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Tactical Preview: West Ham United v Manchester United – Barclays Premier League

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Louis van Gaal labelled this week as ‘an important week’ in Manchester United’s season and having beaten Leicester City and Cambridge United already in the past seven days, United sit third in the league and have secured their passage into the fifth round of the FA Cup. Now they face a pivotal trip to the capital to face West Ham United. If United’s recent improvements are to be considered permanent and van Gaal IS improving this team, then their form must show that with another victory and another step towards Champions League qualification.

In the previous two victories there have been two notable changes to the United we have been used to seeing under Louis van Gaal. Most notable is the change to a back four which now seems to be a permanent change, but beyond that there has been a shift in mentality. In his weekly press conference Louis van Gal mentioned his involvement in the anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster which was marked by the club this week, in doing so he focused on the need to play the ‘United way’. Against Leicester City and Cambridge United it felt as though there was a shift to a more offensive playing style in which van Gaal’s team took far more risks in order to seek their reward – and it paid off too. If United are going to continue to grind out victories and find success in the future under van Gaal, they must continue to play in this way.

There is every expectation that van Gaal will rotate certain members of his team following the midweek FA Cup match, with the likes of Falcao, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw likely to start after they were rested against Cambridge. We should see a continuation of the midfield diamond that has returned in recent weeks. The performances have improved and with continuity in both formation and personnel, we should see further improvements on match day as well.

West Ham will provide United with a tough fixture and they will struggle to overcome their hosts on Sunday if they play in the same way that they have approached away fixtures this season. Too often we have seen United play the ball across the back-line, keeping possession in their own half and remain comfortable, but not take the game to the opposition. In these instances the defenders did not bring the offensive players into the game enough and very few chances were created. United played it too safe, often opting for the safe pass when a riskier pass may not have been successful, but it may have opened up the game had the ball found its way to a midfielder or a forward. A prime example of this was against Stoke City, when three of United’s most influential players were Smalling, Jones and Evans, not because Stoke created so many chances against United, but because van Gaal’s team were too content to keep the ball in deeper areas and not take the risks that were required that afternoon.

Manchester United player influence vs Stoke City - 1.1.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Manchester United player influence vs Stoke City – 1.1.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

In the past week we have seen a change in this particular statistic, and against Leicester City it was the players in more advanced areas who had a greater impact on the game. This is how United must approach each and every game between now until the end of the season. If United are playing with the ball in the opponents half, created opportunities, moving the ball with speed and precision, they will win more football matches than they lose. It is also important to note that with this style of play, United will prevent their opponent from creating opportunities too. Throughout the season, on each occasion that United have been too passive in possession and too unwilling to take the necessary risks, the safe passing between the defenders has invited such pressure that has resulted in careless surrendering of possession. Particularly against Arsenal and Southampton, United conceded many of the chances to the opposition due to their own negligence in possession because they allowed themselves to be pressed high up the pitch and they lost the ball in dangerous areas.

Manchester United player influence vs Leicester City - 31.1.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Manchester United player influence versus Leicester City – 31.1.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

West Ham will present a danger that is easy to recognise but sometimes difficult to stop. They will be physical, they will press high and get in United faces to try and make it a difficult afternoon in East London. With the likes of Andy Carroll, Alex Song and Mark Noble, there are plenty of players who can play but can also mix it up and make the game a battle. When West Ham visited Old Trafford earlier in the year, they gave a very good account of themselves and nearly left Manchester with a point that many in the ground would have found it difficult to argue with.

With some concern over the fitness of many of West Ham’s central defenders, they face difficult selection issues. Manchester United should see this as a sign to attack and make the most of their good form. Confidence should be high following the events of the last few days and with the memory of the Busby Babes still fresh in the players minds, now is the perfect opportunity to play the game the right way, the Manchester United way. With the battle for Champions League qualification heating up, three points would be absolutely priceless this weekend.

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