Ronaldo’s age. The former Red turns thirty in February and many would have you think that this would indicate his immediate decline and de facto end of his career. Logic would dictate that this is far from true. One does not go from arguably the best player in world football to “past it” overnight. For the past ten years Ronaldo has been a supreme athlete and there is little to suggest that this dedication to personal conditioning would relax once he turns thirty. If anything, the Portuguese forward owes his ascent to the top of the game to his complete dedication to self-improvement. If there were ever a player capable of standing the test of time (or adapting his game) in the vein of Giggs, Totti or Maldini it’s Cristiano Ronaldo There are understandable fears over the condition of his knee(s) but if there were any issues there they would be picked up in the standard pre-transfer medical checks. In terms of overall quality a thirty year old Ronaldo will still be among the top players in the world, let alone at Old Trafford.
One of the main discussion points has also been his character. Few can deny that Ronaldo comes with quite the opinion of himself which can often manifest on the pitch with displays of petulance or frustration at decisions made by his team-mates. I completely take James’ point on this and accept that it’s part of the forward’s game that sometimes leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Equally so; his “look at me” goal celebration in last year’s Champions League final upon scoring the far from decisive fourth goal. I make no attempt to justify or explain this type of behaviour but would point out three things. Firstly; very few players climb to the top of world football without a certain degree of arrogance – a belief that they are the best. The petulance and impatience with team-mates is an unfortunate symptom of this belief. Secondly, Ronaldo spent six years at United and his behaviour very seldom resulted in any detriment to the team or club. Thirdly; Real Madrid is rife with a culture that encourages a larger-than-life God-like perception of the individual. It’s understandable that Ronaldo (who had narcissistic tendencies anyway) would embrace this entirely as the main star at the most successful club in the world. Five years later, having achieved everything possible in Madrid, it seems he is ready to move on. Were he merely seeking another pay-day he could surely find greener pastures than Old Trafford. This smacks more of a desire to return home to a club that holds a deep emotional connection for him, and one would expect that the “superstar” behaviour so central to his time at Madrid would be turned down a notch too.
Undoubtedly financing a move for Ronaldo would result in a significant outlay, potentially in the region of the £59million spent for Angel Di Maria this summer. His wages will no doubt make the eyes water too. In short, I don’t see this being a concern. It’s not our money at play here and the club has the financial muscle to secure Ronaldo along with the central defender and central midfielder we need. Of course the club must set a limit of what they can conceivably pay for a player with limited resale value but any price paid is sure to pale in comparison to the money our beloved owners have already taken from the club. As long as the money is being paid in then so be it!
In terms of his arrival hindering the progression of Adnan Januzaj, one need only take a look at the state of our squad and the lack of strength in depth to see that this won’t be an issue. As it stands, we have just two players (Januzaj and Di Maria) that can actually play well as a winger and if we make the return to Europe as expected there will be far more games to play next season. Sheer amount of games and lack of competition on the flanks will see Januzaj get more than his fair share of games. If his ambition is to play through the middle then it is Mata, not Ronaldo that will prove the biggest obstacle in the prodigious attacker’s path to first team football. If anything, the presence of our returning hero will benefit Januzaj. A chance to learn from a player who has won it all and reached the very pinnacle of the game. A player who has made the journey from skilful yet inconsistent winger to world beater and surpassing all expectations. Ronaldo’s arrival would benefit all parties involved.
If United secured Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford it would be a spectacular coup for the club. We would be securing a player with many miles left in the tank who can still perform a level above most players in the league. It would represent a serious statement of intent from United to return to the top of European football, let alone the domestic game. We would be securing a player who knows the club inside and out and has a genuine love for the shirt, a player who would demand the best from his peers and brings a wealth of experience at the highest level. He would be a role model for our younger players regarding the importance of training, practice and a dedication to preparation. He would immediately improve our first team and would most likely be the difference in whether we win the title next year or not. The benefits for the club are many. For the player himself, it’s a chance to return to a family club where he still has many friends, where he could be happy again and play in front of fans who adore him. A chance to play a key role in restoring the Reds to their rightful place. A chance to add to his already sterling record and be remembered not only as an icon but as a true legend.
A chance to come home.
