‘Unbalanced’ was the word Louis van Gaal used to describe his new Manchester United squad, highlighting there were too many number 10s and options going forward compared to other key positions. Followers of United’s pre-season campaign in the United States will know that van Gaal is trying to get the side to play in a 3-5-2 formation, a tactic he insists he is forced to play in order to accommodate everyone in their favoured positions. 3-5-2 is a system which brought the Dutchman success at the World Cup with the Netherlands, and now has just another 16 days before the start of the new Premier League campaign to get his players to fully conform to their new formation.
So how do United line up under the new system? What are the key strengths and weaknesses? And for which players does it leave destined for the Old Trafford exit door?
Firstly, a glance at United’s first choice team with the new formation illustrates the main advantage- the opportunity to play Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata in their favoured positions. Whilst Mata managed to score 6 goals in 14 games since his January move to United last season, his better performances were in the absence of Rooney. Playing the trio together was something David Moyes struggled to orchestrate, with Mata being pushed out wide onto the left, a position he looked uncomfortable in and the reason Jose Mourinho allowed his sale from Chelsea. The Spaniard can now look forward to playing in his more favoured central attacking position, linking up with the two strikers ahead of him- something which himself and Rooney have shown exciting glimpses of in pre-season thus far. An attacking trio of a fully fit and in form Rooney, van Persie and Mata is a frightening thought for any defence.
Another key position under the new position is the role of the ‘wingbacks’, essentially a full back and a winger combined into a new role. First choice on the right side will be Antonio Valencia, who has shown defensive qualities having occasionally played at right back under both Moyes and Ferguson, although Rafael likes going forward and is just as suited. On the left wing new signing Luke Shaw will be looking to be first choice, although van Gaal has stressed he is not yet fit enough to fulfil the duties of a wingback but is working under a specific training programme in order to. Whilst the days of seeing Neville-Beckham styled overlaps may be gone, the wingback offers options going forward and extra cover in defence.
Being caught in possession and a quick counter attack from the opposition is a vulnerability of the wingbacks and is the reason the system accommodates 3 centre backs. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans have all had their critics in recent years, but with the departures of the experienced Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand they all need to step up to the plate this year. Having three centre backs should make life easier to deal with the opposition’s forwards and has worked effectively so far in pre-season, having just conceded one goal from open play (a 60 yard strike from Roma’s Miralem Pjanic).
When not in possession the defensive cover comes in the form of the wingbacks out wide, as well as Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera playing the role of defensive midfielders and should Phil Jones or Jonny Evans need to move out wide, they will slot into the back line to cover. Essentially in attack it’s 3-5-2 and in defence it’s 5-3-2, with the quality of the opposition dictating which shape United spend the majority of the game in.
If the first choice team fills you with optimism that this system will work, the second choice XI highlights the frailty of the squad, particularly in defence. The back 3 is comprised of youngsters Michael Keane, Tyler Blackett and Reece James. All are unproven in the Premier League, but have impressed their new manager in pre-season and he may well decide to develop them as opposed to making new signings. Rumours of Mats Hummels and Thomas Vermaelen coming in during this transfer window keep persisting however, and if van Gaal is only to make one more new signing you can bet it would be at the back.
Ashley Young has been played on both the right and left wingback positions in pre-season and van Gaal feels he can fulfil both the attacking and defensive capabilities of the position. The same can’t be said of Wilfried Zaha or Nani however, both starting up front in pre-season and the latter having been substituted after just half an hour against Inter Milan. When you consider the Dutchman has Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez as his second choice forward line, Nani and Zaha’s days look numbered.
Darren Fletcher was given the captaincy against LA Galaxy and Inter Milan, and Tom Cleverly took the armband against Roma. Neither of them, however, would make the first choice team with a fit again Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera pulling the strings in central midfield. Marouane Fellaini is another name who could slot in here, although there are strong rumours he could be on his way to Napoli and not getting a second chance to impress in the red shirt.
Similarly, Shinji Kagawa is another name being linked with a move away, but like Juan Mata the system would allow him to accommodate his favoured position just behind the two strikers, a role he impressed in against Inter Milan.
