Van Gaal said on Friday: ”It is not a question of playing with or without wingers or three or four defenders, it is playing a style which is attractive,” but you can turn this on its head. He’s right in that it doesn’t matter how you set up if the approach play is as predictable and slow as what is on offer at the moment. United won’t look attractive and won’t break teams down at this tempo.
Part of the problem is that Van Gaal is intent on fitting as many of his flair players into a system as possible. The original 3-5-2 was seemingly deployed to harness greater strength through the middle and this 4-4-2 diamond is barely any different.
Van Gaal has decided Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie can work together when it is becoming more apparent that they can’t. They are too similar. There is no movement in behind defenders, a lack of pace off the mark, while confidence is eking out of them by the game. Even worse, while the Dutchman has publicly endorsed James Wilson because he gives the team pace in the channels and an option behind the defence, the youngster is not used.
The midfield is no better. At times the gap between defence and attack was so huge you could have driven a London bus through it. Wayne Rooney is a fantastic footballer, capable of slotting into midfield, but Van Gaal is asking too much of him to run the whole show. With Blind naturally slotting back in between Phil Jones, and Marcos Rojo and Angel di Maria given the freedom to float around in the final third, Rooney was often left utterly isolated; you felt for him.
Despite this clear imbalance, Van Gaal bizarrely asked reporters why there was no-one in a white shirt collecting the second balls when United won the initial headers from West Ham’s high deliveries.
Time will tell but his philosophy is becoming lost and his team’s direction is unclear. He has previously spoken of indulging tactically intelligent players and, while the likes of Blind and Rooney are trusted, one wonders just how low Ander Herrera’s IQ must be for him to remain benched.
Van Gaal maintained it was his decision to switch from a 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 but the timing – mid-game at QPR with the away following chanting ‘attack attack attack’ – raises doubts. His reputation as an authoritarian also suggests he wouldn’t be persuaded by a few thousand noisy Mancunians, yet he hasn’t returned to 3-5-2 since.
The United boss is big on control; he felt his side lost confidence in their passing at Upton Park and they were outplayed in large spells by Allardyce’s West Ham. A return to 3-5-2 provides a platform to get his two best midfield conductors in the side – Juan Mata and Herrera – alongside Blind.
It might not be the answer but it is painfully obvious that the Rooney experiment is a waste, while distinction must be made between Falcao and Van Persie if United are to find cohesion and balance. That is the only way they can live up to the billing Van Gaal gave them on Friday.