Not 48 hours after a humiliating defeat at Stoke City, Manchester United have to recover and go again, this time against Chelsea at Old Trafford on Monday night.
The same narrative remains. Louis van Gaal is under pressure, United are struggling and in need of a result and talk of potential managerial replacements grows louder and louder. Van Gaal’s next team selection might be his most important. It certainly could be his last.
With such a short space of time between matches United will need to rotate. With a small squad still suffering with injuries, the ability to do that is hampered somewhat, but there are changes that van Gaal must make in order to protect his players but also to improve the performance on the field. Morgan Schneiderlin should return to the team in place of Marouane Fellaini, Guillermo Varela is in contention to start at fullback and Wayne Rooney is more than likely to start again having been dropped at The Britannia Stadium.
I mentioned a key quote from Louis van Gaal in my analysis of the Stoke defeat. He claimed his players ‘did not dare play football’ in the first half of that particular game. While most observers would agree, it must be with the caveat that the team was not set up to play football in the most optimal way. This must change against Chelsea or it will be five defeats on the spin.
In the 4-2-3-1 system that Manchester United play, creative freedom should belong to the three that play behind the striker. Both wide plays have the flexibility to play as wingers or inside forwards and the no.10 behind the striker is responsible for knitting everything together in the final third; creating chances, bringing teammates into play, dictating the tempo at which they attack and also remaining a goal threat individually. It is a big role but it is usually filled by the biggest players. Maybe something was lost in translation but that position was given to 6ft 4 Marouane Fellaini against. Not quite what I had in mind.
The problem is, you can only play a style of football that is made suitable by the players in your team. For the same reason Barcelona don’t use Lionel Messi as an aerial target man, Manchester United can’t play quick, intricate ‘tiki-taka’ style passing with Fellaini at no.10. Instead they had to try and use longer passes into him and, as expected against a tall, physical side like Stoke, United completed a very low percentage of passes into the Belgian.
As a result, United could not establish any meaningful possession in advanced areas and Fellaini was never in a position where he could receive the ball in dangerous pockets between the Stoke midfield and the back four. As such, just look at how few passes he completed in the opening 45 minutes and how little impact he had on the game despite being picked as a no.10. There were two problems with the selection against Stoke that must be rectified against Chelsea. First was the quality and type of possession that United had in the game and how that was funnelled into the forward players. They must revert back to possession on the floor; short, sharp passing between the lines of the opposition rather than long balls over the top. Secondly, once the ball reaches those forward players, United must be able to use the ball quickly and decisively to bring the wide players and lone striker into the game. For me, that means no Marouane Fellaini.
The combinations open to van Gaal are plentiful in that area of the field. Carrick/Schneiderlin pivot with Herrera at 10. Schneiderlin/Herrera pivot with Mata at 10. Rooney could also play at 10, Blind can play in the midfield pivot. Whichever combination is selected, they have the quality to supply the creative forward players with the right kind of possession.
Four of Manchester United’s five best passers this season could play in that double pivot in midfield so there is no reason why this team cannot go back to a style of football that focuses on possession, playing out from the back, through midfield and into the forward players, rather than high-risk, low percentage long balls from defensive areas of the field.
When it does go into the final third, the player in that no.10 position must be able to control the game in an attacking sense. One example of which is Ander Herrera’s performance against Everton earlier in the season. It is an example that has been used before when discussing Manchester United’s attacking ideals this year, but that only serves to highlight how few and far between the good performances have been.
Against Everton, Herrera was everywhere. He dropped deep to link up with the holding midfield players, he got forward to support Wayne Rooney AND ran beyond him when the opportunity presented itself. He made himself available to receive the ball on the turn in pockets of space between Everton’s midfield and back four and was a constant threat in attacking areas. He fulfilled the role of the no.10 in that match and set the blueprint for the kind of performance United will need against Chelsea if they are to reinstate some creativity in the side.
The final amendment that can and should be made by Louis van Gaal is to remove the restrictions that have evidently been placed on his players. The tactical rigidity with which van Gaal wants his players to maintain position and understand how they function as part of the team has inhibited the natural freedom and off-the-cuff creativity which can change and win football matches.
Memphis Depay is a prime example. A right-footed attacker playing on the left hand side in this formation should be looking to play as an inside forward. He should want to cut inside, get shots on goal, especially after arriving at United as last season’s top scorer in the Eredivisie. As it is, he is limited to playing on the wing, restricted in his movement to just that left-hand channel and his movement becomes far more predictable and easy to defend against. It’s not just Memphis either. Anthony Martial has experienced the same problem in wide areas and all across the pitch, players are restricted to their own zone, their own positional demands and the lack of movement and freedom is making United’s attacking football far too easy to predict.
Of course these are problems that United have experienced right throughout the season and nothing has changed. It is getting serious for Louis van Gaal now though. If he refuses to adapt and the results continue in the same fashion, he might not have much longer to persevere and get it right.