ANALYSIS: Louis van Gaal's footballing philosophy

With the appointment of Louis van Gaal as the new Manchester United manager, thoughts will now turn to the way his new side will play, and what system we can come to expect from the Dutchman next season.

Van Gaal has shown a strict belief in what he describes as ‘an attacking philosophy, a technical philosophy and a tactical philosophy’. Whilst speaking in an interview for FIFATV the Dutchman stated his preference for the 4-3-3 system, which is understandable given that he is a disciple of the world-renowned Dutch brand of ‘total football’. However, his footballing philosophy is not simply a single formation with no tactical flexibility. At Bayern Munich the 4-3-3 formation that LVG so often favours was used in conjunction with a 4-2-3-1 system which resulted in successfully winning the Bundesliga title and reaching the final of the Champions League in the 2009/10 season.

The question remains whether van Gaal will look to create a system to fit the players that will be at his disposal at Manchester United, or whether he will fit the current players into his tried and tested system. I suspect it will be the latter, and those who are familiar with the Dutchman’s work should expect the same thing. Ultimately though 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 can be seen as variations on the same formation, with the major difference being the choice between a single and a double pivot at the base of the midfield. His Bayern Munich side had the option of playing with both, whether that was van Bommel and Schweinsteiger in the double pivot and Muller in front of them in the ‘number 10’ role, or van Bommel as a single pivot and Schweinsteiger and Altintop/Tymoshchuk as two more conventional central midfielders in the 4-3-3 system.

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Of course the variation in the formation results in variations in the style of play, but ultimately both are designed to provide the ‘dominant’ football which van Gaal so firmly believes in. In a 4-3-3 set-up with just the single pivot, the method of attacking build up play will of course be different. After winning back possession or playing out from the back, the pivot can drop between the centre backs and the full backs will push forward essentially creating something similar to a 3-4-3. It is through the vertical movement of both fullbacks and the pivot that you can see an increased number of lines in the formation, and this provides extra passing options and a greater capacity for dominance in possession. Rather than just 3-4 lines seen in a simple 4-4-2, in a 4-3-3 that can become 3-4-3 there are about 6 lines due to the movement and positioning of both full backs and the pivot. Mathematically it is clear to see how this formation creates far more passing opportunities and offers much greater attacking positioning.

In possession of the ball the pivot becomes extremely important in the quality of ball distribution. In recent years Michael Carrick has been the one to drop deep and receive the ball from the centre backs and distribute from deep areas of the field. This is essentially the role of the pivot, and allows for the other two central midfielders in the 4-3-3 to control the space in midfield between the centre backs and the striker. When there is a midfielder to distribute possession from the deep areas and from the middle of the pitch, the team has spatial control of the entire pitch and therefore greater control of possession with a greater number of passing options.

The 4-2-3-1 as a system will of course share similarities with the 4-3-3, but as I have already mentioned the main difference is the introduction of the double pivot at the base of the midfield. The relationship between the two is vital, and they must be able to move in conjunction with one another as they shield the back four from their midfield slots. They must be able to find each other with ease, and while one can pick a pass, the other can surge forward with intent. Both must be defensively able and willing to do a lot of hard work in front of their centre backs as well. This system is also naturally more attacking than the 4-3-3 with the more deep-lying single pivot, and allows for a traditional ‘number 10’ to play between the central midfielders and the striker, playing between the lines to link attacking build up play.

The movement between the two players in the double pivot is important in establishing the same increased number of lines seen in a 4-3-3, but also the distribution of possession from multiple areas on the field. One problem that we saw under David Moyes was the implementation of a 4-2-3-1 system where the 2 players in the double pivot were square on to one another for the majority of the attacking play, and so could not provide enough passing options or enough angles to pass the ball through tightly organised defences. This was partly a personnel problem, and partly the fault of the system. With LVG’s insistence on spatial pressure, coupled with the addition of the right central midfielder, the stilted 4-2-3-1 system we saw employed under the previous manager will be a thing of the past.

Both systems rely on van Gaal’s belief that three defenders is enough to cover the last line through accurate shifting of position. As I have already mentioned, in a 4-3-3 the back 3 is created when the pivot drops in between the centre backs and the full backs push forward. In the 4-2-3-1 there is space for a ball playing centre back to step into midfield, leaving the back 3 to be made up of both full backs and the remaining centre back. This requires the players to have a high level of spatial and tactical awareness, but when deployed correctly it allows for increased levels of dominance in possession, with additional passing options and more controlled use of the space on the football pitch.

Defensively of course Louis van Gaal will want both systems to pressure the opponent in the same way. There is offensive pressure, whereby the rotation and circulation of the possession will restrict the opponent to little more than chasing the ball, and therefore result in the attacking, dominant football that has already been mentioned. Without the ball though, the new manager believes in pressuring the opponent as a team to win the ball back as quickly as possible. To do so the space must be controlled across the pitch. One way of doing so is the way in which Guardiola’s Barcelona pressed from the front line. With the way the formation is organised, whether in 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, the players will need to cover less space which means they can press high and force mistakes from the opposition who will find it very difficult to play the long passes required to escape the squeeze from the pressuring defenders. By pressing in this manner the team is able to manipulate which opposition players are free and which are not, forcing the opposition into using their less technically able ball-players. This will force more mistakes and give the possession back to United more often.

If Van Gaal employs the more familiar 4-3-3 formation, it would ask several questions of some of United’s top players. It is assumed that Robin van Persie will be first choice striker under the new manager, so with no typical ‘number 10’ in this system, where does that leave Wayne Rooney or Juan Mata who have been competing for that spot since the Spaniard’s arrival at the club? Mata could take up a deeper role in the midfield with a certain amount of ease, he is intelligent enough and accomplished enough in possession to be able to make the slight adjustment and still affect the game from the deeper area as he does from a more advanced area. On the other hand it would appear that Rooney may have limited game time under the Dutchman. He fell out with Ferguson because he was being played out of position due to the prolific form of van Persie, and the same may happen again next season. If Rooney is willing to fit a new system and play where the manager wants him to though, then he will still clearly have a part to play next season.

Louis van Gaal is an exciting appointment for Manchester United. His record at European clubs is excellent and he clearly endorses an exciting, successful brand of football. I have barely touched the surface of his footballing philosophy, but it appears that attacking, fast-flowing and entertaining football will be returning to Old Trafford next season. I will leave you with his own words on the subject as we all look forward to August, and the start of the Dutchman’s reign; “I believe you should always entertain the fans and the fans are, in my opinion, entertained when you play offensive football.”

By Adem Berkay

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