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Is 3-5-2 the way forward for Manchester United?

Is 3-5-2 the way forward for Manchester United?

Since it’s rise to fame in the 90’s after two world cup wins with Brazil and West Germany, the 3-5-2 formation has since been on decline. However, in the 2014 World Cup wing-backs were much more common and Juventus have won back-to-back Serie A titles for the last 3 years with the 3-5-2 formation. It has never been employed consistently by multiple clubs in the English Premier League, largely down to the English fans conservatism. Despite this, it now seems as though Louis Van Gaal has his heart set on the 3-4-1-2 variation that was used successfully for Manchester United in pre-season. Is the resurrection of the 3-5-2 on the horizon?

Last week, Sam Allardyce accused Louis Van Gaal of adapting his players to his system, rather than adapting his system in order to get the best out of his players. This was interesting statement to me and one that I think is slightly unfair. With Manchester United’s squad being so unbalanced, you wonder if there really is a perfect system for their current squad. For example, Louis Van Gaal will want to see Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie both playing up front, he will want to play Juan Mata in his preferred central role in behind, and he will want to do this without being forced to play three centre-backs; an area United seriously lack strength in depth.

Atletico Madrid won La Liga last year and Manchester City the English Premier, both with a 4-2-2-2 variation of the traditional 4-4-2. This saw the wide men being operated as the main creative outlets for the teams, since the traditional winger is a dying breed. In my opinion, the 3-4-1-2 would be an excellent counter to the 4-2-2-2, which is growing in popularity.

If Louis Van Gaal opted for the 3-4-1-2 against Manchester City this season, I would back the Red Devils to win; provided we see genuine top level players brought in over the next few weeks. This is because the three centre-backs would be dealing with two strikers, therefore two could man mark and the other would be a spare man able to cover. They could press high up the pitch with the wing-backs being able to mark Nasri and Silva tighter than usual as they wouldn’t have to worry about leaving space in behind due to the extra defender.  The two central midfielders would cancel off leaving the linking midfielder; presumably Juan Mata, space in between the midfield and defence, with two world class strikers in front of him in Rooney and Van Persie when fit.

Manchester United v Manchester City, how they could line up:

When in attack the 3-4-1-2 also has benefits. The players will have many passing options on the ball; in front, behind and to the side of them. This means that quick passing can be used easily to unlock tough defences. Glimpses of this have been seen in the friendly against Inter, and on Saturday against Swansea when Phil Jones forced Fabianski to tip the ball out for a corner. They have two men up front which means if a striker loses his marker there is no cover in behind the defensive line as both centre-halves are occupied. There is a playmaker in the hole which there is a link between midfield and attack, leading to fast transition plays.

Despite what’s been said so far, when coming up against your average Premier League team; by which I mean one that plays 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2 will cause you more problems that it will provide benefits. This is because, as we saw against Swansea, when the opposition wingers push high and the full-backs support the midfield, the 3-4-1-2 becomes a 5-2-1-2, and space appears. Also when the opposition play with only one striker there are two defenders just marking space at the back, and the team are forced to pay the price further up the pitch. Therefore the team finds themselves defending much deeper than they would have hoped. This is exactly what happened for Ki Sung-yueng’s goal on Saturday. Swansea made the pitch big, the full-backs were able to roam forward since United’s wing-backs were occupied with Routledge and Dyer. Swansea had time on the ball as they strung several passes together they found the defensive line deep in their own penalty-area, Swansea’s midfield (who outnumbered United’s) pushed forward and Ki found himself with time and space just 18-yards away from goal. It should be noted that Gary Neville blamed Juan Mata’s poor marking for Ki’s goal during Monday Night Football. However when United lined up against Inter during pre-season they defended in 3 banks; one of 3, one of 4 and one more of 3. This meant that Juan Mata will have been dropping back much deeper than usual into unfamiliar territory.

                                                                         Manchester United v Swansea City, First Half

It was also a struggle for United to provide width in their attack against Swansea. If the wing-backs decided to push forward they would be susceptible to a counter-attack. Also with the linking man(Juan Mata) in between attack and midfield almost being a designated playmaker it is easy for opposition to mark him out the game and remove United’s main creative outlet.

Many of the Manchester United fans will have noticed an improvement in the second-half at Old Trafford last Saturday. There was an improvement in the pressing game due to the fact that wingers put pressure on Swansea’s full-backs. Adnan Januzaj was given more freedom run at the defence and cause problems for the away team. Had they started the game in a 4-3-3 with an experienced and talented defence, Man United would have 3 points going into next weeks game.

                                                                                         The Alternative, 4-2-2-2.
When it comes to alternatives there isn’t really any other option than the 4-2-2-2. Although we saw United play a 4-3-3 in the second half against Swansea I doubt it’s a formation they will stick by, due to the fact that when Van Persie returns surely Van Gaal will want him and Rooney as a striking partnership. And unlesa we see Rooney play on the left wing again, 4-2-3-1 isalso unlikely. So, we are left with 4-2-2-2.

The 4-2-2-2 would allow Herrera to play in midfield with Fletcher, or a  new midfielder that may be brought in. It would allow for Rooney and Van Persie to partner each other up top. Wonder kid Adnan Januzaj would be able to fit in on the wing, a player who doesn’t quite fit in the 3-4-1-2, another one of it’s major shortcomings. Juan Mata could be used as a wide playmaker. Also there would only be a need for two centre-backs, a department Man U are not particularly strong in. Not only that, but it’s one of the more successful modern formations leading Atletico Madrid and Manchester City to domestic league titles.

Given the players Louis Van Gaal and Manchester United have been linked with in recent weeks it appears he is going to stick with his 3-5-2 which has brought him past success, for example the Champions League in 1995 with Ajax. It should have occurred to Van Gaal that this success was achieved in the 90’s when most teams lined up with two strikers meaning three at the back was feasible. I think Manchester United are going to struggle against most teams this season with this formation. I don’t believe that 3-5-2 is in anyway a weak formation, just that it has limited application. Although, if Louis Van Gaal gets the big money signings he craves, they may go on to prove me wrong…

Do you think Louis Van Gaal should stick with his 3-4-1-2 formation that was defeated in Manchester United’s first game of the Premier League season? Will this tactic make a wider impression in the rest of the league and across Europe? Let us know in the comments or on twitter @TBRFootball .


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