It’s unknown yet where highly rated youngster Adnan Januzaj fits into the formation. Does van Gaal feel he has the ability to be a wingback in his team, or will he have to fight for a place in the more central attack midfielder role behind the two strikers?
The 7-0 thrashing against LA Galaxy proves the formation can be lethal against smaller teams, and United played well in both defence and attack against Roma and Inter Milan. The big test now comes against Real Madrid on Saturday, but if United can keep playing well under the new system it could well be the trick which sees them return to the top.
Fifth take on seventh in the Super League this Friday as Warrington Wolves travel to the south of France to take on the Catalan Dragons.
Both teams will be looking to bounce back from defeats last weekend, as the Dragons went down 38-16 to Huddersfield and the Wolves suffered a surprise 40-26 defeat at home to Wakefield.
Warrington are boosted by the return of experienced trio Michael Monaghan, Trent Waterhouse and Simon Grix, although they’ll be without full back Matty Russell after the Scotland international suffered a concussion in the loss to Wakefield.
Catalan welcome back loose forward Greg Mounis from suspension in their only change, and are still without the services of Vincent Duport, who serves the final match of his 3 game suspension, and the injured Olivier Elima, who signed a new 2 year deal with the club this week.
Out of sorts Warrington will be looking to regain form ahead of the important Challenge Cup semi-final against Leeds Rhinos next weekend. The team still has aspirations for a top 4 finish in the league, and with a daunting final 4 fixtures against Castleford, Huddersfield, St Helens and Wigan, Friday’s game is a must win in order to gather some crucial points.
Catalan on the other hand will be looking to tie down their play-off spot. Whilst they currently sit comfortably in 7th place, Widnes, Hull KR, Wakefield and Salford are all finding some late season form and vying for a top 8 finish.
Home advantage shouldn’t be underestimated, with the Dragons having won 9 of their 11 home games in the Super League this season. They haven’t beaten Warrington in the last 4 games between the sides however, most recently going down 42-10 to the Wolves at the Halliwell Jones stadium in May.
Although the plans had been in the pipeline for a while, the RFL have confirmed the full details about the new league structure being introduced into European Rugby League from 2015 onwards. Here are the 10 most important changes being made.
1) The season begins with 3 leagues as there is now
There will be 3 tiers initially: the Super League, the Championship and the newly named League One. The 12 teams finishing 1st-12th in this year’s Super League will compete in Super League next year. London and Bradford are relegated from the elite competition and will join the teams who finish 1st-9th in this year’s Championship, as well as the winners of this year’s Championship 1, to form the 2nd tier. The 5 clubs relegated from the Championship at the end of this season will join the remaining 8 Championship 1 sides and new team Coventry Bears to form a 14 team League 1.
2) After 23 rounds it all changes
In the Super League and Championship each team plays each other twice (home and away) as well as contesting a 23rd game at either the Magic Weekend (Super League) or the Summer Bash (Championship). The 24 teams are then split up into 3 groups determined by where teams have finished in their respective leagues.
Teams finishing 1st-8th in Super League will continue to compete for Super League glory with points gained in the first 23 rounds being carried over. Each team plays each other once, with the top 4 sides playing 4 home fixtures. 1st will then play 4th and 2nd will play 3rd for the chance to compete in the Grand Final.
Teams who finish 9th-12th in Super League will join the top 4 Championship sides in the Qualifiers. This will be a new league with each team starting on 0 points and playing 7 games- 9th and 10th in Super League and 1st and 2nd in the Championship will play 4 of the fixtures at home. The top 3 will then play in Super League the following season, with a 4th v 5th play-off determining the 4th Super League spot in a match dubbed as ‘the million pound game’.
Sides finishing 5th-12th in the Championship carry their points forward and compete in the ‘Championship Shield’. Each team plays each other once with 5th-8th playing 4 home fixtures. 1st will then play 4th and 2nd v 3rd to decide who competes for the Championship Shield. The bottom 2 sides are relegated to League 1 for the following season.
