Manchester United kicked off the Louis van Gaal era with a wonderful performance in the first game of the clubs 2014 US Tour. United lined up with an unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation, although it’s a system fans may have grown slightly more accustomed to having followed the progress of the Dutch national team during the World Cup.
Early exits at the tournament for Spain and England meant that van Gaal could field an almost full strength United team, handing debuts to new signings Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw alongside the likes of Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and David de Gea.
There were many key differences about the system under Louis van Gaal, most notably the flexibility within the side and the closing down when out of possession. Ander Herrera was very impressive in the middle of midfield, and overall the new system appears to suit the players available to the new manager. Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia operating as wing backs gave United a very imposing shape, and pushed LA Galaxy back into their own half throughout the first period. Both wing-backs looked to get forward as often as possible and that suited the attacking nature of their game.
It was in the middle of the park that was the most impressive key change for United. With the addition of Herrera United finally have the kind of midfield presence they have needed for many years now. His energy and willingness to get forward meant there were no straight lines in the United midfield. Fletcher was holding, Herrera was slightly further forward and Mata operated in the ‘number 10’ position. The two Spaniards linked up together fantastically well and the spaces between the players were incredibly short, meaning the midfield and forward line could dominate possession and dictate the tempo of the play in advanced areas of the pitch.
There were moments in the first half where the flexibility of the system was demonstrated by slight alterations in the formation. Only brief, and used to adapt to certain situations, it is good to see the players becoming more intelligent about their roles on the pitch. At one point, the back three became a back fur with Smalling moving to right back, Shaw left back and Valencia moved up the pitch into a more attacking role. This was supplemented by Rooney and Welbeck’s work rate. Neither wants to lead the line for the entire game so both had licence to move and link up with the midfield and the entire system became fluid. The only fixed point was Fletcher at the base of the midfield. He held his shape while the players beyond him like Mata and Herrera interchanged and linked up with creativity and ingenuity.
There were several changes at half time, with many of the younger players given an opportunity. Reece James, Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett got minutes under their belt, as well as more regular first team players like Ashley Young, Nani and Tom Cleverley.
The second half saw a similar shape, with three central defenders, wing-backs and two strikers, but the interesting thing was the personnel used in those positions. Like with the Holland side during the World Cup, van Gaal is clearly expecting flexibility from his players. Just as Robben was deployed as a striker with the ability to roam, so were Nani and Young against the Galaxy. Fletcher filled in as a makeshift centre-back for the second half, and interestingly Herrera was pushed further forward as a ‘number 10’, despite his excellent first half in a deeper role and the introduction of Shinji Kagawa at half time. Instead of playing in his more preferred ‘number 10’ position, Kagawa played in the deeper role vacated by Herrera, a role that David Moyes and Ryan Giggs had both tried him in with limited success. In this system under van Gaal though, it may suit Kagawa to be so deep. He has the intelligence and ability to link and interchange with Herrera anyway, and found himself further forward on multiple occasions, so his attacking instincts were not curbed. From the deeper areas though he was far more effective in a system that seems to suit his game. Shorter spaces between the attacking players with quick, fluid passing meant that Kagawa was able to play to his strengths and really have a greater impact on United’s attacking play.
A mention must of course go to the younger players who played last night. Luke Shaw was promising in the wing-back role, and looked every bit a United player in the first half. In the second half we saw a few more younger players, and although Michael Keane and Tyler Blackett had very little to do, it was good to see them get minutes under van Gaal. Particularly Blackett, who’s ability to play both centre back and left back will stand him in good stead for a system that requires flexibility. With little cover for Luke Shaw at left back, as well as defensive reinforcements still being needed at the club, Blackett may well appear more regularly next season than some might initially expect. Finally there is Reece James. What a night for the kid. Two goals from left wing-back and a thoroughly impressive and confident performance. Both goals were excellent finishes, and his determination to get forward and be involved as heavily as he did was pleasing to see.
Of course the assessment of last night’s performance must be tempered with the caveat that it was only a pre-season friendly. The real test for these players and the new system will come in the Premier League on August 16th. However, there is no reason why we can’t be pleased with seeing goals, quick passing, creativity and a bit of swagger back in United’s play again. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen that and it’s exciting to have it back under the new manager.