Are Manchester United well stocked for a 3-5-2 formation?

Things have started well under the new Louis van Gaal regime. Whilst United struggled to score goals, in Moyes’ only preseason with the Club whilst playing against small and low-ranking teams, this year, the Red Devils have scored 10 goal in 2 games against much better and established clubs. Is this a sign of things to come?

The biggest talking point so far has been the change of formation. This is the first time in Manchester Uniter’s history that a back three will be deployed rather than a traditional back four. Van Gaal has already claimed that the 3-5-2 formation (can also be described as a 5-3-2 or 3-4-1-2)will be the default formation next season. This formation requires:

  • 1 Goalkeeper
  • 3 Central Defenders
  • 2 Wing-Backs (right and left)
  • 2 Central Midfielders
  • 1 Advanced Midfielder
  • 2 Strikers

Does the current squad of players cover each position in this formation? Or is strengthening required in some areas? If so, which? Which would be the likely targets?


David De Gea should remain unchallenged as the Red Devil’s #1. His backup comes in the form of Anders Lindegaard who is an able deputy.

Louis van Gaal decided to take four goalkeepers on tour. A clear signal that he wanted to assess the four goalkeepers he has available including Ben Amos and Sam Johnstone. Van Gaal will choose which one of these he would like to keep as third choice and potential deputy for De Gea should at some point Lindegaard seek more playing time elsewhere.

Amos seems to be the biggest loser so far. The other three keepers did not concede a goal in the 135 mins they played whilst he conceded 2 goals in 45 mins including a goal from Miralem Pjanic who shot from his own half. After the game, Louis van Gaal said: “I am nearly 63 years old and I run when the ball is flying four seconds from fifty metres.” Certainly, Amos will need to work hard. 

Verdict: No new goalkeepers needed. United have good cover.

Central Defenders

Van Gaal decided to switch to a system which deploys 3 centre back, yet United felt the time was up for two stalwarts; Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. This leaves United with only three first team centre backs; Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. These three players all have good potential however injuries seem to have been a constant feature in their Man Utd careers. Could van Gaal run this risk? Certainly not. Michael Keane appears to be very highly thought of at the club however I do not believe that the Manager will be placing such a huge shoulder on the player’s young shoulders just as yet. Another young central defender who has joined the tour squad is Tyler Blackett.

It is rumoured that van Gaal has been most impressed with Jonny Evans especially because of his ability to come out from defence with the ball and because of his ability to use both feet.

Verdict: United need at least one experienced Central Defender. 

Who could be a possible target? Mats Hummels is the player who is being mentioned most. This is certainly not a surprise since he is exactly United’s defence requires at this point. A player who know what victory tastes like, strong displays, consistent and a leader.

What is the possibility of United signing him this summer? Jürgen Klopp, his manager at Borussia Dortmund, is adamant that his player is not available and that the Red Devils along with any other interested party should look elsewhere. However, a number of sources claim that a deal is possible and is being negotiated.

Thomas Vermaelen is another player who has been strongly linked with United. He is certainly an experienced player however his injury record does not really make him an attractive proposition, although his ability to play as a Left Wing-Back apart from Central Defence does make him a more interesting option.

Other names which have been mentioned are Stefan De Vriej and Bruno Martins Indi, both of whom performed extremely well under van Gaal at the World Cup. However, in the meantime, the latter has joined Porto whilst the former is said to have a medical lined up at Lazio. In my opinion, this is a clear sign that van Gaal is only interested in experienced Central Defenders.



Antonio Valencia has filled up at Right Back whenever required however it appears that the Wing-Back position will be the position in which we will see him play next season. I believe that this role is highly suitable for this player who is pacy and strong. These attributes will certainly assist him in his defensive duties as a Wing-Back whilst his past as a Winger are certainly proof of his attacking ability. It will be interesting to see who gets the nod between him and Rafael.

Similarly to United’s current first team defensive trio, the Brazilian player seems to spend too much time on the treatment table. This appears to have had an ill-effect on his development as he has never managed to have a lengthy run in the side. Getting injured during the tour and returning to Manchester for treatment will certainly not help him in establishing himself in the first eleven.

Verdict: United have two good players at Right Wing-Back. Hopefully, injuries will allow Rafael to develop his full potential however it looks like Antonio Valencia will start the season as United’s first choice Right Wing-Back.


19 year old Luke Shaw did not waste too much time following his flight back from Brazil as within a few days he was signing a deal which saw him join United for a record deal for a teenager. Even though Patrice Evra signed a one-year extension at the end of last season, he left United to join Serie A winners, Juventus. Buttner also sought pastures new and joined Dinamo Moscow in Russia. This means that young Luke Shaw is the only “senior” Left Wing-Back in the squad. He performed admirably last season therefore it appears as if he will find no problem to settle within life at United. However, it is clear that there is no backup for him. Worryingly, van Gaal has placed Shaw on a specialised training schedule as he feels that he is lagging in fitness.

