Manchester United may have lost to one of Jose Mourinho’s classic smash-and-grab strategies, but their form prior to the match against Chelsea was one of the best in the league: winning 6 straight Premier League games, albeit sandwiching an FA Cup Quarter-final loss to Arsenal. That marked their best winning streak this season, the undoubted peak of their campaign so far, headlined by confident, dominant performances over fellow top 4 challengers Tottenham, Liverpool and local rivals Manchester City.
The Red Devils’ upturn in form has coincided with a shift away from the 3-man defence that manager Louis van Gaal initially preferred, towards a flexible 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 formation. The first game that truly had United fans swooning over their team’s stylish display was the 3-0 win over Tottenham featuring a midfield 5 of Michael Carrick, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young, with Wayne Rooney playing as a lone striker. These players kept their places in the starting line-up for the next 4 games – excluding Carrick who was ruled out by another injury in the latest match at Stamford Bridge – indicating van Gaal’s satisfaction with their performances.
How are the likes of Fellaini – once derided his own club’s fans – consistently keeping players such as British record signing Angel di Maria and precocious youngster Adnan Januzaj out of the starting eleven? The easy answer is that the former is enjoying the best form of his United career, while the latter duo have simply failed to perform. Looking closely however, it is clear that van Gaal has done his bit to amplify Fellaini’s rich form, by taking a leaf out of David Moyes’ book – not his woeful Mancurian version, but his more successful Merseyside one.
Fellaini’s most memorable playing period was under Moyes at Everton, where the Scot successfully built his team around the giant Belgian. Tim Cahill’s departure meant that Everton had lost an offensive aerial threat, but Moyes found a replacement in employing Fellaini in a central attacking midfield role. Moyes understood that simply having a target man without assistance was pointless, so he specifically instructed Fellaini to base himself in between and just ahead of the opposition’s right-back and right-centre back. This meant that Fellaini enjoyed healthy support from Everton’s strongest component of their team: the partnership between Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines.
van Gaal has done the same for Fellaini at Manchester United: Ashley Young and Luke Shaw/Daley Blind pick up the knockdowns from their afro-headed teammate who stations himself resolutely towards the left wing. Young and Shaw/Blind have their own effective partnership as well: Young shifts infield dragging his marker out of position as Shaw/Blind races ahead on the overlap to receive the ball and cross, or act as a decoy.
This tactic may seem predictable in an age of inverse wingers, but United’s adaptation is accentuated by the large, looming physical presence of Fellaini. Whereas most teams try to build 2v1 situations out wide, United go one step further by pushing 3 players to the left flank, purposefully creating a triangular overload that has left two of the best right-backs in the league – City’s Pablo Zabaleta and Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic – floundering. Zabaleta was a particular victim of this combination, as Fellaini won the ball aerially off him to start the move for United’s equalizing goal in their 4-2 win.
But that’s not all that Fellaini does. When not laying the ball off to his teammates, his job is to attack the opposition’s penalty area like a striker, which relieves some of the offensive burden off the sole striker, usually Rooney. To exploit his aerial prowess Fellaini relies on crosses into the box – exactly what Young’s main asset is. The English winger whips in an average of 1.5 accurate crosses per game – the second-highest in this category for United this season. The Young-Fellaini combination is best exemplified by the latter heading in the former’s cross for United’s second goal in the same 4-2 victory over City.
The advances from left-back is also a major source of chance creation: Shaw’s searing acceleration from the overload produced United’s best goalscoring opportunity against Chelsea with Rooney driving his shot past the post, and Blind notched an assist for Herrera against Aston Villa through a pull-back from wide left.
Away from the left side of United’s play, van Gaal has been able to slowly welcome his ‘second captain’ Carrick back into the fold after injury, and finally recognizing the value of Herrera to reward him with a regular starting position (much to the delight of United fans). These two players, together with Juan Mata, have also been instrumental in United’s recent resurgence.
Carrick, still a considerably underrated player outside of United, holds the midfield in front of his defence by gliding across the field and recycling possession where necessary. Herrera usually plays as the second midfielder equally competent in distributing the ball with precision, but given more license to advance and probe offensively. Mata completes United’s trio of technical, possession-seeking midfielders in the middle of the pitch, albeit drifting in from a nominal right-sided position. van Gaal is also fortunate that Blind and Herrera are both capable of falling back into the primary holding role, as the latter did against Chelsea due to Carrick’s enforced absence through injury.
