No belief, no shape, no clue - five reasons Manchester United are not creating goalscoring chances under van Gaal
Manchester United are producing an average of only 5.7 chances per game this season. They are 11th in the Premier League statistics table for number of shots at goal per game.
They are astonishing statistics when you consider that arguably the best playmaker in European football last season, Angel Di Maria, as well as one of the world’s best strikers in Radamel Falcao were added to an attacking squad last summer that already consisted of Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata among others.
Why, with so much individual brilliance, are United looking lacklustre in the final third of the pitch? There are five very obvious reasons.
1) Lack of mental belief.
While United have a bit more belief under Louis van Gaal late in games than they had under predecessor David Moyes, the Red Devils are still lacking in confidence for most of the 90-minutes in games.
Only when they throw the kitchen sink at teams - and when they go route one - do they appear dangerous in tight clashes. And let’s be honest, most games in the Premier League are tight.
There is a huge lack of fluidity in United’s passing game and this is down to a lack of belief. The players are not cohesive. This is not because they are not good enough individually, it is because they are lacking belief in their teammates’ movements. How many times does Di Maria pick up the ball in midfield only to look uncertain where to run to or who to pass to?
The United players don’t appear to be in the same place mentally. It is a huge issue for Louis van Gaal to get this team believing in themselves throughout the 90-minutes.
Van Gaal doesn’t fully believe in playing a system of 4-4-2. He would prefer to play 3-5-2 which gives his team more control in the middle of the park. However, due to poor results while deploying the latter, and possibly a barrage of support for the former from United fans, has meant the Dutchman has settled for a formation of a flat back four, a diamond in midfield and two up top.
If I can sense that the United manager isn’t comfortable with this shape, then so too can his players. This is contributing to their lack of confidence on the ball. But the shape simply doesn’t suit this group of players.
Van Gaal has played 4-3-3 as a manager for all of his career up until last summer’s World Cup. Surely that system would fit this squad of players. It is baffling that he isn’t using it. With Carrick and Blind holding in midfield in front of a flat back four, Rooney could play behind Van Persie up front with Van Gaal being able to chose between Di Maria, Januzaj, Mata, Falcao and Wilson to flank either side of the lone striker. The tinkering of systems so far has not helped United find consistency, but I feel it needs to change again. United do not look fluid in the 4-4-2 they deployed against West Ham and it is largely contributing to their lack of chances from open play.
3) Lack of width
United are famed for playing with two traditional wide men on either side. They roared to success in the 90s and 00s with the likes of Giggs, Kanchelskis, Beckham and Ronaldo, among others, hugging the touchline and stretching the game.
Under Van Gaal, this season, they are totally lacking in width, except for that offered by attacking full-backs. But when Luke Shaw or Antonio Valencia find themselves running in to space in an attacking sense, they are there alone. They have no support ahead of the them and that is why a high percentage of United’s attacks down the flanks end up with the ball being played backwards.
Very rarely do we see United getting to the touchline and in to dangerous positions. The diamond formation means United are playing way too narrow and creative players from midfield, such as Di Maria and Rooney are hounded out by an over-crowded midfield and they aren’t able to produce the types of creative play we know they are capable of producing.
The fact that there is rarely a wide option for these players means that they are turning backwards to keep possession or else they are running in to a wall of opposing players.
4) No penetration up front
Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao have proven to be two of the best strikers in world football over the past few years. But why are they not able to form a great partnership?
Well, the truth is they both like to play with their backs to goal and very rarely are they the type of players who pull defenders away from their natural position in the centre of defence.
They are players who like to receive the ball in to their bodies, not players who like to make darting runs in between defenders and who get on to the ball by running on to through passes. They are therefore not a good partnership.
Their lack of off-the-ball movement means the creative midfield players behind them have few options when in possession.
James Wilson may be young and far from the finished article, but his natural game is to pull defenders away from their comfortable position and to do a lot of his work off-the-ball. If Van Gaal is to continue with this narrow formation of 4-4-2, then Wilson has to play if creating chances are to improve.
He may not be as good a player as either Falcao or Van Persie on paper, but United need penetration up top and Wilson is the only player in the squad who can provide that, unless Rooney is switched back to a more advanced position, which brings us on to point No.5.
5) Players playing out of position
For years it has been debated that Wayne Rooney could become a world class midfielder. ‘The next Paul Scholes’ screamed some pundits due to the Englishman’s range of passing. But the truth is Wayne Rooney remains one of the most deadly forward players in European football and he must be deployed in the final third of the pitch to have the sort of impact on the game that we all know he is capable of.
He is not the only one playing out of position. Di Maria has now played up front, wide left of the diamond, wide right of the diamond and at the top of the diamond for Van Gaal. We all know that Di Maria is one of the best No.10s in the game, why can’t he play there more often? He’s also been a great wide forward for Real Madrid on occasions, but Van Gaal doesn’t play with a wide forward for some reason and it’s looking likely we may not get to see the very best of the Argentine in the Premier League unless he is used in his favoured areas of the pitch.
Adnan Januzaj is another player who isn’t fulfilling his true potential due to being played out of position. Again, the Belgian wonderkid is either a natural No.10 or a wide forward, yet he’s being deployed on the left of a midfield diamond, giving him as much defensive responsibility as attacking responsibility. He is much more influential facing the opposition’s goal.
United appear steady at the back, despite a mountainous injury crisis so far this season. It makes sense to deploy Michael Carrick and/or Daley Blind as guarders of the back four in midfield, while Van Gaal must play Di Maria, Januzaj, Mata, Rooney, Herrera and Fellaini ahead of them in their more natural positions if he is to get the best out of them. That may read as easier written than done, but Van Gaal needs to decide on a formation that best suits the individuals available to him. They are not creating enough chances in games due to players not being confident enough on the ball and they are not confident enough on the ball because they are being played in uncomfortable positions.