Why Manchester United need an alternative to 3-5-2

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With a promising pre season of playing 3-5-2 seeming like a distant memory for Manchester Untied fans and new recruits proving difficult to come by it seems like there is a big decision to be made by Louis Van Gaal. Should be persevere with the formation he has chosen to start with or look for a new one to mould his under-performing stars in to a team capable of earning Champions League qualification with a top-four finish?

Below are some of the options available for the Dutchman to consider for this weekend’s match with Sunderland, with an injury crisis surely forcing the veteran tactician to mull over a change in tactics similar to half-time of last weekend's 2-1 defeat to Swansea City.


The classic mastermind phrase, ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ springs to mind. Van Gaal has spent almost the entirety of pre-season as well as the majority of the Dutch teams World Cup campaign playing this formation and to abandon it now would be a severe setback considering his original claims that it was the best formation for the players he had at his disposal.

It certainly has its advantages in that it allows, when fit, Wayne Rooney, Robin
Van Persie and Juan Mata to play in their best positions. However United lack cover in key areas for this formation to last the season, particularly defensively. They only have three senior centre backs in the squad, all of which are prone to injury, especially the best of them, Johnny Evans.

Furthermore none of Evans, Jones or Smalling would be considered anywhere near world-class and lack leadership qualities, something badly missing from a defence now missing
the three previous captains in Nemaja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra. 

Injuries to Luke Shaw and Rafael also keeping the pair sidelined, United are currently without proper defenders in the wing back areas; a problem which may be addressed with the
arrival of Marcos Rojo from Sporting Lisbon. So while the 3-5-2 theoretically gets the best out of United’s attacking talents it seems to leave them in disarray in all other areas of the pitch.


United’s default formation for many years, the 4-4-2 has gone out of fashion due to teams playing with three-man midfields, often overrunning their counterparts in the former formation.

Again it would allow both Rooney and Van Persie to play in their best positions, close to goal, whilst also giving them licence to drop a bit deeper.

It would also be beneficial to the defence for, the majority of which have played their entire careers in a flat back four and who currently seem to be struggling with the switch to three central defenders.

The issue with Louis Van Gaal using this formation comes with his midfield selection. United currently lack the quality in the wide positions, Adnan Januzaj aside, to justify playing a 4-4-2. Nani has returned to Lisbon as part of the Rojo deal and both Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young performed well below the standards of a United winger last season.

The likes of Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata can play out wide but neither have the pace to run beyond the full backs nor the defensive discipline to track back when required, leaving their own defence overrun. Furthermore the paucity of the current squad’s central midfield options would suggest that allowing opposition to have the same number of central midfielders on the pitch would be an unwise decision, let alone letting them have an extra one.


Van Gaals preferred formation until he stumbled across the 3-5-2 following Kevin Strootman’s injury which ruled him out of the Dutch World Cup squad. Again it offers the safety and comfort of a back four to the current United defenders as well as shoring up the midfield with three out and out central midfielders, although cover for these positions would be required before the close of the transfer window.

The issue would appear to be further forward; who plays as part of the three man attack? If Angel Di Maria were to complete a move to Old Trafford from Real Madrid, for what would be record transfer fee for United, he would certainly be expected to claim one of the wide attacking roles. Januzaj could also lay claim to one of these spots as his dribbling skills and pace make him a perfect fit.

That leaves just one central attacking space to squeeze in either Rooney or Van Persie. They are undoubtedly United’s two most potent attacking players; would you really want one of them
sitting on the bench? Of course Rooney has played as a wide player of a front three before for United but it is not his preferred position. The question would be is Van Gaal willing to play his captain out of position to accommodate his fellow countryman?

4-1-2-1-2 (Midfield Diamond)

Last season Liverpool used the midfield diamond to great effect with Steven Gerrard spraying passes from deep and either Raheem Sterling or Philippe Coutinho driving at the heart of the defence from the tip of the ‘diamond’.

In theory this formation should suit United down to the ground. Again it allows for a flat back four as well as two out and out strikers. Furthermore Rooney and Van Persie both like to move around instead of playing like typical target men; much like Luis Suarez and Sterling did for Liverpool.

The narrow diamond also negates the need for out and out wide men, meaning Van Gaal wouldn’t have to worry about his out-of-sorts wingers. The issue for me would be the number ten role, currently belonging to Juan Mata, at the tip of the midfield diamond. The reason it worked so well for Liverpool was that they had players, in particular Sterling, running at pace from deep, exploiting the spaces left by Sturridge and Suarez’s penchant for roaming across the attacking line. To enjoy the full benefits of this formation the Spaniard may have to make way for the faster and more direct Januzaj.

Another issue I see is United’s inability to embrace the pressing game. Over the past few seasons we have seen a number of teams use it to great effect, most notably Liverpool last season. Their incessant pressing squeezed the life out of many teams in the first 20/25 minutes of matches. The most impressive example, of course, being their 5-1 demolition of
Arsenal. If United wish to try the Midfield diamond they need to press.

So there are the options for Van Gaal. None of them are without their flaws but one of them must represent the blueprint for his team and the style of play they want to execute this season. Of course the man Paul Scholes called a ‘mad genius’ could surprise us all with a completely new formation against Sunderland. One thing that we can be certain of is that
United require at least two more quality players to make any of these formations work to their potential.

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Manchester United
Louis van Gaal
Premier League

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