While Carrick’s and Herrera’s duties are largely straightforward, it is Mata’s role that deserves greater inspection. The former Chelsea favourite is most natural in a No.10 role, and continues to function almost as a pure playmaker for United. Although initially struggling to impose himself at United, he hit a rich vein of form with 3 goals and an assist in his last 3 games before facing his previous employers. Relative to Carrick and Herrera, Mata is given additional attacking freedom and is responsible for taking bigger risks and making the final pass. Within the United squad, he is ranked third in goals (8), assists (4), and average successful key passes per game (1.4), while topping the internal charts for pass completion rate (89.8%) and average successful through balls per game (0.2).
All the statistics point to Mata being a key player for van Gaal’s team, and in a way, the numbers do not lie. Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that he has yet to firmly nail down his place in the starting XI. He was disappointingly ineffective against Chelsea, a luxury that United cannot afford given his lack of contribution off the ball (that famously convinced Mourinho to sell him to United in the first place). An off-day perhaps, but Mata needs to be more consistent in his attacking, penetrative inputs to justify his place in the side. When he produces, it can be spectacular as seen from his beautiful goal at Anfield where he was the beneficiary of the Spanish connection with Herrera. Watch this space.
Though Carrick’s, Herrera’s and Mata’s abilities on the ball are unquestioned, the trio’s defensive capabilities are much less pronounced with two diminutive Spaniards and a lanky Englishman. However, Herrera alleviates some of these concerns by regularly putting in a hardworking shift when his team are out of possession. The deceptively combative midfielder averages 2.5 tackles per game – the joint runner-up in the United squad on par with Blind – and ranks in the top six United players in terms of average number of interceptions per game (2).
Whether Herrera’s defensive diligence is sufficient to protect his team’s central midfield against the best opponents is a question that has yet to be asked, given the lethargy of City’s display and Chelsea’s willing concession of the initiative against United.
Rather, United’s biggest problem is when Rooney is not played in a central striking position. Without Carrick and Blind against Chelsea, van Gaal’s desire to maintain the scheme of having two ball-playing midfielders in the centre of the pitch meant that Rooney dropped into Herrera’s usual role as the second midfielder. The United captain was surprisingly disciplined in central midfield, clocking a respectable 8 ball recoveries and attempting 6 tackles.
Rooney launched a game-high 25 passes into the attacking third, demonstrating his passing abilities. However, his positioning was still generally too deep and far away from Chelsea’s penalty box to provide any substantial threat, as evidenced by the location of the passes he received.
This problem was further exacerbated by two points: firstly, Mata’s similar lack of incisiveness in the final third; and secondly, Falcao’s failure to be fully involved in the game. The striker received the ball just 27 times – the lowest of all his teammates who started the game.
It is difficult to fault Falcao for a lack of effort: he continued making runs till the final whistle, but was not picked out by the likes of Rooney and Mata. He did have two good chances to open the scoring for his side, but one shot was blocked while the other crashed against the outside of the post. Perhaps they were indications of his waning finishing ability – a sad state in light of Falcao’s previously unrivalled predatory instinct that briefly made him the world’s best No.9. Given Robin van Persie’s similar decline and James Wilson’s lack of experience, Rooney prevails as van Gaal’s best striker – providing verticality to a United side that is susceptible to suffering from a dearth of penetration in central areas.
On a brighter note, van Gaal has done well to develop a system that has made certain areas of his team greater than the sum of their parts. The Fellaini-Young-Shaw/Blind partnership on the left flank, together with the Carrick-Herrera-Mata combination in the middle of the park, are two such examples. van Gaal has been hampered by injuries preventing him from creating any real significant defensive pairing, but as an infrequent United observer, both Chris Smalling and Paddy McNair looked pleasantly comfortable with the ball against Chelsea.
Football has always been about the associations between players within a team, whether the reliability of the central defensive duo or the understanding between the fullback and his winger ahead of him. However, the shift away from playing with two strikers, as well as the celebrity media obsession on the individual, means that there has been much less emphasis on such intangible connections. Still, the very best teams operate around these partnerships that give them an extra competitive edge: Leo Messi’s link-up with Dani Alves on the right flank at Barcelona’s all-conquering peak, Spain’s Sergio Busquets-Xabi Alonso-Xavi midfield triumvirate, or even United’s own Dwight Yorke-Andy Cole striking partnership of ’99 fame.
It is to van Gaal’s credit that he has discovered and kept these associations – they have been one of the fundamental drivers of United’s recent renaissance.