Manchester United have announced the singing of Daley Blind from Ajax, and for £14m the versatile Dutch player looks to be a bargain.
Most Manchester United fans will be familiar with Blind from this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, where he featured for Louis van Gaal’s Holland side as a left wing-back in the 3-5-2 formation that United have now adopted this season. At Ajax though he was predominantly a holding midfielder, and last season he won the Dutch footballer of the year as they won a fourth successive league title. He is adept in defensive positions, which he showed at the World Cup, and so could also fit in as a left wing-back or a left centre-back in the 3-5-2 formation that van Gaal has favoured this season. Like other summer signings Di María and Rojo, Blind is versatile and clearly capable in multiple positions which has been a theme so far in van Gaal’s short reign. Like the two previously mentioned it asks questions of where he will feature for United, and whether it means a change of system as well as Blind now offers the manager far more options than he had previously.
When playing 3-5-2, United can use Daley Blind in multiple positions. Given his recent success as a holding midfielder, it is quite likely that he will be given that role in the United midfield to partner either Angel Di María or Ander Herrera. Blind’s arrival may even see Juan Mata left out in this particular system on occasion, as Herrera and Blind can form the central partnership and allow Di María to play as the number 10 behind the strikers. The formation above is just an indication of the number of midfield combinations that Blind’s arrival has made possible.
Importantly, the qualities that Blind possesses will bring the best out of the players around him because of his tactical understanding of that holding role. He is strong in the tackle and uses the ball well, which will allow the more gifted players around him to affect the game. The athleticism that he showed in the World Cup as a left wing-back is something that he will also offer in a central area, and will provide the mobility in that defensive midfield role that the squad currently lacks. Both Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick, whilst both being viable cover for the same role are both fairly immobile and Blind will offer a great level of protection for the back three because he will be able to track runners and get across the ground quickly and effectively.
The other vital thing that Blind will bring is an understanding of both the 3-5-2 formation and Louis van Gaal. He’s worked with the United manager before so will be able to slot seamlessly into his philosophy and way of playing which will be a timely boost as it is clear that a number of players have struggled to adapt to the new formation and new style of play immediately.
Just as van Gaal said that Angel Di María’s arrival would allow United to play with a different system, so to will Daley Blind. With the option of playing him in central midfield alongside Ander Herrera, it would release Di María to play further forward as an attacking wide player. This could see a return to a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, and the return to a back four and a more conventional attacking shape.
Playing in this formation as a versatile midfielder who is capable of retreating into the defensive line is perfect for a Louis van Gaal team and the Louis van Gaal philosophy. Throughout his career he has often played a 4-3-3, with one of the midfielders able to play the role that Blind may play at Old Trafford. When in possession he can drop in between the two centre-backs and create a back three which allows the full-backs to move further up the pitch in attacking situations. What makes Blind so perfect for this particular role is his defensive capability. He can drop into a defensive position and has both the ability and the experience to marshal a back-line to ensure that the team is still in control positionally both in and out of possession. In essence, his adaptability to multiple positions within one system will allow for so much more freedom and creativity throughout the team.
The other role which would suit Blind, although it almost certainly won’t be the first choice for van Gaal and United, is as a centre-back in the three-man defence. He is capable, just like new signing Rojo, of playing the ball out from the back and carrying the ball in to more offensive areas. In the three games United have had so far, they have been suffocated in possession because the free man is one of the central defenders, but in the previous games none of them has had the confidence to carry the ball into midfield and contribute to the build up play. Blind would give you that, so instead of retreating from a midfield role to create a back three, he could advance from a back three into midfield when in possession, in order to offer better options for United in attacking situations.
Whether he is used as a defender, a midfielder or anywhere in between, United are signing an excellent player in Daley Blind. His versatility makes him a better signing than just his pure footballing ability, and his tactical flexibility, international pedigree and experience of winning titles in Holland makes him a great fit for Manchester United. He is another piece in the puzzle for Louis van Gaal, and one that gives him the option to play several different ways this season.