Could Van Gaal Bring the 3-5-2 to United?

There are many unanswered questions surrounding the appointment of Louis Van Gaal – Will Van Persie become captain? Will Ed Woodward sign someone with a decent haircut in this summer transfer window? – One thing, however, is without a shadow of a doubt…United will play attractive football.

Louis Van Gaal lives by his philosophy of entertaining football, and while the philosophy is set in stone, the formation isn’t. In an interview with FIFA Van Gaal said, “I have my own ways, I’m not going to change and I have no desire to. My way is a footballing philosophy more than a system. A system depends on the players – I’ve played 4-3-3 with Ajax, 2-3-2-3 with Barcelona and 4-4-2 with AZ – but a philosophy is for life.” So, which system best suits United?

Due to an injury to the Netherlands’ midfield engine, Kevin Strootman, Van Gaal changed the system from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 (more specifically, a 3-4-1-2). This system has worked to devastating effect so far, as the Oranje have scored eight goals in their opening two games of the World Cup, including five against reigning champions Spain. After the match against Spain, Van Gaal even said that the Netherlands would not have won if they hadn’t changed the system, but would it have the same effect at United?

As he’s shown, Van Gaal will employ the system that best suits the players at his disposal. The case for the 3-5-2 lies in the Rooney/Mata/Van Persie conundrum. So far, United haven’t found a way to get the three best players into the same lineup in positions that suit them, with Mata usually shifted out to the wing. However, in a 3-4-1-2, Rooney and Van Persie could play up front together, with Mata playing in behind them in his favored number ten role. This would create a triangle between three of the best players in the Premier League, which is an extremely exciting proposition.

Yet, for all the problems the 3-5-2 could fix at one end of the pitch, it may cause just as many at the other end. Every formation has strengths and weaknesses; the 3-5-2’s strengths include the numerical advantage it provides in the midfield and up front, while it’s weaknesses include the numerical disadvantage at the back and the possibility of being caught out in wide areas.

Due to this, there is a heavy reliance upon the back three and the two wide midfielders. The absence of a traditional back four means that the three center backs have to be extremely well organized in order to step, shift, and cover without being caught out. It’s also essential that the two wide midfielders provide cover on the flanks, otherwise the defense will almost certainly be carved open. In this system, the wide midfielder is the teams’ sole source of both wide defensive cover and wide attacking support, thus they are instrumental to every phase of play.

If United have aspirations to play this system, they will need at least one world-class center back, as Jonny Evans and Phil Jones are the only current United center backs worthy of a place in the XI. Mats Hummels would be a perfect fit in the heart of the back three. Not only is he a superb defender, but he acts as a playmaker from the back, which is an essential trait of the central player in a back three, who needs to come forward and act as a deep-lying midfielder in the build up phase.

The wide midfielders in this system have to be very well rounded and very intelligent; they need to know when to drop back and form a back five and when to move forward and provide width to the attack, while possessing the quality to do both.

On the right side of the pitch, Antonio Valencia and Rafael could both comfortably fill this role, with the latter the more likely option given that Valencia has been less than impressive in the past two seasons. On the left side however, Patrice Evra is a few years to old to be our first choice in this role, meaning a new signing is required. One of United’s most publicized targets, Luke Shaw, would be perfect for this role. His youth, attacking nature, and speed make him an ideal candidate, regardless of the fact that he’s one of the most promising youngsters in the country.

If United were to strengthen these positions, in addition to the central midfield, which needs rejuvenation regardless of the system, then they could flourish in the 3-5-2. United fans want exciting football, and if Louis Van Gaal’s style of play were to be implemented with only three defenders, it would certainly fit the bill.

However, the 3-5-2 would hamper United in a somewhat unexpected way, youth development. In a 3-5-2, there is no room for wingers; the wide players operate more like wing-backs than out-and-out wingers. The wings have so often been a vital learning ground for young players, as they allow for creative youngsters to make an impact while marginalizing their lack of experience and decision making skills. Placing youngsters out on the wing encourages them to try things – to take the man on or to try an exuberant flick – and when they inevitably loose the ball, at least they’ve lost it in a safe area.

Given his track record with youth, Van Gaal is certain to tap into United’s revered youth system, which would raise doubts over his leaning toward the 3-5-2, especially considering two of our most promising youngsters can play out on the wings. Adnan Januzaj, who is arguably the most promising youngster in the world, and Tom Lawrence are two players who will hope to gain valuable playing time on the wings next season. They can both play in the hole, however opportunities in this position would be limited due to Juan Mata.

I would be very, very surprised if Januzaj doesn’t play a big part under Van Gaal next season, so United may need to look for a formation that accommodates Rooney, Mata, Van Persie, and Januzaj.

The obvious option is to continue playing with the 4-2-3-1, with Mata and Januzaj on the wings, however Mata is underutilized when he plays out wide, so Van Gaal may look to another option.

Van Gaal has a preference for the 4-3-3 and it’s feasible that he could get the most out of the United players in that system. In terms of the midfield trio, Van Gaal always has a deep-lying playmaker, a box-to-box midfielder, and an advanced playmaker; Rooney (box-to-box) and Mata (advanced playmaker) could play in front of a holding midfielder, while Van Persie could play up front and Janujaz could play on the wing. Rooney and Mata both play best when in the hole, and while they would have to drop off slightly in this formation, they would still be playing as fairly attacking midfielders. While it remains to be seen whether a 4-3-3 with both Rooney and Mata in the midfield would work, it certainly seems to tick all the boxes.

What do you think? Should United play a 3-5-2, 4-3-3, or another formation? Leave your thoughts in the comment box below.

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