Fluidity not formation likely to be Van Gaal’s approach

When United began life under Van Gaal on their pre-season tour of the United States, the Dutchman unveiled a 3-5-2 formation which quickly won praise.


That was the formation that took the field for United’s first home game of the Premier League season, against Swansea City, but it lasted just 45 minutes as injuries forced a switch to a more familiar 4-4-2 line-up during the 2-1 defeat.

With the addition of Daley Blind, Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo and Radamel Falcao during the final days of the transfer window last month, Van Gaal should not need to change formation due to lack of options.

But it is the abundance of attacking talent at his disposal that is likely to lead to a pragmatic approach to formation.

For while pundits have obsessed throughout the past two months about ‘three at the back’, the Dutchman has always been clear that there are many different formations he can deploy.

Even after the triumphant debut of his new system in the 7-0 win over L.A Galaxy in Pasadena, Van Gaal pointed out that he was flexible.

“I can change back if the system doesn’t work,” he said.

What Van Gaal appeared to be doing during pre-season was making sure his team were familiar with a system that he has used so that they could add that option to the formations that were already part of their football educations.

“They know already the other system (4-4-2 or 4-3-3); they have played that from their youth, so that’s easy,” he said during the tour, before quickly adding a reminder that even with the Netherlands he was never reluctant to alternate.

“You saw that in the game against Mexico – I’m sorry to say that when we were 1-0 down I changed the system to 4-3-3 and then we beat them,” he said.

On Sunday, United’s second attempt at a re-launch was an entertaining 4-0 rout of Queens Park Rangers using an ‘old-fashioned’ four-man defence.


Again Van Gaal answered the inevitable questions with pragmatic reasoning.

“I could hardly play with five defenders because (Chris) Smalling and (Phil) Jones were injured,” he said.

The debate over formations is, in any case, becoming meaningless in modern football.

While commentators and analysts talk of various combinations of numbers and midfield ‘diamonds’ the reality is that the game has changed enormously, with individual players covering so much more of the field, meaning that strict definitions of ‘lines’ is close to being obsolete.

The role of the full back has been transformed over the past decade and it is often hard to define whether they should be counted as part of a back line or a midfield.

Before the World Cup, former Germany coach and current United States head coach Juergen Klinsmann challenged the fixation.

“It always sounds cool when you talk about 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 or 4-4-2 diamond but it’s actually useless,” said the former Bayern Munich and Tottenham forward.

“All these discussions…are not up to speed anymore. The systems are not the key – they were maybe 10-15 years ago”.

For Klinsmann, the fact that midfielders become forwards when their teams have the ball means that talk of a ‘lone striker’ or ‘two up front’ is meaningless.

There was no better example of that than United’s win on Sunday with Juan Mata and Di Maria frequently featuring in dangerous positions near the opposition goal and Wayne Rooney happy to drop deeper at times.

Blind and Ander Herrera had mainly defensive responsibilities in midfield and the other four attacking players were charged with different roles. So 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 4-2-4?

The new-look United are by no means alone in this approach.

None of Chelsea’s trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Andre Schuerrle could be simply described as midfielders or strikers and Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling does not fit easily into one category.

The days when dividing 10 by three was a useful way of describing a team’s approach are probably over.

And with Colombian striker Falcao still to be integrated, Van Gaal is unlikely to make himself a prisoner of numbers.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)