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Change in tactics: Key to Manchester United's mini-revival

A change in tactics from the Dutch manager has led to United playing more attractive football.

Van Gaal with his coaching team
Van Gaal with his coaching team

Being criticised on a number of occasions for his tactics Louis van Gaal seems to have uncuffed his players and loosened the shackles after his players provided thorough entertainment in the last three games (3-1 against Derby, 3-0 against Stoke and 1-1 against Chelsea) scoring 7 goals in what appears to be a highly-spirited and a rejuvenated Manchester United side.

The air within Manchester United, among the players and supporters alike seems to be changing and the recent victories consisting of 3 goals in each of the two games and a hard-fought draw at Stamford Bridge provides a beacon of hope; and with Louis van Gaal allowing a certain amount of freedom in the gameplay, the players have delivered with real panache, style and quality.

Van Gaal, who has been operating a 4-2-3-1 formation for most part of the season made certain tweaks to his tactics that could have possibly been the difference between the current United side and the team that started the season. Van Gaal’s playing style emphasizes possession of the ball and players playing strictly by their assigned position.

Though there is nothing wrong with the style of play he has in mind it never seemed to really work for Manchester United. Emphasis on possession has led to the United team holding the ball for most parts of the game but to no effect.

Over the course of these 3 games it is evident that there is a change in tactics that primarily revolves around the mid-field area of the Manchester United side.  The United side played with a sense of freedom as if a weight has been lifted from their shoulders and it’s the kind of freedom that allows movement and more options for the player on the ball which has been lacking for most part of the season. Jesse Lingard was quoted saying that “Van Gaal has unleashed the players” after the win at the iPro stadium where Lingard created the goal for Daley Blind. 

The changes responsible for United’s impressive displays 

Mata has been wonderful for Manchester United recently
Juan Mata has been wonderful for Manchester United recently

At the start of the season Van Gaal who operates with a 4-2-3-1 formation preferred to start Juan Mata on the right-side of the midfield with Wayne Rooney upfront, Anthony Martial on the left and Ander Herrera operating the space behind Rooney, playing the attacking midfielder's role.

Mata, who is known and desired by many clubs for his play-making ability hinted at his frustrations playing on the right-side and it was quite evident to the supporters as well ; that Mata is not able to express himself and play to his full potential.

Mata was a key figure in Manchester United’s wins over Derby and Stoke. Starting both games as the number 10 man and playing behind the striker, Mata has been pivotal to both these victories which saw him score against Derby and be a constant menace to the Stoke back-line. With pace on either side of him; Martial on the left and Lingard on the right, Mata has been able to unlock defences with their help down the flanks.

Another key change seen over these two games is the more direct approach followed by Manchester United. Starting the season with a lot of emphasis on keep-ball; this direct approach is what’s been lacking in the side. United under Van Gaal have been criticised for passing the ball backwards and side-ways rather than making forward passes.

With more importance given to not losing the ball rather than going forward, the team was criticised for its boring and monotonous playing style. However, over the course of these two games, the emphasis on possession has diminished and there have been more penetrative passes going forward. With the new-found freedom in their play, the team’s movement off of the ball has been noticeable as well. 

The shackles are off Manchester United

Lingard celebrates after scoring against Chelsea
Lingard has been good for Manchester United recently

The proof of that can be seen in the movement of the players particularly Martial, Lingard, Mata, the full-backs and Daley Blind to a certain extent. The win against Stoke City saw Van Gaal’s side retain only 46% of possession but, was utilized efficiently. Lots more penetrative passing was seen over these two games rather than the ‘safe-style’ of play we have witnessed for most part of the season.

The wingers are dropping-back which has allowed for more passing options and it’s also important to note the contribution of Daley Blind who’s left foot has been the source of a number of forward passes, setting up passages of play that move from defence to attack extremely quickly. 

Martial and Lingard; being given the license to come into the centre of the park and to drop back, has provided more passing options and with Juan Mata at the heart of United’s attacking play it can be said that the recent change in attacking tactics is the reason for Manchester United’s temporary revival. 

Louis van Gaal fielded an unchanged 11 against Chelsea and his side were the better team for most part of the game and much of it can be attributed to the freedom of movement that can be seen in United’s game-play. Lingard who is making waves with his performances scored superbly and yet again the youngsters within the squad have proved their worth and ability. 

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