Football has witnesses formations that become fashionable, achieve untold success and then fade away to be replaced by something else that becomes the in-vogue system.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s, 4-4-2 was the way to go. When Manchester United conquered all to claim the treble in 1999, the front two of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke - supplied by wing wizards David Beckham and Ryan Giggs - were unstoppable and the system was implemented across the globe until a few years ago.
That was when Barcelona introduced their own brand of ‘tika-taka’ football with a 4-3-3, introducing the dawn of the so-called ‘false nine'. That became the way to go, with the potential to turn it into a 4-5-1 when out of possession.
At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, there was one formation that made a return - the three central-defenders and two wing-backs system. Nobody deployed it better than Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands, with this 5-3-2 allowing an unfancied Dutch side to claim third place Upon his arrival as Manchester United manager, Van Gaal has adopted the same system.
In pre-season it was an unprecedented success. United dispatched LA Galaxy and beat Roma, Inter Milan, Liverpool and European Champions Real Madrid in the USA. However, against English teams and the fast-paced, high tempo nature of English football it is proving to be a huge mistake by the vastly experienced Dutchman.
Not suited for the Premier League
Defensively, while the defenders look uncomfortable at times, it has not been a complete disaster. However, what the system has done is nullify any attacking threat that United can pose – reducing the team to sideways passes and long, hopeful punts forward.
On paper, it looks to be a brilliant attacking formation. It allows Van Gaal to get Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and new British-record signing Angel Di Maria in the same side.
However, with the lack of wingers, the play becomes so narrow it is very easy to defend against. Traditionally, United are a side who have thrived on threatening from wide areas, with attacking full-backs supplementing the wingers.
Against Burnley on Saturday, Van Gaal picked Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young as the two wing-backs. Neither was able to get forward with any great threat, as both produced wasteful crosses and were doubled up against as they become isolated on the wing.
Therefore all of United’s attacking moves have to come through the centre, making it so easy for the opposition to close the space and repel all United attacks.
Van Gaal arrogance?
Van Gaal is adamant the system will work. This is naïve and potentially arrogant. He is underestimating the pace and the high-pressured nature of the Premier League. The central midfielders will not get the time on the ball they need in order for this formation to work. Added to that the severe lack of quality of United’s central midfielders, it is a major problem for the Dutchman to solve.
The solution is to ditch the system. It may have been the fashion at the World Cup and it may have worked well there, but itt will not work in England. United have to move to a four-man defence, with two genuine wingers aided by two forward thinking full-backs. It is the way Sir Alex Ferguson played and he didn’t do a bad job.
If Van Gaal sticks beligerantly to this formation, United will struggle to win any games this season. Two points from a possible opening nine is pathetic. Add to that they have played Swansea, Sunderland and Burnley and it becomes a sorry tale. When United come up against top six teams you fear for what may happen.