Louis Van Gaal's Manchester United side again looked disjointed and confused in today's 1-1 draw away to Sunderland, his second in charge.
Van Gaal has stressed that his 3-5-2 system will take time to implement and two games is surely too soon to scrap the system altogether. However, he must have genuine concerns over how the players he has available to him fit into the formation.
Valencia too cautious
The positioning of the wing backs today was particularly concerning. Sunderland lined up in their usual 4-3-3 shape. The battle in the middle of midfield was straightforward- Cattermole vs. Mata, Larsson vs. Cleverley and Rodwell vs. Fletcher. Buckley dropped from his attacking position wide on the right for Sunderland to track Ashley Young going forward. This allowed the right back Vergini to keep a narrow position close to John O'Shea since he didn't have a direct opponent to mark. He was the spare defender meaning he could help O'Shea and Brown track the runs of Rooney and Van Persie. Whereas Buckley tracked Young on the right side of Sunderland's defense, on the other side of the pitch Connor Wickham stayed high up the pitch from his left forward position rather than tracking Antonio Valencia. Valencia was therefore free to receive the ball in space on the right channel. When he received the ball it forced Van Aanholt to quickly move wide from a narrow left back position to close him down. For United's opener Van Aanholt didn't close down quickly enough- Valencia beat him towards the end line then cut back across the face of goal for an easy Mata tap in. That should have been on all afternoon but for whatever reason Valencia was incredibly cautious with his positioning as the game progressed, playing more as a conventional right back than a wing back. Too rarely did he push high up the pitch to get the ball in wide areas and force Van Aanhalt into the channels away from goal (diagram below). It was strange Valencia wasn't more adventurous. He seems by far the player most suited to play wing back in United's side. He's played both right back and right winger, has pace, is a good crosser and is very disciplined about performing his defensive duties. This should be a role he can excel in once he learns it.
In his match commentary Danny Mills made the astute point that one of the major differences between Louis Van Gaal's Holland side at the World Cup and this Manchester United side is that Holland had Arjen Robben, a player with pace that has the ability to relieve pressure by carrying the ball 40 yards on the break. For all of their qualities, Juan Mata, Rooney and Van Persie aren't particularly fast and therefore United don't pose a huge threat on the counter. They don't have a player who can shuttle the ball forward quickly into attacking zones.
The lack of pace in the United squad and the inability to counter that that causes means it's important for United to control possession and create chances through clever movement in the attacking third and decisive passing. Right now they don't have good enough midfielders to control the game. They need one of the two deeper lying midfielders to dictate the tempo of the game and get the ball into the front three of Mata, Rooney and Van Persie. Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher are not going to give you that. Perhaps Ander Herrera, who missed today with an injury, will but for now United's midfield passing looks methodical and far too slow. Again, the poor positioning of the wing backs doesn't help in the side's ability to control the match and advance into the attacking third. They need to be in front of the ball to offer the center midfielders a forward passing option in wide areas. Young was trying to push on but was being man marked by Buckley, Valencia was unmarked but took up incredibly deep positions.