3) Promotion and Relegation is well and truly back
All eyes will be on the Qualifiers to see who will take the 4 Super League spots for the following season. The same 4 sides finishing 9th-12th could return or it could be 4 new sides who line up in Super League the following season. The million pound game is also likely to gain a lot of interest with so much at stake.
4) The Magic Weekend will remain
Although the location is yet to be finalised, the Magic Weekend will return in 2015 and for the foreseeable future. The weekend will see all 12 Super League sides compete in one venue over a weekend and has proved to be hugely popular with fans in recent years. The ‘Summer Bash’ will also be introduced next season. This will see the same concept as the Magic Weekend but for Championship sides and will be held at Bloomfield Road in Blackpool.
5) A lot more importance on the Championship
The licensing system killed off a lot of Super League interest in the Championship, but with sides finishing 9th-12th facing the top Championship sides, there will be a few teams looking over their shoulder. Bradford and London will join a league which already boasts a few sides capable of Super League quality in Leigh, Featherstone and Halifax.
6) No Super League salary cap changes
Much to the dismay of Salford Red Devils owner Marwan Koukash, there will be no change to the Super League salary cap in 2015. However, Championship sides will see their cap raised to £1m in an attempt to help bridge the gap between the two divisions.
7) Challenge Cup places will be determined by league finish
Where a team finishes in the league also holds significance for the stage at which they enter the Challenge Cup the following season. The 12 Championship clubs will join in round 4 and the bottom 4 from Super League in round 5. The top 8 Super League sides will only enter at round 6 which means they are only 3 wins away from Wembley and 4 away from lifting the trophy. The final will still be held on the August bank holiday weekend.
8) A new League 1 cup introduced
As well as a name change, a new cup competition will be introduced in 2015. The 14 teams in League 1 will be compete with the winners of the 2014 National Conference Grand Final winners and the 2014 RFL Conference Challenge Cup winners in a knockout competition.
9) Bonus points may be introduced in to Super League
With promotion and relegation restored, a consistent points scoring system will be adhered to across the leagues. Currently the Championship and Championship 1 adopts a bonus points system, where clubs earn 3 points for a win, 2 for a draw and 1 if they lose by 12 points or fewer. In contrast it’s a straight forward 2 for a win, 1 for a draw and 0 points for a loss in Super League. One of these systems will be used in 2015 onwards.
10) Every minute of every match will be meaningful
Every game across the leagues will be of importance with each point gained determining which group the club competes in after 23 rounds. For the top Super League sides top 4 rather than top 8 will now be a priority, as well as the race for 8th spot never before being so crucial. Getting home advantage for 4 of the 7 games is another priority across all leagues and could be a factor in how well the team does in their group.
The new league structure is the right way to make Rugby League bigger, more exciting and more competitive than ever before.
Bradford saw any hopes they had of Super League survival come to an end on Sunday afternoon, after a 52-26 defeat to Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield meant their inevitable relegation was confirmed. The loss, Bradford’s 17th in 21 games this season, means they will join London Broncos in the Kingstone Press Championship in 2015.
The Bulls’ relegation marks a sad day for the Super League as the competition has lost one of its most successful sides. Bradford were the dominant force in the early days of the Super League era, winning 4 Grand Finals and 4 League Leader’s Shields. They also played in 5 Challenge Cup Finals, winning 2 in 2000 and 2003, as well as 3 World Club Challenge victories in 2002, 2004 and 2006.
However, the Bulls have gradually fallen down the Super League ladder as the seasons have gone by and have not made the play-offs since 2008. Financial difficulties have not helped matters, after the club entered administration in 2012 and more recently at the start of this year. As a result, Bradford were docked 6 points this season, and had their appeal against the sanction rejected by the RFL in June. The club has been seeking High Court action since in order to get the points back, which if awarded could mathematically still see the Bulls avoid the drop. However, after a disappointing season which has seen them pick up just 4 wins, it’s unlikely the team would find the results.