Louis van Gaal included Reece James in United’s tour party. James, is actually older than Shaw, however his first team career is yet to take off. He is an unknown player for most of United’s supporters. He has been performing consistently for the U21s side and in fact he was nominated for the U21 Player of the Year Award. James also captained the U21 side last season.

He was given his first team debut in the first tour match against LA Galaxy. This was a special night for the player, not only because of his debut, but also because he scored two goals which happens to be his first goals for the club at all different levels. His performance brought words of praise from van Gaal who said: “When you listen good, you can play good and he [James] is a young boy with a lot of talent. I hope he can perform in much more games like this.”

Interestingly, van Gaal has claimed that he believes that Ashley young could play at both Wing-Back positions thus offering another option for him.

Verdict: Will van Gaal rely on a totally inexperienced player (Reece James) to act as back up for 19-year old Luke Shaw? This is one of the many decisions that Van Gaal will have to make prior to the closure of the transfer window. 

Should van Gaal opt towards acquiring the services of another Left  Wing-Back, I would fancy the signature of a player such as Daley Blind. Daley Blind performed admirably during the World Cup but he also showed great adaptability having played across all of the back line positions. His adaptability will certainly be attractive to Louis van Gaal.

Central Midfielders

The big debate. The huge conundrum. United’s engine room – Central Midfield. For the past three or four years, Man Utd supporters have been thirsting for a big name central midfielder to partner Michael Carrick. Fletcher’s sickness together with Scholes’ ageing and eventual retirement have seen United losing out in most midfield battles against the likes of City who have simply overrun United’s thanks to their powerful midfield, especially Yaya Toure. It feels as if United have never managed to replace the force and leadership of Roy Keane. For a short period of time, Owen Hargreaves offered such style of play however injuries quickly finished his career.

In recent times, we have seen the emergence of academy product Tom Cleverley, however, thus far he has not managed to perform consistently and last year was a big blow for him as he appeared to be running on very low confidence. Furthermore, Cleverley is very different in his style of play and would not offer the tenacity United are seeking.

Following a summer of inactivity in the transfer market, or rather following a summer of failures, on deadline day, David Moyes signed up his former player Marouane Fellaini. The latter had made United suffer with a number of important goals and performances, one of which had cost United the league. His arrival was met with mixed reactions. Some immediately pointed out that this was a panic buy. Having played for great parts of his Everton career in more advanced midfield positions, he was asked to play in the central area of the pitch and a mixture of injuries and patchy form meant that he never really got going at United. Rumours are starting to grow about a potential move away from Old Trafford. Arguably one of his better performances for United was under the tenure of Ryan Giggs when against Hull, Fellaini was asked to play behind the lone striker and debutant, James Wilson.

Anderson went on loan to Fiorentina for the second half of last season and barely got any game time. Injury also inhibited him from travelling to America. A player with enormous potential which was never realised.

To make matters worse, United’s only established Central Midfielder, Michael Carrick, suffered injury early in preseason and will miss most of the early part of the season and will probably be playing again in October.

New signing Ander Herrera offers fresh hopes for United’s midfield however he has more to offer in an attacking sense rather than a defensive way. Therefore, whilst he will most probably be a player to play a good amount of games in United’s midfield this season, the man to partner him is still seen as a big question mark.

Verdict: This is a simple one. United MUST buy. In my eyes there are no other options. 

United team are missing a physical and energetic presence in midfield and they have been struggling to boss games through that position. Arturo Vidal is the player being mentioned most. Would he be a good signing? Absolutely. He plays with strength, runs up and down the pitch for a full 90 minutes, contributes both in defence as well as in attack, makes tackles and scores a number of goals each season. Rumours have provided a mixed bag of news, some say that all is already sorted and that only an official announcement is missing, others say he is happy with Juventus, other say United are worried about his injured knee and are therefore not willing to meet Juve’s valuation.

We will never know the truth but my take on the situation is that it will all depend on the player himself. Juventus have already left the charismatic Antonio Conte, their Head Coach, therefore they are in no position to seem as if they are selling one of their better players. In fact, in public their Sports Director has been adamant in saying that Juventus are not seeking to sell their star players, however, he also claimed that this would change if a player shows a different motive. If there are any truth in these rumours, “King Arturo” as he’s knows, will need to push to achieve this move.

Other players mentioned are Roma’s Strootman, who would played a huge part in Holland World Cup endeavours. A player that van Gaal rates highly. However, he has had a sever cruciate ligament injury which will keep him out for a good chunk of this season. Having nursed him, Roma would seek to get something out of him. With such injuries, it is a big risk to spend huge amounts of money.

During Moyes’ brief reign, the name of William Carvalho, a young Portuguese powerhouse was widely mentioned, however, rumours appear to have mellowed.

