All eyes were on Angel Di María as he made his debut for Manchester United at Turf Moor, starting alongside Darren Fletcher in midfield. Tyler Blackett continued his run of games in the first team and Jonny Evans made his first start in the Premier League this season replacing Chris Smalling. The attacking triumvirate of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata was once again selected as van Gaal continued with his 3-5-2 system.
By playing 3-5-2, a system that worked well for van Gaal’s Dutch team at the World Cup, United have been devoid of pace in the final third. The same was evident today and it appeared to be far too easy to defend against. Burnley packed the central areas, leaving the space was out wide, but whenever the ball was played out to the wide areas, both Young and Valencia failed to deliver anything of any real quality. More often than not the wing-backs were isolated in those wider areas, and were often doubled up against. With an orthodox back four the full-back can provide an overlap for the winger and create a two v two situation, but the 3-5-2 leaves the wing-backs isolated in a two v one making it very difficult to create anything. This was compounded as none of the central players came out to provide any width so United could not create anything from the wider areas when Young and Valencia were doubled up on by two Burnley defenders.
The argument to change to a 4-3-3 is a compelling one, and it may well have made a difference against Burnley. The fact that such a change did not happen means there is little point debating the impact of it on this occasion, and instead we should address what was a far more worrying problem. The individual performances of the players in the current system. When Valencia did have the ball in crossing areas he failed to deliver, not making one successful cross all afternoon. Once more, just like against Sunderland, his passing was safe and secure without progressing the attack in a positive manner, meaning he contributed very little to United’s attacking efforts.
As you can see, the passing was sideways or backwards and did not create anything for the attacking players. What this doesn’t show is how the nature of these passes slowed the play down, and by coming back inside allowed Burnley to reorganise their defensive efforts in order to shut down United attacks. When he was in crossing positions he failed to deliver as well; not one successful cross, wasting attack after attack. It is not as if the system failed to create good attacking opportunities, it is more that the players in those positions wasted the opportunities through poor play and bad decision-making.
United were poor today. There is no getting away from it and the arguments over whether it was the personnel or the system will continue for a long time after the poor run of results so far this season. However in Angel Di María, United have a quality footballer who showed in small glimpses this afternoon that he can make the system work when he is involved. It is important to remember he won’t be at his best until he has fully adapted to the league and his new teammates, but he still made a positive impact from central midfield. He brought a change of pace, an impressive range of passing and speed on the ball to break through Burnley individually, rather than trying to find intricate passes through congested areas every single time.
There are plenty of statistics to show his positive contribution this afternoon. He took players on and he covered a lot of ground, but his passing was the most impressive thing that showed he can create something for the team. Most importantly when you compare it to the man he replaced in the side, Tom Cleverley, then you can see the difference in the amount of forward passes Di María made today.
He was unsuccessful in several of those passes, but the element of risk that comes with a forward pass is necessary to break down a team like Burnley, who played with two banks of four very close together, limiting the amount of space for the likes of Mata, Rooney and van Persie. The yellow pass on Di Maria’s map indicates the pass for van Persie that created his excellent chance, and it is this kind of quality that United can now expect from midfield areas when Di María is in the team. His role within the system was positive, and his forward runs both on and off the ball gave United something a little bit different, but overall his inclusion highlighted everything that was missing throughout the rest of the team.
United will improve, and with the return of a number of key players and further familiarity with the system van Gaal has proved that it can work. Pace was missing in abundance this afternoon, and the midfield seemed rather lightweight. The additions of Blind, Herrera, Shaw and Rojo, alongside the return of players like Carrick and Rafael will give the side a completely different edge and far more options. As van Gaal as told us before, it is time to believe in the philosophy.