New head coach Jimmy Lowes is yet to win from his 4 games in charge, and he’ll now be looking to raise his team in order to pick up some victories and go out on a high. Lowes also faces the task of keeping his key players for next season and ward off interest from Super League clubs.
The Championship will give the Bulls the chance to rebuild, and with promotion being reintroduced under the new league structure, this time next year Bradford will be looking to return to the league which many feel they belong.
The envy of other sports? The linchpin which makes the competition competitive? Or a hindrance which is forcing investors and players to turn their back on Super League? Since its introduction in 1999, the salary cap in Super League has ensured that each club has not overspent on their first team squad, with the maximum amount a team can spend on player’s wages currently standing at £1.8m a year.
However recent opposition to the cap, unsurprisingly being led by Salford Red Devils Chairman Marwan Koukash, has raised the question about the future of the salary cap and what is the best action to take. Should clubs be allowed to introduce a ‘marquee player’ into their sides- a player whose wage only contributes a certain value towards a club’s salary cap, even if his actual wage represents more? Do we simply maintain the same principles but increase the cap year on year? Or is it time we scrapped the salary cap altogether and allowed clubs the freedom to spend?
The salary cap was introduced to obtain two key principles: a competition where each team has a realistic chance of winning, and to provide financial stability to all clubs. For the latter, the cap has made little difference, with Super League sides such as Bradford, London and Wakefield all going through financial difficulties whilst not being allowed to overspend by the cap. When the clubs were up for sale, you wonder how lucrative the offer of owning a Super League club was to potential buyers, i.e. pay off the debt and then your outgoings are restricted. Perhaps we need to look at Rugby League as a business more often and if owners are looking to bring more money in to the game, why should we stop them?
An obvious consequence of that would be the widening of the gap between the top and bottom sides, and on a wider scale a further gap between Super League and Championship sides- a negative move with the reintroduction of promotion and relegation. The wage bill for a Championship club is capped at £1m incidentally, which will surely be a disadvantage for the sides looking to compete against Super League sides under the new league structure from 2015.
The Wigan side of the 1990s is a good example of why club’s shouldn’t be allowed financial freedom, and was itself a factor for the salary cap’s introduction. The team were undoubtedly the best in the league, winning at least one trophy every season from 1985-99. Wigan’s wage bill topped £2m from 1994 onwards, with the club recruiting the best players in the competition.
Fairness across the league is what the salary cap strives for, with each team capable of success. Whilst only 6 teams have competed in a grand final, the competitiveness of Super League, where any team is capable of beating another, is one of the competition’s biggest attractions. A glance at the current standings shows that with 7 rounds to go, any team from 1st to 6th is still capable of finishing top- how many leagues across the world in any sport can boast that? Would the Super League be this competitive if we abolished the salary cap or increased it so much that we had the same 3 or 4 sides winning the competition every season?
Whilst Wigan won the Grand Final and Challenge Cup last year, the salary cap meant that the financial gain from success in those competitions didn’t necessarily give them an advantage over other teams going into this season. Compare this to the English Premier League in Football, where the money won from a Premier League title or Champions League football significantly widens the gap between the big teams and everyone below, with the same teams winning silverware every year.
Most people seem to be in agreement that the salary cap should not be abolished, but a review into an increase in the cap should be looked into. Super League’s finances are restricted by quite a sum compared to clubs competing in the NRL or Premiership sides in Rugby Union, and then we wonder why we lose our best players to these competitions. NRL sides can spend A$6.3m (£3.5m) on their wage bill, with a clear cap structure for the next 3 seasons set out with this increasing to A$7m (£3.8m) in 2017. They’re even debating in Australia to impose salary cap restrictions on coaches and backroom staff, whilst in the UK we can’t even agree on a cap for first team squads.
Likewise, Arriva Premiership sides in Rugby Union can spend up to £5m on their wage bill, with the attraction of switching codes never being so great.
If we want to keep our top players in the Super League and attract top international players from abroad, the salary cap should surely be increased from the current £1.8m to accommodate this.