Advanced Midfielder and Strikers

One reason that van Gaal has opted to utilise a 3-5-2 formation was to be able to play a natural #10 and 2 Strikers. United broke their transfer record in order to sign Juan Mata last January, however, on most occasions he was being played out wide rather than behind the striker. In this central role he will be able to play at his optimum levels. I expect must to play a very important role for United this season. United’s last league triumph was in most part due to the goals scored by Robin van Persie. Man Utd have Wayne Rooney in their ranks as well, a player considered by many as one of the best English players in recent years. This formation will allow United to lineup these 3 players playing in their natural positions. I believe that most defences would be scared just by the though of it.

United have a number of players who can play in this position. Shinji Kagawa, was considered one of the best players in the Bundesliga before joining United, however despite showing glimpses of brilliance he has failed to set the world alight for the Red Devils. Despite this, he is more than able deputy for Mata.

Adnan Januzaj was one of the best United players in his debut season. Despite playing mostly on the wings, the young Belgian player is considered to progress in becoming a #10 as he grows older. In his last season with the U21 side, due to the lack of Strikers, Januzaj played as a lone Striker and he fared quite well. Therefore, he might play in both roles. Danny Welbeck and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez are other Strikers at the club. Whilst Englishman Welbeck appears to be well settled at the club, it appears as if the Mexican is not so sure about his future at United. Moyes’ treatment of him was quite clear in his reaction following a goal towards the end of the season.  He is known as a good character however his celebration vented out all his frustration. It will interesting to see whether van Gaal will stand in his way or whether he will let him to seek pastures new. Should “Chicharito” move away from the Club it is possible that his place will be taken up from Academy products Will Keane or James Wilson.

Van Gaal has already declared that young winger Wilfred Zaha can only play as a Striker in this formation because of his inability to defend. Nani in that respect is very similar. Will he as well be playing in this type of door or will he be deemed as surplus to requirements and will be shown the door? Another similar player to them is Ashley Young however it appears that van Gaal is seeking to use him in the Wing-Back role as he did in some of the friendly matches.

Verdict: Mata – Rooney – van Persie. Enough said. This trio of players are more than capable to deliver the goods. Furthermore, their backups are quite able as well. 

Despite this strong lineup of front players, Edison Cavani has been heavily linked with United. Rumour is he is not enjoying playing second fiddle to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at PSG and having to play on the right flank to accommodate the Swedish superstar. United certainly cannot offer him the limelight or a place in the first eleven with the likes of Rooney and van Persie around.


Round Up

Louis van Gaal declared in a recent interview “the selection needs to improve not only by training but also by transfers.” This is a clear signal that he intends to dip his fingers in the transfer market. Most probably, work is already being conducted in the background to make these signings. 

In my view, the top priorities for United are, in the order presented;

  1. Experienced Central Defender
  2. Experience Central Midfielder (physical and energetic)
  3. Left Wing-Back (who can possibly play in central defence as well)

Should United acquire the services of these three players, I believe that a very positive season is on the horizon. If we don’t manage to make important signings in the first, I fear that we would struggle along the season since there are not too many options to choose from in central defence and midfield.

The 3-5-2 will be the default formation however, van Gaal has already made it clear that United will shift to the 4-3-3 formation should the need arise. The shift to this formation will be easy since these players have players have been playing in thsi formation for a long time. An interesting aspect of van Gaal’s management is his tweaking of formations during the match itself as we all testified in the World Cup.

Overall I am positive ahead of the new season. Hopefully, with the right additions, United will be able to fly high again this season. *Fingers crossed*

About Steve Ferguson 886 Articles
Steve Ferguson had taken over & re-branded The Faithful MUFC website back in the summer of 2014 and is now the owner and editor of the site. Steve, from Ashton-Under-Lyne in Greater Manchester, is a 35-year-old life long Manchester United fan, travelling over the globe to see the Reds play. Steve has been lucky enough to be at both the 1999 and 2008 Champions League finals, seeing Manchester United lift the biggest trophy in the World, none more exciting than that faithful night in Barcelona in 99. The website is a blog, but also hopes to deliver the latest Manchester United news from around the internet too, linked up with our growing twitter account which is @TheFaithfulMUFC, give it a follow as we will follow you back as soon as we can.


  1. Nice well reasoned article. I agree with your proposals in order of priority for the current 3-5-2 but wonder how we’d fare in a 4-3-3. It would open doors for Welbeck, Adnan, Zaha to play as wide forward players but where would Mata/Kagawa fit in? Looking forward to seeing how Louis goes about it…

  2. That is why he has opted for a 3-5-2 so that he can play his best three players (Mata, Rooney and RVP) in their favoured positions.

    To do so others will most probably get less game time. The one I worry most about is Januzaj as his potential is simply amazing. However I’m pretty sure that LVG will find a way to give him game time.

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