If a return to Old Trafford is truly on the cards for Ronaldo, the club would be misguided to the point of negligent if they didn’t make a serious effort to bring him back. In these situations it’s natural for us fans to protect ourselves, dismissing the possibility and attempting to justify why we “don’t need him” anymore. We’ve been burned before, after all. Nevertheless, I implore you to take a look back at our games between 2006 and 2009 and compare them to anything we’ve seen since. For that free-kick against Portsmouth. For the outrageous strike against Porto. For the decimation of Arsenal in the Champions League. For everything he did as the figurehead of the team in the most successful period in our history. It’s time to put aside the few negatives involved for the sake of everything he has done and could do for our club.
Far from “weighing up” a move; Ed Woodward should be chaining himself to the desk of Florentino Perez and refusing to leave without our boy.
Kevin Levingston is a regular contributor to CanTheyScore. All comments and discussion are welcome below or you can contact him directly on twitter @KevinLevingston
Cristia-NO: Why United should pass on Ronaldo.
Rumours are rife in both Manchester and Madrid that the prodigal son Cristiano Ronaldo is open to the idea of returning to the club that moulded him into the world’s best player between 2003 to 2009. Tired of the politics that engulf the Madrid giants and following a souring of his relationship with Florentino Perez based on recent events at the Bernebéu that have seen the likes of Di Maria and Alonso deemed surplus to requirements, could the Portuguese superstar be on his way back to ply his trade once more at the Theatre of Dreams?
Lavish spending can bring opportunity for United’s youth.
Transfer deadline day was a flurry of excitement for many. The previously dormant Woodward had found his mojo and in Falcao pulled off the kind of unexpected transfer that was once the hallmark of Ferguson. Over the last nine months we have added proven quality and potential in equal measure. Skeptics point to the failure to recruit a world class central midfielder and central defender yet such players are a rare breed and noticeably thin on the ground. Odious Glazer stooge though he is; it is difficult to argue that the much maligned vice-Chairman has failed in 2014. Crossing the palm of leeches like Jorge Mendes with silver might not be to everyone’s taste but the outcome is undeniably appealing. Recruiting World and European champions to England’s seventh best team is worthy of acclaim.
In spite of all this I felt anything but buoyant as the players headed off for their international breaks. I have a natural inclination to focus on the negative – and the departure of Welbeck definitely warrants that description. On a football level it could potentially turn out to be strengthening a rival for a low fee. On an emotional level it is a sense that one of our own has been allowed to fly the nest. The sadness that emanated from the summer sales was based on a feeling that the club had failed. Failed to achieve the final phase of turning now first team academy products into key players in a successful team. Failed to harness and direct mercurial talent to consistently benefit the team. In the cases of Welbeck, Kagawa, Nani and Cleverley there will always be a sense of what might have been. Talent was not in question but through a combination of factors none of these players fulfilled their potential at the club.
Much has been written about each and I am in no way absolving the players themselves of responsibility. Social-media has a habit of building up players into cult figures far too quickly and inflated assessments of their quality come to dominate the discourse. This proves self-defeating as the players can never live up to the expectations leading to the equally misguided response that these feted players are in fact ‘not fit to wear the shirt.’ We all have our own bias – I have often spoken or written of my preference for homegrown players and satisfaction in the triumph of youth. In Welbeck’s case opportunities were limited for a player adamant that a central striking berth was required to advance his career. Two successive managers have now deemed the forward unfit for the purpose of leading the line for United. I suspect that even as ardent an admirer as Ferguson would have looked for a more proven alternative to replace the departing Rooney. A player has no more right to start for Manchester United because of where he was born than due to the size of his wage packet. The harsh yet entirely correct message sent out by Woodward and Van Gaal this summer is that no player in a squad finishing seventh is indispensable.
A pressing concern at the arrival of bona fide superstars is the impact on others in the squad. Much scrutiny has been placed on the ramifications for Juan Mata but of more concern for me is the extent to which it limits the opportunities for Januzaj, Wilson, Blackett and Lingard. A long season of a single weekly game offers little opportunity or need to return to the Fergie tombola. Yet fears for stunted development can be assuaged by the benefit of these players training on a daily business with a higher calibre of players instructed by some of Europe’s finest coaches. For all the thrill of Januzaj’s emergence last season he undoubtedly played too much, too soon and was regularly handed the responsibility of reviving a team devoid of ideas. Less football for players under twenty-two – who have been tied to academies since early teens – could be of long-term benefit in an era where burnout is a growing concern. If they develop as hoped at least two of the four can look forward to graduating to a starting place before van Gaal’s three-year tenure ends.
