It was far from a flawless win, but Louis van Gaal was typically assured enough to pick flaws in some of the criticism. Manchester United had toiled against QPR, only for another switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 to transform the score from 0-0 to 2-0.
“All the questions from the television were about the change,” Van Gaal stated, before switching focus. “The main thing is we played in the first half like QPR wanted us to.”
In other words, United didn’t pose much of a threat. There wasn’t much spark or drive. It has become the one big curiosity of Van Gaal’s debut campaign at Old Trafford, and probably the defining debate of their season. United have won enough games to put them in the top four, but the level of performance has so rarely matched the position. There have only been a handful of genuinely convincing displays, and the 3-0 victory over Hull City was arguably the only match in which that could be said of the entirety of the 90 minutes.
United have been conspicuously flat, and occasionally downright fortunate, instead of dominant and commanding as their position denotes. It does seem, however, that this one big issue may boil down to one aspect of their play; or, rather, that one aspect is being repeated over and over again: pedestrian possession.
In this regard, Van Gaal is somewhat right. It isn’t quite about the formation, which is partially a cipher. Although 3-5-2 obviously conditions where players are and how they move, the problem hasn’t always been the positioning. It has been the passing from those positions, and the consequent passiveness to their play. They so often go backwards and sideways, rather than trying to drive through.
According to WhoScored, United play by far the lowest proportion of forward passes in the Premier League, at just 29.4 percent. The next lowest is Manchester City, at 33.7 percent, which is close to the general average for top teams.
Opta put United first in the division for sideways passes in their own half, at 3,268, and second for backward passes in their own half, at 1,227 — behind only Swansea City. It all points to a side often more concerned with merely maintaining possession rather than actually making things happen.
This is not a new complaint with Van Gaal, and it hasn’t happened just with 3-5-2.
Back in 1995, when his brilliant Ajax side were at their peak, club legend Sjaak Swart wasn’t so enamoured. He noticed that his two successors on the wing — Finidi George and Marc Overmars — always seemed to play the ball back any time they were confronted by two defenders, as if it were a conditioned response.
“I never gave the ball back to my defence, never!” Swart told author and journalist David Winner. “It’s unbelievable! But that was the system with Van Gaal. Many games you are sleeping! On television, they say ‘Ajax 70 percent ball possession.’ So what? It’s not football. The creativity is gone.”
Paul Breitner’s comments on Van Gaal in Marti Perarnau’s book “Pep Confidential” weren’t so derisive, but they did go in a similar direction. The Bayern official was talking about how they sought to transform the club’s philosophy, and correctly selected Van Gaal to lay the foundation.
“Happily, it was the right [decision] because he completely transformed our football,” Breitner said. “We swapped Bayern’s traditional style for this high-possession game but there was still no flexibility in terms of players’ positions and everyone had to stick rigidly to his own area.
“In some matches, we ended up with 80 percent possession, but there was no real rhythm or pace. After half an hour, everyone in the Allianz Arena would be yawning at this display of constant passing. Our game was well executed but very, very predictable … the basic idea was sound. What we lacked was speed and regular changes of rhythm.”
That is precisely what Van Gaal’s current side are missing, but not all they are missing.
While United remain anxious about just getting back to the Champions League, Van Gaal’s Bayern reached the final in 2010, while his Ajax won it in 1995. So the only problem anyone could really have with those teams was superficial, to do with style. It was the end point, a quibble, and one that arose despite Bayern prolifically scoring and Ajax surgically cutting teams apart.
At United, by contrast, it’s as if the prosaic nature of the football is creating a deeper problem, which is rather different. It may be preventing them driving forward.
After all, they have not replicated the attacking surges of that Bayern or the clinical control of Ajax.
That level of restraint may be down to more than Van Gaal’s insistence on 3-5-2, or anything to do with philosophy, though. It may simply be down to security.
United sources say the only defender Van Gaal currently has full faith in is Marcos Rojo. While that is not to say he has written off the rest, the manager apparently feels many still need to develop considerably before his side can be that bit braver, before potential reward outweighs the cost in risking loss of possession.
In that regard, the calamitous 5-3 defeat at Leicester City hardly helped, and probably conditioned much of the current constraint. United finally seemed to be feeling the benefit of big-money signings in that game, and were exhilaratingly free-wheeling — up until the wheels came off.
Since then, they’ve been so much more reserved. It does make a certain sense that, if Van Gaal isn’t fully confident in his defenders to withstand attacks, he will be much less willing to take risks. So it’s possible the manager won’t allow more of the Bayern/Ajax assurance until he has more of his own men, the likes of Kevin Strootman, to anchor things. Then the rest of the side may be released.
It does represent something of a crux, of a genuine catch-22, rather than any conundrum over 3-5-2.
At the same time, the wonder is whether Van Gaal has gone too far. Rio Ferdinand’s comments on the whole principle of passing at a club like United were telling.
“At first I made the mistake of playing cautiously, making sure I didn’t make a mistake,” he said in his autobiography. “In training one time, I passed an easy square ball to Gary Neville and Roy Keane just ripped into me. He said: ‘Listen, stop f—ing playing safe, play the ball forward; you’re not at f—ing West Ham or Leeds now.’ … He was right: we were there to win, not coast. You’ve got to take risks if you’re going to win.”
And potentially finish top four.