Daley Blind got a late equalizer to earn Manchester United a slightly fortunate 1-1 draw with West Ham at Upton Park. Louis Van Gaal's side created some good scoring chances in the final 10 minutes after throwing on Marouane Fellaini and adopting a direct approach but they looked bereft of ideas in the attacking third for much of the game despite boasting a starting 11 that included Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria, Adnan Januzaj, Falcao and Robin Van Persie.
Machester United's major issue in the attacking third seemed to be a lack of any type of threat from wide areas. They never got in behind West Ham's fullbacks Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Creswell and forced them to turn towards their own goal. As a result, Creswell and Jenkinson were able to maintain narrow positions close to their center backs making it very difficult for Man United to play any penetrating passes between gaps in the West Ham back four.
That lack of width was in large part due to Van Gaal's use of a diamond 4-4-2 which naturally doesn't provide for width from the midfield. Angel Di Maria played at the tip of the diamond with Van Persie and Falcao up front; behind them Rooney and Januzaj played the shuttling roles and Blind sat deep in front of the back four. A diamond midfield is a system that can allow for possession dominance because with four midfielders in narrow positions there is generally going to be an unmarked player to pass to. However, it's also a system that requires dynamic movement from the two front men to work the channels in order to provide the width that can stretch defenses. Falcao and Van Persie don't provide that sort of dynamic movement. Both are happy to drop off deep into central areas in midfield to get on the ball but neither make runs in behind the opposition fullbacks. This lack of a threat in behind on the channels allows the opposition fullbacks to support their center backs in central areas and makes the penalty area crowded enough that it becomes very difficult for the attacking side to play their way through.
The graphic below shows the passes received by Falcao and Van Persie over the 90 minutes. When they received the ball in wide positions it was deep in midfield towards the halfway line, not in dangerous areas behind the fullbacks. Both players received passes in the channels in the attacking third just twice. As a result, all of Manchester United's possession was happening in front of the West Ham back four making it very comfortable on them- they were rarely forced to turn their backs and sprint to towards their own goal to track Manchester United runners.
I think if Van Gaal is going to continue with the diamond 4-4-2 he needs to use one striker that offers a little more movement into the channels and behind the opposition back four. James Wilson isn't yet the talent that Van Persie or Falcao are but he's more suited to operating alongside one of the two star strikers in a diamond 4-4-2 than the two are to playing alongside one another. He brings a pace and willingness to make diagonal runs behind the opposition fullbacks that give the side much more of a vertical threat. Manchester United are a less rigid, static side when he is in the squad.
The movement of Di Maria in his role at the tip of the diamond was also a bit disappointing. His pace and crossing ability make him a dangerous threat in wide areas, which we saw glimpses of when Van Gaal changed systems near the end, but I thought he could have done more to move across the width of the pitch to create overloads in the channels. Instead, he maintained fairly narrow positions and received the bulk of passes in the middle of the pitch. Di Maria is a better player when he is able to receive the ball in space and run at the defense. He is not an especially clever passer in crowded central areas and with West Ham defending compact and narrow it was a situation he found himself in frequently today. It was a #10 role that would have better suited Juan Mata, a player comfortable finding pockets of space in tight areas and finding clever penetrating passes.
Van Gaal has yet to find the right system for his side. For a squad with such an embarrassment of attacking riches, too often they struggle to convert possession dominance into goal scoring opportunities. Strangely, it is that abundance of attacking options that is probably partly to blame for Manchester United's occasional tepid attacking displays as Van Gaal attempts to adopt formations that get as many of his star attackers on the field at the expense of a system that will create more cohesion going forward.