Eighteen days on and mourning what might have been has evolved into relishing what might be ahead. A previous manager once spoke of ‘aspiring’ to be like a team from Stockport. The arrival of world class talent means our young prospects need only look around them to find the level to which they must strive. The best way to join the best is to learn from them. That’s the United way.
A Look Back on United’s Summer Transfer Activity
This time last year Manchester United were ushering in a new era with a new manager and a grand total of one new signing in the summer transfer window. One year on and there is another new manager and another new era. This time however, the club have brought in no fewer than six new faces. When the players line-up against Queen’s Park Rangers on Sunday fans will be hoping to get a glimpse of a new look United – Louis van Gaal’s United – for the first time.
How Will Di Maria Fit Into Louis van Gaal’s Team?
The purchase of Angel Di Maria should have been the cherry on the cake for van Gaal in the transfer window this summer. Instead, it feels more like a frantic panic buy.
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?
Attacking Impetus Needed at Old Trafford
With Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Sunderland, Manchester United registered not only their first point of Louis van Gaal’s reign but also another abject and lacklustre display. The game saw Robin van Persie make his return to action, starting for the first time this term alongside Wayne Rooney. Despite the Dutchman’s return, an injury ravaged United side were missing Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard from last week’s defeat against Swansea and things only got worse when Chris Smalling bowed out with a hamstring injury just before half-time. Juan Mata kept his place behind the two strikers in Van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system, however, despite the attacking quality on paper, moments of actual quality were few and far between in the final third.
Mata grabbed United’s only goal after some clever play from Antonio Valencia but it is hard to think of any other real positives from the front three. Perhaps the club’s most technically gifted player, intelligent interplay is expected from the Spaniard but little of that was seen and Rooney and Van Persie were forced to come deep in an attempt to get involved in play. A lack of urgency in the build-up and an alarming deficiency of attacking penetration from the midfield made it difficult for all three attackers to play the way many supporters would like.
Van Gaal’s system has been one of the main talking points during pre-season and has again come into question following two disappointing competitive results. Earlier this month the Dutch boss called for a world-class winger and it looks, surprisingly, like the club are striving to make that happen. Angel Di Maria’s arrival is expected imminently and could lead to a shift in formation, likely back to Van Gaal’s preferred 4-3-3. Whether the use of a back three is to get the best out of a shaky defence or to allow United’s best attackers to start remains to be seen but it may become clear with the signing of a few more new faces.
Questions have been asked of Rooney and Van Persie as a front pair before and the question is likely to be raised again unless the tandem can show something else in the coming weeks. As a trio Mata, Van Persie and Rooney have started together just six times and may still be taking time to gel. Not to mention the fact that Van Persie spent much of last season out injured and Mata was a January panic buy forced into a system and position that didn’t play to his main strengths. There are reasons to be positive though, especially when it comes to United’s record signing – he’s chalked up 7 goals in his last eight Premier League appearances. Tellingly all of these goals have come when he’s played centrally.
This isn’t the first time Van Gaal has had to find a way to fit three top players into a side despite a massive lack of quality behind them, during the World Cup a similar system was put in place to get the best out of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Van Persie. The rewards were reaped as the Netherlands finished in third place with some emphatic displays along the way. The experienced manager has remained true to his vision throughout a long career and has mostly been proved right, so despite a less than ideal start there is no reason to doubt him yet.
As the transfer window draws to a close it is heavily rumored that three new players will be arriving at Old Trafford. Should this be the case and Van Gaal does prefer a shift to his usually elected 4-3-3 a big call on United’s front two may have to be made, assuming Mata retains his place. As newly appointed captain Rooney’s position would appear safe but the Dutch boss isn’t afraid to upset big names for the benefit of his teams. A familiarity with Robin van Persie could see the Netherlands captain favoured, a move that would likely agitate the club skipper. Beyond that the roles of Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck are unclear and United may have to move quickly to resolve one or more of their futures.