If you could sum up Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge of Manchester United with one word it would be “inconsistent.” Everything about United’s 2014-15 campaign was inconsistent, whether it be the team’s form, players used, or the formation they lined up in. Despite the inconsistency, the team still managed to finish fourth and earn a spot in this year’s UEFA Champions League.
With the added burden of European football this season and the demand to start winning some trophies, it’s more important than ever for United to avoid the inconsistencies that befell them last season.
United got to this point thanks to a great run of form they had from mid-March until the beginning of May. This was thanks to van Gaal finally finding his best XI and playing the same team each week. The problem was United had no depth to that XI and when one of their players (read: Michael Carrick) would get injured, everything would fall apart.
United went about fixing that problem by going on a summer shopping spree, bringing in four new players with likely a few more on the way (and record signing Angel di Maria likely on his way out). Now following a preseason tour of the United States that gave the team a chance to gel we can answer the question of, what is the best way for United to line up this season?
United experimented with their team in just about every way last season, whether it be with a back three, back four, one striker, two strikers, or even three strikers on the field. They finally found their form when they settled on a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation, with Michael Carrick the lone holding midfielder allowing Ander Herrera and Marouanne Fellaini to join Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, and Juan Mata on the attack.
Following the season, van Gaal said he needed a more balanced squad, with more depth to accommodate the added fixtures United would be playing. United went out and brought in winger/striker Memphis Depay along with holding midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger. United now suffer from the best problem a manager can have, he has plenty of options to pick from.
On paper, the simplest solution seems to be to continue playing the 4-3-3 with Memphis Depay slotting in for Ashley Young and Schneiderlin coming in for Fellaini. However it’s never that simple when it comes to Louis van Gaal. Many fans seem to be favoring, or hoping for, a 4-2-3-1 with Schneiderlin and Herrera as the holding midfielders and Juan Mata playing behind Wayne Rooney.
As difficult as it is to predict what Louis van Gaal will do, I can say with some confidence that Juan Mata will not be playing behind Wayne Rooney and Ander Herrera will likely not even be in the starting XI against Tottenham. If we learned anything from how United lined up in the preseason it’s that Michael Carrick will be given every chance to retain his spot as the team’s first choice holding midfielder, and rightly so. Over the past few years, and especially last year, Carrick has been the engine that makes United go. To put it simply, when Carrick played United won, and when he didn’t, United didn’t.
Players like Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger were not brought in to replace Carrick, they were brought in to bolster the squad and provide depth. Does that mean Carrick is going to start every match? No. But unless his form drops off or Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin leave van Gaal with no choice. Carrick will start the season as first choice and be given every chance to keep that spot.
As for United’s attack. It seems that over the preseason van Gaal was not a fan of a 4-3-3 and was rather very intent on playing newcomer Memphis Depay as the second striker/no. 10 behind Wayne Rooney. This lends itself more towards a 4-2-3-1 formation and makes room for Ashley Young on the left, and if he can maintain the form he had in the second half of last season, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written before, I don’t exactly hide my disdain for Ashley Young. Therefore it’s no surprise that I fall into the camp that favors a 4-3-3 formation with Rooney, Memphis, and Mata up top, and Schneiderlin, Herrera, and Carrick behind them. Ander Herrera looks like he’ll be the odd man out to start the season, which seems harsh considering how much he turned a corner in the second half of last season.
The formation bodes well for United to play nice attacking football. Furthermore, when United need to rotate the squad for the Champions League or ahead of a Champions League match, they can easily slot Ashley Young and Marouanne Fellaini (a connection that worked very well last season) in along with players like Schweinsteiger and youngsters Adnan Januzaj, Andreas Pereira, and Jesse Lingard. The latter two were very impressive in United’s preseason tour and it wouldn’t shock me to see van Gaal try to get them involved at some point this season.
At the end of the day Louis van Gaal is a man who will always keep us guessing so until the games actually start; all we’ll be able to do is speculate.
Just get me to Saturday already.