Diamonds, an Ángel, a Belgian, and a Magisterial Dutchman

Manchester United’s 4-0 win over QPR was more than a customary win over a newly promoted side, it was the beginning of a rebirth. The Old Trafford Faithful, after a year of disappointment and hardship, rose to their feet and witnessed a new army, draped in Manchester red, emerge from the tunnel.

The crowd watched on in a sense of amazement that had long been absent from The Theatre of Dreams, as the new recruits, in a new battle formation, reclaimed the fortress and brought hope back to Manchester.

Diamonds

After setting the team up in the 3-5-2 formation throughout pre-season and into the first three games in Premier League, Louis van Gaal opted to field the ‘4-4-2 diamond’ formation. Although the Dutchman claimed he could not play with the 3-5-2 because he did not have enough defenders, it is far more likely that he decided to call time on the three at the back system after the disastrous start, especially considering that there were 7 players in the match-day squad who could play in defense.

Sir Alex experimented with the diamond during his final years at the club, before relinquishing it, however it now seems that it is the best fit for the squad. The formation needs to both suit the players and the system, and the diamond checks both boxes.

As Van Gaal demonstrated at the World Cup, the 3-5-2 compliments a counter-attacking style, as it allows most of the players to get behind the ball, but leaves two forwards high up the pitch ready to forge an attack. It also compliments a slow, cautious style as so many teams in Italy, such as Juventus, have shown. However, the 3-5-2 does not compliment United’s style, which is much more attack-minded.

When deploying the 3-5-2, Van Gaal favors a 5-3-2 defensive shape, which creates a width issue in a system that is already absent of almost all width; the system does not include wingers, so the wing-backs are the sole providers of width, yet it is nearly impossible for them to get up the pitch quickly from a back five.

So, how did the new shape affect the performance against QPR?

The back line looked much more comfortable in a grouping of four, and in my opinion, the ball is circulated much more quickly in a back four because it takes less passes to cover more ground.

In addition, the interchanges in the midfield were much smoother; in the 3-5-2 the two central midfielders looked very flat, and were forced to play the ball sideways to each other too often. Yet, in the diamond, by nature of the shape, more passes are angled passes. This means that it is easier for players to receive the ball on the half turn and advance up the pitch.

Similarly to the 3-5-2, the diamond formation is often bemoaned for its lack of width, but after only a week of training, the Reds covered the breadth of Old Trafford with a surprising amount of competence. The full backs bombed down the flanks, even more so than they did in the 3-5-2 formation, and the midfield diamond moved as one unit across the field. In order for this formation to work, it is imperative that the diamond moves as one as the ball moves from side to side; the midfield did this extremely well, which is a testament to the manager and the players.

In addition, there was an added fluidity to United’s game. The front trio retained the same shape as the previous formation, however they were more involved in the game due to better service, of course, but also better movement. The diamond allows the plethora of versatile and attacking players on the pitch to interchange and rotate positions, which is a nightmare for defenders.

Ironically, after all the debate about a shape and who should play where, it seems the best shape is one that still retains the basic structure, but allows the players the freedom of the pitch.

Diamonds are for Adnan and Ángel

The 4-4-2 diamond is undoubtedly better suited to the philosophy, however it is also better suited to the personnel, and personnel are ultimately the ones who have to carry out the task, not the formation.

One man, Ángel Di María, is particularly suited to the midfield diamond. His performances so far have been nothing short of breathtaking; he’s incisive, fast, spectacularly skillful, and possesses an enviable work-rate. In short, he’s the spark United have been crying out for.

There is some debate as to what Di María’s best position is, out wide or centrally, but the diamond seems to bring out the best of both worlds. As the diamond shifts across the pitch, the two middle players have to play as both central and wide midfielders. This allows Di María to torment full-backs down the flanks one minute and engineer a mouth-watering passing move with Mata and Herrera the next. The diamond derives the best from a player who, if early indicators are anything to go by, may just be the next special number 7 at United.

Another player who should be encouraged by Van Gaal’s latest tactical decision is Adnan Januzaj. The previously unknown Belgian boy wonder announced himself to the world last season, often by single-handedly dragging the deflated team to three points, yet his development seemed to be under threat due to the new formation. It seems unthinkable that Januzaj wont develop into a top player with Louis van Gaal at the helm, given his track record with youth, however his opportunities were severely limited in a 3-5-2.

Following a brief and unsuccessful spell at wing-back, the only logical places for Januzaj to play in the 3-5-2 formation were at striker or in the ‘number 10’ role. Although it seems nothing could hold Januzaj back, having Rooney, Falcao, RVP, and Mata in front of him in the pecking order just may. However, in the diamond formation, due to the presence of a holding midfielder, he can now play in the centre of midfield as well. This prospect seems much more likely than upending four of Manchester United’s best and most experienced players.

Make no mistake, Adnan Januzaj is an asset United cannot afford to marginalize. He has the potential to be the best player in the world. He is just as good as Ronaldo was at his age, and players like that don’t come around once every few years, they appear once every few generations. He is the best homegrown player United have produced since the Class of 92, which was 22 years ago. He must have a pathway into the first team, and after scoring three goals in the U21 game yesterday, he’s certainly banging down the door.

United fans everywhere should breathe a sigh of relief for many reasons because of the latest formational change, but Adnan Januzaj’s development should be paramount in that list of reasons.

Blind Faith

Myself, along with many others, claimed that although United captured the likes of Ángel Di María and Radamel Falcao during the summer transfer window, Daley Blind may just be the most important signing.

A lot can be derived from the way managers speak about their players, and Van Gaal had this to say of his fellow Dutchman, “He is a player who can see situations in advance…He can [therefore] always pass to the free player, and when he doesn’t have the ball, he knows when he has to press the opponent. That’s a very good ability to have”. While his former manager, Frank De Boer, labeled him as a “a really quick thinker”.

Any time managers deliver praise of that nature, its time to take notice. Managers live for the mental side of the game, so when they refer to the intelligence of a player, it’s the highest form of praise they can deliver.

Although he’s only played one game for Manchester United, Blind showed the 76,000 rambunctious fans exactly why he Van Gaal thinks so highly of him; he was nothing short of magisterial.

Blind completed 107 of 112 passes, finishing the game with an impressive 96% pass completion rate. At only 24, he was the hub of Manchester United’s play; almost every pass was accurate, intelligent, and also purposeful. In addition, on the rare occasion that QPR ventured forward, Blind thwarted them with two tackles, two interceptions, and three clearances. It was a holding midfield master class.

Van Gaal’s decision to switch to a diamond was no doubt facilitated by the acquisition of Daley Blind. He is the heartbeat of the diamond; he provides the attacking players with the clever service that allows them to move forward and the security that allows them to torment defenses. Blind is the insurance package, the attacking players can play with the freedom to express themselves because of him; he does not make the diamond work, but he allows it to work.

Hope

Manchester United, in all its diamond studded glory, looks to be back. The new formation and the new signings have reenergized the players and they have reclaimed the swagger that was so often synonymous with Manchester United, the kind of swagger that breeds an entitled determination to be the greatest club in the world. However, the new-look Manchester United has done something that is just as significant, it has returned a sense of hope.

The atmosphere around Old Trafford was likened to the first day of the season, as eager fans gathered around the ground waiting to see new players and a new look. From before the first blast of the whistle, even on the television, the fans were bouncing and bellowing; this video of the United fans singing in full voice at half time about new signing, Radamel Falcao, characterizes this newfound sense of belief better than I ever could with words.

A rebirth has begun.

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