For the first time in what feels like forever, but in reality is since the 2007-08 season, Manchester United have a vast and varied array of midfield talent. In that wonderful season in which United secured the European Cup and Premier League, they had a squad of central midfielders that included Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher, all offering something slightly different.
Though a valid argument can be made as to if the quality of the midfield selection of then vs now is better, what cannot be argued is the quality of the variation. This current crop of midfielders contains a big bruising powerhouse in Marouane Fellaini; nifty, fleet footed players like Juan Mata and Ander Herrera, the latter of which can incidentally do the dirty work too in a box-to-box fashion; another capable of the box-to-box role is Bastian Schweinsteiger, who many falsely believe has lost his pace; a combative tackler in Morgan Schneiderlin; and two supremely intelligent passers and closers of defensive spaces in Michael Carrick and Daley Blind.
This squad literally has all of the midfield horses for all of the courses.
With no less than 7 players to choose from, Louis van Gaal has the unenviable task of finding the right chemistry and balance on any given match day. In spite of this, he doesn’t have to necessarily upset many of his star players. Blind will likely spend much of his playing time in defence and Juan Mata will likely play in the forward line, as van Gaal has suggested that he will employ a 4-3-3 formation this season.
But what does this actually mean?
It’s not really that complicated to explain once one fundamental issue is addressed, and that is the way we as football fans think about formations. Formations are not the rigid things they were in a bygone era, where certain players are caged into certain areas of a football field. Formations are simply a base from which an overall system is employed. It means that a defensive midfielder will not only play in that rectangular area in front of the two centre backs, but he can also fulfil an individualised instruction to charge forward when the winger has the ball, or to drop deeper when a centre back is on a marauding run. Once people accept that the days of fixed positions are long gone, van Gaal’s 4-3-3 can be addressed, and who better to explain it than the man himself? In a 2009 interview with Pedro Daniel Sousa, Louis van Gaal explained his preference for the 4-3-3 because of the multiple triangles on the pitch, and therefore always giving the man in possession two passing options.
“you have always two options (…) in the middle it’s always more (…) so that’s why 4-3-3, in my opinion, is the best system and you can play with a defensively player or an offensive player [in the midfield triangle] it’s dependable of the quality of your players.”
Effectively, the base from which he likes to work from can look like either one of the two figures [see picture above], with a offensive midfielder (the number 10) on the left, and with a defensive midfielder (the number 6) on the right.
[See picture above] To the eye, the formation on the left looks like a 4-2-3-1 (much like we have seen on this summer’s tour), and the one on the right looks like a 4-1-4-1 (what we saw towards the end of last season). What van Gaal explains is that they are essentially the same.
If the midfield 3 was to be made of Schweinstiger, Schneiderlin and Mata it is logical that what would appear is the formation on the left. If the midfield three was to be made up of Schweinstiger, Schneiderlin and Carrick it is logical that the formation on the right would come to the fore.
Essentially, the key point here is that the players chosen dictate the “formation” rather than the formation dictating who the players are. Furthermore, the players are chosen to employ or carry out a chosen “system” that is decided upon before the game.
Here are a couple of examples that may help clarify things:
Playing against Bournemouth – a significantly less talented team than United but a ball playing team – at Old Trafford, one might expect a system to be employed with the intention of outpassing the opponent. As a result a midfield three of Schweinstiger, Herrera and Memphis could be selected, and this would logically lead to the formation on the left with Memphis as the number 10.
Playing against Stoke City – a team that plays with a physical, long ball style – away from home, one might expect a system capable of combating the opponents physical attributes, but also capable of outplaying them when on the offensive. As a result a midfield three of Fellaini, Carrick and Schneiderlin could be selected, logically leading to a formation similar to one on the right.
This is where it gets interesting however.
In his last press conference of the summer tour, Louis van Gaal was asked a couple of interesting questions from Eddie Umana from Beyond the Pitch (@EddieTrulyReds). The first of these read:
“How would you explain the zonal man-marking scheme that you used against PSG? At times the centre mids were ahead of the striker.”
Probably initially shocked to have been asked a coherent and interesting question for a change, van Gaal then responded:
“That midfielder is in front of the striker, it’s not bad. Because I think you do need variation in your attack. That I like. That I ask also especially of Memphis but it can be also once for a while Carrick or Schweinsteiger or Schneiderlin but mostly Depay.”
This is interesting because it goes to show that although individuals may have certain attributes, there is a definite and intentional flexibility in how van Gaal sees his midfield trio (whoever they may be) working.
Basically the midfield could end up looking like any number of systems within the space of a few minutes, with the “obvious” role being switched up from time to time to add an element of surprise. Instead of Fellaini going to the back post it could be Mata; and as mentioned instead of Memphis going long, it could be Carrick. The combinations are mouth watering to say the least.
Want to go long? Two passers (Carrick and Schweinsteiger) and Fellaini.
Want to play neat? Herrera, Mata, Depay.
In need of energy? Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin, Herrera.
Want to keep possession? Schweinsteiger, Carrick and Herrera.
Want to protect the defence? Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin, Carrick.
Whatever midfield system van Gaal wishes to employ he can do it. The trick now is for him to pick the right one!
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