Why 3-5-2 is the Way Forward for Manchester United
‘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.