An alternative, which Salford Chairman Marwan Koukash has been keen on the RFL to introduce, is the concept of a marquee player, a strategy that has worked well in the NRL and Rugby Union. The marquee player would be the club’s biggest payed, stand out player, attracting interest and with the hope of increasing attendances. This would hopefully keep our star players and also attract some of the world’s best. Under this ruling, Salford would not have had to have offloaded Tim Smith and Shannon McPherson in order to bring Kevin Locke in.
However, the move could cause unrest at some clubs where an individual would carry the label ‘marquee player’ and the need to live up to their price tag and excessive wage. There’s also a fear that if Super League attracted the biggest names in the world there would be calls to increase the number of oversees players which could prevent more English youngsters from breaking through.
10 Super League clubs voted last week to defer the debate to once the new league structure has bedded in, which will give clubs a better idea of how their finances fare under the new format. The debate cannot be taken lightly, and few would disagree that some sort of reform for the salary cap is needed. The worst thing the RFL could do now is stand still.
#5: There may not be any more summer signings
Rumours of the imminent arrivals of Arturo Vidal and Angel Di Maria seem way off as Van Gaal announced he will take 3 or 4 weeks to assess the current squad before making any new signings. New arrivals Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera were approved by the Dutchman, and he will assess if the squad can perform to his philosophy before making changes.
#4: There are short term and long term plans
Van Gaal’s main priority will be the first team, but will give advice to youth team coaches and players with a view to all youth education fulfilling his philosophy in the long term. He asked for time to do this and you feel unlike with David Moyes, he will be allowed it.
#3: There is a place for the class of 92
We already knew Ryan Giggs had been appointed Assistant Manager, but the news conference confirmed Nicky Butt is a part of the new first team coaching set up. Van Gaal stated he hopes to find roles for Paul Scholes and Phil Neville which will be determined once he knows their strengths.
#2: The new captain has not been decided yet
It may take 4 weeks, or it may take 2 months for Van Gaal to decide who his new captain will be. Robin Van Persie is the favourite, but according to the new manager everyone is a possible candidate. It’s a decision he will not take lightly, and he also stressed experience is not everything.
#1: He has the ambition to succeed
‘The biggest club in the world’ and the ‘number one team in England’ are two statements Van Gaal kept referring to. There’s no doubting he is keen to succeed in the Premier League and take United back to the top. He made the point that for United finishing 1st not 4th is the challenge, and he hopes to fulfil the expectation that his appointment brings.
50: FIFA can impose a hefty ban when they want to
49: Cameramen can be quite perverse
48: David Luiz is not worth £50m
47: Gary Lewin should not celebrate goals
46: Using a drone is the new way to spy on your opposition (Someone tell Tony Pulis)
45: Vanishing spray worked well
44: Pepe is a bit of an idiot
43: Thierry Henry is the most stylish pundit you will ever come across
42: Croatian players don’t like being photographed whilst skinny dipping
41: Grasshoppers love to steal the limelight
40: We’re still a long way from an African nation winning the tournament
39: The French can go a whole tournament without any player/coach disputes
38: It’s quite hot in Manaus
37: Joe Hart still doesn’t have dandruff thanks to…
36: If you dive to win a penalty, don’t admit to it
35: Jonathan Pearce can’t quite grasp the concept of goal line technology
34: Guillermo Ochoa is unbelievably good between the sticks
33: Nobody loves Copacabana beach as much as Arsene Wenger
32: Daniel Sturridge enjoys a chicken teriyaki sub
31: Carlos Tevez loves Disneyland more than Argentina
30: Trophy ceremonies can go on a while
29: Alejandro Sabella doesn’t have a great balance
28: Rio Ferdinand is a surprisingly good pundit (#rioinrio)
27: The national anthems brought a tear or two from some players
26: Müller corner jokes get old very quickly
25: Wayne Rooney can score at a World Cup
24: Shaheen the Camel is no Paul the Octopus
23: ‘Brazil… Brazil’ is too catchy and you’ll find yourself singing it in your sleep
22: Ronaldo needs better support from his teammates
21: Tim Howard can save anything
20: Phil Neville is quite boring
19: There weren’t as many protests as expected
18: Robin Van Persie doesn’t do straight forward headers
17: Japanese fans are the most respectful, Chilean fans are the least
16: Lionel Messi carried Argentina
15: Substitutions played a vital role
14: BBC’s coverage and analysis was leagues ahead of ITV’s
13: Belgium’s golden generation failed to deliver
12: Brazil are nothing without Neymar and Thiago Silva
11: Linesmen should remain calm and collected when they spot themselves on the big screen
10: There’s pain with Spain
One of the favourites to win the tournament, Spain suffered a shock early exit after defeats against The Netherlands and Chile meant they were eliminated at the group stage. Tired, pedestrian, unimaginative. Spain were a shadow of the team that won the tournament four years ago.
