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Louis van Gaal’s quest to find balance at Manchester United

After United’s drab FA Cup draw at the Abbey Stadium last week, Louis van Gaal fielded a 4-4-2 for a second consecutive match, but this time to much better effect against Leicester.

Manchester United
Manager Louis van Gaal walks off after the FA Cup fourth round replay football match between Manchester United and Cambridge United at Old Trafford

Ushered in by a chilly January, snow finally hit Manchester this week, but Manchester United have finally warmed up, winning two games on the trot. The Red Devils washed off the “bitter taste” of Leicester City’s 5-3 victory last September with a thumping 3-1 home win this Saturday. It marked the return to Old Trafford of the 4-4-2 diamond. And on Tuesday night Louis van Gaal’s side comfortably saw off Cambridge United in the FA Cup fourth round replay.

After United’s drab FA Cup draw at the Abbey Stadium last week, Louis van Gaal fielded a 4-4-2 for a second consecutive match, but this time to much better effect against Leicester. United put the game to bed before the whistle had blown for half time. It couldn’t have turned out better, with Van Gaal fielding the same formation that had his “ass twitching” when United got crushed 5-3 at The King Power Stadium last September; Saturday’s victory will go some way to putting an end to the Dutchman’s affliction.

When United played Cambridge the week previously Van Gaal’s side failed to manage a single shot on target. For a change – it wasn’t the Reds’ chaotic defence to blame for a poor result, but attacking incapability in the final third. United’s 4-4-2 at Abbey Stadium was far worse creatively than the supposedly ‘safe’ 3-5-2 used for much of the season. Van Gaal’s midfield trio of Adnan Januzaj, Marouane Fellaini and Angel Di Maria mustered little from Michael Carrick’s distribution.

Yet, Van Gaal stuck with a midfield diamond at the weekend – this time formed of Daley Blind, Wayne Rooney, Januzaj, and Di Maria, with Falcao and Robin van Persie up front. At the back, the Dutchman again fielded Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia. It paid off, with the Reds pretty close to the high tempo passing game that Van Gaal demands.

The change has been a long time coming. Many supporters have long believed that this is the formation that will bring out the best from United’s squad. Van Gaal is concerned that a diamond is defensively weaker than a three-man defence, but results this season point to the folly of playing it safe and scoring fewer goals. In fact, the long list of draws is already weighing heavily on United’s top four ambitions as the chase for Champions League places tightens at the top end of the table. United may well have to win almost every game from now until May if Van Gaal’s side is to make sure of a top four finish. The weekend’s result surely confirms that a 4-4-2 system can bring the much-coveted balance for which Van Gaal has searched all season.

The quest for this balance is not fully resolved, especially after witnessing the bizarre range of tactics on show against Cambridge. Yet, Van Gaal’s back four appears to be settling down, with as Rojo and Jones cementing places at centre-back in recent weeks, albeit with changes made on Tuesday. Each is comfortable on the ball and better in distribution than Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling. Meanwhile, at full-back Shaw and Valencia seem to be Van Gaal’s go to men with Rafael da Silva rarely fit, and not fully trusted, and Young only starting to make a comeback from a month-long injury with a late substitute appearance on Tuesday. Victory over Cambridge also brought the best out of Paddy McNair, who is maturing into a versatile defensive player. McNair has grabbed the opportunities thrown his way this season, with Van Gaal clearly impressed. The Irishman may well be United’s right-back solution to the season’s end.

daley blind
Daley Blind (R) battles for the ball against Leicester City's Croatian striker Andrej Kramaric

Back in midfield, the diamond is a creative engine. At the base, with Carrick out, Blind is performing with the grace of his vice-captain. The Dutchman’s match winning performance against Leicester will help the former Ajax midfielder establish his place in the team, at least until Carrick is back. At the other end of the diamond the first choice behind United’s two strikers is currently Rooney, with Van Gaal reluctant to use his captain up-front for the time being. Rooney was deployed wide against Cambridge at Old Trafford and in both matches the Scouser’s poor distribution and – at times embarrassing – cheap loss of possession reinforce the belief held by many that he is a striker by trade. Rooney’s mediocrity at 10 only serves to highlight Juan Mata’s talent – a player who remains United’s most creative midfielder and a flamboyant goal scorer too. It’s a trait the Spaniard proved yet again on Tuesday.

Di Maria and Januzaj played on the right and left of the diamond against Leicester, both showing glimpses of what they can offer, but neither working to their full potential. Di Maria, who was the only United player to feature in the FIFA World XI this year, is an automatic pick despite a mixed season. This is not the case for Januzaj, who matched his more illustrious midfield partner for quality at the weekend. Januzaj’s youth means that game time is critical though – a scenario that is challenged in either of Van Gaal’s preferred systems. Time will tell, but United could perhaps have responded with a ‘yes’ when Everton came knocking for a season-long loan earlier this week.

Meanwhile, his fellow Belgian, Fellaini, has finally become the dominating figure in the middle of the park that United requires, although not a creative talent who will provide the clever passes in the final third that is sometimes missing. After all, someone needs to feed the collection of world-class strikers Van Gaal now boasts. It’s an observation that also posts a question: why has Ander Herrera been ignored by Van Gaal for most of the campaign? The Basque has started just six games this season and impressed in recent matches. After all, Herrera offers a balance of creativity, passing and energy that is not found elsewhere in Van Gaal’s squad.

Then there is Van Gaal’s forward line, which has come under heavy criticism in the past few weeks. It is a unit seemingly unable to score the volume of goals that is expected of such high quality players. The simple fact remains, however, that if the team provides then these strikers will surely deliver, as both Falcao and Van Persie did at the weekend.

Still, Van Gaal must find the balance if United’s campaign is to end in success. Tough choices lie ahead, especially when it comes to some of United’s star names. But this also points to some hope – if the Dutchman can get his talented squad playing close to its potential, with a consistent and balanced side, the quest for a top four finish will fall into place. Perhaps even more as United roll on in the FA Cup.

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