Over the course of the 2014-2015 Premier League season Louis Van Gaal struggled to settle on a consistent formation and starting XI. Prior to the campaign he announced the side would use the same 3-5-2 Van Gaal had used to lead a less-talented-than-usual Netherlands team to the semifinals of that summer's World Cup. That plan was dispatched after a poor start to the season- United won just one of their first six competitive matches, a stretch that included an embarrassing 4-0 defeat to MK Dons in the Capital One Cup and a 5-3 loss at Leicester.
VanGaal switched to a more traditional (in England at least) back four but a combination of injuries and inconsistent performances led him to continue tinkering with formations and personnel. Over the course of the season Van Gaal used a revolving door of formations- 3-5-2, 4-4-2, diamond 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3. It seems likely United's inconsistency was at least partly brought on by the changes- developing an understanding of your own role in a side and developing a team synergy is remarkablydifficult when your duties are continually being redefined as formations and personnel change.
No player appeared to suffer more from the constant shapeshifting than Angel Di Maria. Di Maria didn't have the season many expected but the conditions weren't favorable for him. It's difficult enough for players to adapt to new teammates in a new league but when your role in the squad is constantly changing it makes the bedding in process that much more difficult. Di Maria played on the left wing, on the left side of a center midfield three, in a #10 role through the middle and even as a striker with Rooney behind him in midfield. He wasn't the only player whose role was inconsistent. Daly Blind played as a center back, left back, left wing back and holding midfielder. Rooney played as part of a front two alongside Robben Van Persie, as a lone striker and as a center midfielder. Both Di Maria and Blind are known for being flexible and tactically intelligent footballers and Rooney has developed more of that flexibility with experience but it has to be unsettling for players to be shifting spots on the field so often and unsettling for their teammates as well. In any efficient, well run company the employees know their specific roles. For much of last season Manchester United's players appeared to be struggling to figure out theirs.
It wasn't until the second half of the season when Van Gaal settled on a 4-3-3- with Maurouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera either side of Michael Carrick in a midfield three, Juan Mata tucking in on the right channel, Ashley Young playing wide on the left and Wayne Rooney up front- that United started to put in consistent, impressive displays. The first half of their 2-1 win over Liverpool at the end of March, Liverpool's first league defeat in three months, was sensational. With tactical stability came improved performances.
Settling on the right tactical system could prove difficult yet again for Van Gaal given the number of new signings brought in over the summer. In their season opener last weekend against Tottenham Van Gaal opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Morgan Schneiderlin partnering Carrick at the base of midfield, Mata on the right, Young on the left and Memphis Depay playing off Rooney through the middle. United struggled to create chances. They produced just one shot on goal and scored from a fortuitous Kyle Walker own goal that stemmed from an awful giveaway in midfield by Nabil Bentaleb.
The lackluster attacking performance obviously can't simply be put down to formation. No team can be expected to be at their most fluid this early in the season. United started three of their summer signings in Depay, Schneiderlin and right back Matteo Darmian and with new personnel comes additional time needed to develop an understanding among the players.
Still, Van Gaal's selection showed some signs of his tendency to perhaps over-tinker and use players where they aren't at their best in order to make a spot for them in the starting XI. Young was outstanding last season and probably deserving of his starting spot on the left of midfield. But his inclusion meant that for Van Gaal to play Depay, he had to be deployed through the middle. Using Depay through the middle meant there was one fewer spot for a proper center midfielder so in effect United were playing with two center midfielders rather than three. Having a third center midfielder would potentially have allowed United to establish a bit more control of possession and dictate the tempo of the game more. It's noteworthy that Spurs finished with 50% possession at Old Trafford and 4 shots on goal to United's 1.
Again, United were at their most fluid last season playing with a three man midfield with Herrera and Fellaini shuttling up and down the pitch either side of Carrick at the base of midfield (although at times Fellaini would push further up the pitch alongside Rooney). Like Herrera, Scheniderlin is full of energy and more than capable of playing one of the two shuttling roles in a 4-3-3. A midfield trio of Herrera and Schneiderlin in front of Carrick provides an excellent balance of energy, technique, passing vision and tackling ability.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino likes to press high up the pitch. However most opposing managers will come to Old Trafford and look to defend deep and compact and play on the break. It's difficult to imagine Depay being especially effective in the #10 role in these sorts of contests. His strengths are his tremendous pace, dribbling ability and finishing. While he's also a very good passer, he's at his best in the channels where he has the opportunity to get the opposition fullback in 1 v. 1 situations, cut inside and either shoot or provide through balls. Playing him through the middle against sides that defend deep will reduce the chances he has to pick the ball up in space and run at the defense. According to the soccer data site transfermarkt.com every one of Depay's 30 league appearances for PSV came on the left wing. He scored a remarkable 22 goals. He had 6 assists which is impressive enough but suggests he's more of a goal scorer than a goal creator. The #10 in a 4-2-3-1, the role Depay played in the opener, tends to be reserved more for creative passers than speedy dribblers. It seems strange to ask him to play out of position when he was virtually unplayable on the left last season. For all of Young's success last season, Depay is the more dynamic, dangerous player. Eventually I'd expect Van Gaal to move Depay wide in place of Young.
Whatever options the Dutch manager chooses to go with he should look to establish a coherent playing system early. For all his talk of philosophy, United didn't really seem to have one last season. With title winners Chelsea last season you knew their lineup before the team sheet came out perhaps with the exception of whether Cesc Fabregas would play in the #10 role or deeper in midfield. The players knew their roles in the system and it showed in cohesive if not always thrilling performances. For United to mount a title challenge this season, Van Gaal will need to do less tinkering.