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352 reasons why Manchester United are struggling

After Netherlands exhilarating 5-1 win over the defending champions Spain in their first match of the FIFA World Cup, everyone at Manchester United must have been excited. It was an open secret that Louis van Gaal was going to be appointed as the manager of the club after the World Cup. The performance of the Dutch team at the World Cup coupled with van Gaal’s track record had supporters believing

CONTRIBUTOR
05 Feb 2015, 10:53 IST
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3-5-2 – LvG fails to find the right balance at Man United

After Netherlands exhilarating 5-1 win over the defending champions Spain in their first match of the FIFA World Cup, everyone at Manchester United must have been excited. It was an open secret that Louis van Gaal was going to be appointed as the manager of the club after the World Cup. The performance of the Dutch team at the World Cup coupled with Van Gaal’s track record had supporters believing that upcoming season would be a far cry from the disappointing campaign under David Moyes. The season so far has anything but.

The World Cup campaign for Netherlands was nearly doomed from the start. A spate of injuries in the lead up to the tournament had many people doubting their progress from a tough group. Injuries to key players had Van Gaal changing the formation to a counter-attacking 3-5-2 from the traditional 4-3-3 which is a holy system for the Dutch. The change of formation was as much tactical as a necessity to best utilize the remaining players.

If not for a last ditch tackle from Javier Mascherano, the Netherlands would have been in the finals. The unexpected success of the Dutch team has been the root cause for the sloppy and under-achieving season of Manchester United.

Due to Netherlands’ progress through the tournament, Van Gaal took up the Manchester United job only in middle of July. The long and arduous pre-season tour left van Gaal with little time to assess the players and address the holes in the squad. The pre-season success only papered over the cracks which were ruthlessly exposed by Swansea in the season opener. In the following week, a humiliating loss to MK Dons in the Carling Cup left the club in crisis.

Lacking champions league football, the club had to pay huge sums in transfer fees and wages to attract the best players. The club spent £150m on acquiring the services of Angel di Maria, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Radamel Falcao among others.

LvG’s 3-5-2 lacks stability at Old Trafford

The formation which started out as a viable alternative for the Dutch national team has now turned into the norm at United. The transfers in the summer left the manager with an embarrassment of attacking riches. Success of the Dutch team at the world cup had Van Gaal playing Rooney as the No. 10 and Van Persie and Falcao as the strikers in a 3-5-2. A spectacular collapse at Leicester City after leading 3-1 in the second half left van Gaal concerned about his unbalanced team and squad.

One of the main reasons that the manager is not tasting the same success as he did with the Dutch team is the players in formation and not the formation itself. Louis van Gaal has been unable to determine the best position of his two most creative players, Rooney and Di Maria. Unlike Wesley Sneijder, who played in his natural position behind the two strikers for the Dutch team, Rooney has been asked to play as the anchorman in midfield.

While he has the vision and passing range to play in the midfield, he is more suited to playing a striker or as a No. 10. Playing Di Maria as a striker, Van Gaal must have expected similar results as that from Arjen Robben at the World Cup. But neither is Di Maria accustomed to the position nor is he strong enough physically to play the position in the Premier League.

While Rooney might have lost a yard of pace, he’s been in irresistible form in front of goal. As the two main strikers, Van Persie and Falcao, are struggling for form, Rooney could be played as striker. This will put Di Maria back onto the left side of the midfield, a position in which he excelled at Real Madrid last season.

The club lacks a ball-playing defender like Rio Ferdinand. None of the current players are good with distribution and hence, the team is unable to build from the back. The defending has not been great either. They are prone to two or three mistakes every game and are being saved by the stellar performances of David de Gea.

Have United really improved under Van Gaal?

Right from the Busby babes and through the glorious years under Sir Alex, the identity of Manchester United has been exciting football with flying wingers. According to Gary Neville, there is a lack of tempo and risk taking in the current system. Also, the build-up play is slow and laborious. The team is dominating games in terms of possession and field position, not chances created and goals.

The opposing teams are not being run ragged and hence, the fear factor has not returned to Old Trafford despite the star power. After 21 games, both Van Gaal and Moyes had 37 points. Given the criticism and backlash Moyes received, Van Gaal is very lucky that the fans and board are much more patient even after spending £150m. Louis van Gaal is getting by because of his reputation and track record; and a very misleading top 4 position.

United are getting by on the quality of their players at the moment, but they need more than that. A coherent, recognisable approach that plays to their strengths is needed. Not just the formation, but the players used within it as well.

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