Is it time for Manchester United to scrap the pretty football?

Manchester United’s start under Louis van Gaal has been less than ideal. Their play has shown signs of promise, however they are still struggling to find their feet under the new manager. Somewhat fortuitously, they find themselves only one point outside of the top 4, but with Chelsea and Manchester City looming, the Dutchman must provide a solution to United’s inconsistency.

The indifferent start to the Premier League season shouldn’t alarm the fans as much as it should reinforce what they already knew—Louis van Gaal is one of the most decorated managers in football history, but like any other, he needs time—Van Gaal is not a ‘quick fix’ manager, he builds clubs, not teams; this is epitomized in the fact that he has handed eight youth graduates their debuts within three months.

However, while Manchester United are in good hands and showing promise in spurts, there’s no room for promise in the next two games. It’s time to scrap the pretty football, the philosophy, and the idealism; it’s time to be pragmatic.

If Manchester United win the next two games they will be 7 points off Chelsea and 3 points off Manchester City, yet if they loose these games they will be 13 points off Chelsea and 8 points off City. The next two games determine whether or not the title is within United’s grasp.

Thus far, Louis van Gaal has implemented a very clear blueprint—which, in admittedly oversimplified terms, is attacking possession football—which he has not differed from it thus far. In terms of a manager’s preference for possession versus penetration, Van Gaal is somewhere in between Pep Guardiola and Alex Ferguson. However, if he wishes to win the next two games, he must venture to the other end of the spectrum, closer to Jose Mourinho.

Although it isn’t his preference, Van Gaal is no stranger to a more cautious and direct breed of football, as he showed at the World Cup.

Both Chelsea and Manchester City will test Van Gaal’s outfit with the kind of swift and incisive football that strikes fear into the hearts of even the most experienced defences, never mind United’s questionable back four. A change in approach is needed if Manchester United are to avoid an embarrassment.

Louis van Gaal has bemoaned the lack of ‘balance’ United have exhibited; this essentially means that too many players are going forward, leaving the defence unprotected. In order to combat Chelsea and City, this balance, or more specifically, cover, is vital.

As well as the pace of their football, the pace of Chelsea’s and City’s players is unrivaled; players like Willian, Hazard, and Aguero will exploit any space left in behind the United back four. Thus, Van Gaal must take a page out of Mourinho’s book and set the team up in a deeper defensive shape, so as to limit the space in behind the defenders.

If United hope to get anything out of these next two games they must play more like Chelsea than United. The back four is too weak to combat the attacking force it will encounter, meaning that United must provide them with plenty of protection.

When in possession, United will also have to alter their game. While City press much higher up the pitch than Chelsea, both teams counter-attack with a frightening ferocity once they win the ball back. United’s current possession orientated system plays directly into their hands.

Counter-attacks thrive on mistakes; the more mistakes a team makes, the more opportunities the opposition has to counter-attack. Furthermore, the more passes a team makes, the greater the likelihood they’ll make a mistake. Pair this with United’s tendency to throw too many players forward and it begins to look as though the game is over before it begins.

United must abandon the possession and the artistry, and embrace the gritty side of football.

Direct football allows teams to move the ball forward to the attacking personnel very quickly, while allowing the more defensive-minded players to stay back. In other words, if a team can feed the attacking players quickly enough, before the opposition reorganize and track back, then they do not need the more defensive-minded players to commit themselves forward to gain a numerical advantage.

For example, if United win the ball back and immediately hit a diagonal ball out to the winger, the opposition may only have three players back, meaning the two wingers and the striker can forge a 3 v 3 counter attack. In turn, if United loose the ball, they still have 7 players behind it. Inversely, if the opposition has 9 men behind the ball, a team would have to commit much more players forward in order to create chances.

Pairing the defensive and the attacking natures of this tactic together creates a very ‘Mourinho-esque’ mentality; sit deep and hit them on the counter. It’s allows United to unleash the plethora of attacking talent on Chelsea and City defences, while protecting their own.

The Chelsea game will prove the most difficult test because they only need a draw; they will be content with sitting deep, and the harder United push, the more dangerous Chelsea’s counter-attacks become, as Liverpool demonstrated last season.

If United sit deeper, it will not only provide protection to their back line, but it will force Chelsea out of their shell. The deeper United sit, the further Chelsea have to venture from their own goal, leaving more space in behind their defenders.

Of course, the danger is that Chelsea, as they only need a draw, will not come out of their shell. This would create a tense and tight affair that would very much limit United’s scoring chances. However, United have players, such as Ángel Di María, who can produce a magical moment, even with 10 men behind the ball. United have a much better chance of winning in this manner than they do if they open themselves up to Jose Mourino’s men.

In terms of the Manchester City game, the deep press will nullify City’s quick passing game and surround their attacking players. Furthermore, if United couple this with a fast and direct passing game then it will provide United’s own attacking players with a surplus of chances against a gung-ho City team.

Mancheser United fans will have to accept that the team is simply not good enough at present to take the game to some of the best teams in the world.

In addition to the tactics, the team selection is critical. Here’s what I’d go with against Chelsea:

The 4-2-3-1 formation strongly suits the mentality; it provides the defense with cover in the form of two holding midfielders, while it also allows the attacking players to act as outlets, ready to forge swift attacks.

As for the back line, the only change is Tyler Blackett in for Marcos Rojo. Rojo hasn’t impressed me so far and I believe that Blackett is a much better player with and without the ball, regardless of his age.

In the midfield, Fellaini keeps his place, as his physical and aerial threat will be needed. An important feature of the 4-2-3-1 is that the defensive midfielders can shift into the wide areas fairly easily, as there are two of them. Against Chelsea, or more specifically Eden Hazard, this will be critical.

Hazard a breathtakingly phenomenal player, and much too dangerous to leave unattended, this is why I have placed Antonio Valencia at right wing. Rafael will receive cover from both Fellaini shifting over and Valencia tracking back, which should be enough to stifle Eden Hazard.

I have placed Herrera in the attacking midfield role, not only because he is a quick thinker, but because he is tireless; he is perfect for the role given the philosophy. I would ask Herrera to man-mark Chelsea’s heartbeat, Cesc Fabregas. United must deny Chelsea’s troops their most dangerous supply line, and Ander Herrera’s work-rate makes him the ideal candidate for the job.

Up front, I have selected Radamel Falcao over Robin van Persie. Not only because Van Persie has been out of form, but Falcao’s strength, power, and work-rate is suited to a counter attacking system; these next two games are Falcao’s best opportunity to announce himself in Manchester red.

The team selection is very functional; there is strength through the middle, pace out wide, and a clinical finisher up front. I have chosen a greater balance between flair and brawn; there is no room for passengers against the the top sides.

Notably, I have omitted brilliant talents such as Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata. While they could replace Antonio Valencia and Ander Herrera, respectively, they would be much more risky selections.

United have lacked balance this season, and they must combat that with both the tactics and the team selection in the next two matches.

Put yourself in Louis van Gaal’s shoes, what would you do against Chelsea and City? Leave your thoughts in the comment box below.

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