How Louis van Gaal found a way to entertain Man United... and maybe keep his job
Only Tottenham have conceded fewer goals than Manchester United in the Premier League this season. Two points off a Champions League place and one game against Everton away from an FA Cup final - in their last six matches, United have won five and kept four clean sheets. Why isn't anyone impressed?
The big clubs have discovered this season that just because they're used to success does not mean they possess a divine right to it every season. Louis Van Gaal has had to manage a lot of criticism during his time at Old Trafford and now, with most of his players available, looks to have tweaked his rigid system to try and give those discontented home supporters their money’s worth.
“Attack, attack, attack!” they have yelled and against Crystal Palace, Van Gaal’s team did just that. Is it too little too late?
A return to attacking football
Van Gaal ditched the rigid 4-2-3-1 formation that has made United so predictable for the game against Crystal Palace and instead employed a system which allowed Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Wayne Rooney to play in the same team.
Man Utd's starting XI vs Crystal Palace
The effect on the side's ability to attack was immediate. Gone were the two holding midfielder players and in their place the lonely Morgan Schneiderlin, who operated at the base of the midfield, shielding the defence and allowing Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata to focus on attacking play.
Mata’s quick passing and ability to keep the ball under pressure makes him suit a central midfield role and although he's not Xavi, he is brilliant at linking play. Look at the transformation in Santi Cazorla after Arsene Wenger moved him to central midfield for proof that it can work when a number 10 is played deeper.
With Martial and Lingard flying down the wings, Rashford’s movement and power upfront and the front five’s ability to switch position with each other, all of a sudden United were difficult to read and - dare I say it - attacked like Manchester United in the good old days. Do you remember those good old days?
In the first 20 minutes of the game, one swift transition from defence to attack nearly resulted in a goal.
Lingard brings the ball into the opposition half and Mata spots the chance to burst forward.
Rather than push up as high as they can, every United player sits a bit further back during this attack. They have space to run into rather than standing motionless and taking the pace out of the forward passing, which in turn means Palace defenders have to come out of position to close them down. The defence stand off the forwards and Rashford plays a superb pass out left to Martial, who drives towards the box. Palace are all over the place.
Martial could back-heel here and play Mata in on the left, or he could pass to Lingard's near post run, or he could try and find Rashford with one of his darting runs from the edge of the area.
Instead, he shoots and Julian Speroni saves but the whole move takes under 15 seconds and United are completely in control of the ball rather than having to chase it and force mistakes.
This is the kind of counter-attack we've not really seen from Van Gaal's team this season. Had he lined up his team like normal, it would have looked like this (assuming Mata is still in the XI and not replaced by Carrick):
When in a 4-2-3-1, the team has often split into two, with the front four completely separate to the back six, making attacks - and goals - hard to come by. Slow build-up play from the back has given defending teams the chance to organise and nullify any threat before United even get over the half-way line. Boring football.
With Rooney and Mata in the midfield, suddenly there are two players capable of bringing the ball forward from deep, instead of the front four being expected to conjure magic in a packed final third.
Almost the same thing happened after another Palace attack was broken up. Rooney carries the ball from defence in this example.
Somehow he manages to run a full 60 yards without anyone getting close to him as the Palace defence gets into position and the midfielders sort of give up chasing.
Meanwhile, the forwards have all lined up like some sort of footballing R.A.F and again attack from deep, with only Rashford getting tight to a defender. Rooney spots the run and plays him in.
Rashford gets into the box and shoots from a tight angle, winning a corner. The point is that this is actually quite entertaining to watch and behind this attack sits Schneiderlin protecting a defence which has pushed up to the halfway line to control possession, should Palace clear the ball away.
Wayne Rooney the midfielder
The key to the whole thing is actually Wayne Rooney. His relocation to midfield may have been forced by the emergence of the superb Marcus Rashford but it's welcome. Rooney is far more disciplined than he was his youth, both in terms of getting angry on the pitch and his defensive awareness.
Van Gaal's philosophy says that the real playmaker in the team is the centre-back, which is why he persists with Daley Blind in that position. Blind's father Danny performed the same role in that European Cup winning Ajax team and his limitations in aerial battles or deficiencies in positioning are ignored for his passing ability.
Here Rooney can move up the pitch as Blind brings the ball forward.
Young Wayne Rooney would race into the space where the referee is. 30-years-old Rooney checks his run once he sees Martial has the same idea. Whatever negatives things you say about Wayne Rooney, his ability to read the game is matched by few players in the world.
As Rooney moves back to cover Blind's position, the Dutchman has the opportunity to break the lines of midfield and defence with one pass. He takes four players out of the game with this ball.
Mata controls and plays in Martial as he runs from deep, eventually getting to the box and forcing a decent save from Speroni again. He had options to pass too.
Essentially, this was football worth watching. Crystal Palace were awful and Everton don't look great at the moment - will Van Gaal opt for a sturdy, defensive team or this forward-thinking counter-attack system?
A major problem for the manager has been having the option of fielding a team of recognised first team players who aren't carrying injuries. Unfit players can't do the same amount of running as a team like Spurs and so instead of closing down all over the pitch - something which requires real organisation and planning and which you can't get with a makeshift team every week - United have been told to patiently build up play. Safety first.
The result of this? Lots of moaning. Goals make everyone happy and there just haven't been enough of them this season. Sir Alex Ferguson teams routinely scored over 80 league goals a season - with four games left it doesn't look like Van Gaal's side will match last season's tally of 62, being stuck on 42 as they currently are.
However, as dreadful as Crystal Palace were - and that's being kind - against United, the match seemed to be an indication of Van Gaal's much maligned "philosophy" being real, entertaining and actually working. Contrary to trending belief, Van Gaal enjoys to attack.