9: Tim Krul is the best GK at saving penalties
The move which saw Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal being called a genius, Tim Krul was sent on in the last minute of extra time during The Netherland’s quarter final match against Costa Rica specifically for the penalty shoot out which followed. Krul went on to save 2 of Costa Rica’s penalties, ensuring his side progressed to the semi-finals. If only Van Gaal hadn’t used up his 3 substitutions when the semi-final against Argentina went to penalties…
8: Costa Rica are a lot better than everyone thought
Drawn alongside Italy, England and Uruguay, Costa Rica were supposed to be the easy opponents in Group D who no-one gave a chance. How they surprised us. Victories over Uruguay and Italy, as well as a 0-0 draw against England saw them top the group which everyone predicted they would finish bottom of. A last 16 win over Greece meant this was their most successful World Cup yet, before Tim Krul’s heroics ended their dream in the quarter finals.
7: James Rodriguez is quite a star
The Colombian attacking midfielder made his mark on the tournament, finishing with the Golden Boot after his 6 goals in 5 games, including his incredible long range strike against Uruguay. Monaco saw his potential this time last year when they paid in the region of £40m for him, with that fee certainly rising after his World Cup performances.
6: The pressure of being host nation is sometimes too much
The tears and apologies from David Luiz after Brazil’s 7-1 semi-final thrashing said it all. The expectation of a nation 200 million strong meant the tournament was always an emotional one for the Brazilian players. The pressure was either going to take the team to victory in front of their fans, or see them fall apart on the world stage. Sadly for Brazil, it was the latter.
5: The future is bright for England… probably
Despite England’s failure to progress from the group, there were plenty of positives to take from England’s World Cup campaign. Giving the youngsters an opportunity whilst playing attacking football is what fans were calling for and Roy Hodgson delivered. It’s just a shame the defending wasn’t up to scratch. England’s youngsters will be better next time round from the experience, and in 4, 8 or maybe another 48 years, England will finally lift the trophy once more.
4: Miroslav Klose is a World Cup legend
His furthest strike may have come from the penalty spot, but with 16 goals in 4 consecutive tournaments, there’s no arguing that Miroslav Klose is a World Cup legend. His 2 goals in Brazil moved him above Ronaldo to become the all time leading World Cup scorer.
3: It’s 3 bites and you’re out
Few could believe the actions of Luis Suarez who, during Uruguay’s final group game against Italy, bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the most controversial moment of the tournament. FIFA imposed a hefty 4 month worldwide football ban on the Barcelona bound striker- the 3rd time he has been banned for the offence during his career.
2: Germany are the World’s best
Despite Argentina’s best efforts, ultimately the best team won. Germany fully deserved their fourth World Cup win, and their first as a unified nation. Their 7-1 thrashing of Brazil in the semi-final was an example of just how good this team is, with everyone from 1-11 playing their part in the team’s success. Joachim Löw’s side is still a young one, and this could be the start of a very successful period for German football.
1: It’s been the best World Cup yet
174 goals, spectacular strikes, 4 penalty shoot outs, late drama, underdogs surprising, attacking football, unbelievable saves, fantastic crowds and a worthy winner. Even the 0-0s were exciting. Roll on Russia in 2018!