TACTICS TALK: Why United Should Return to the 3-5-2

When preseason first rolled around, fans were excited at getting their first glimpse of the new manager. Whether it was due to an injury crisis or simply experimentation by an experienced coach, preseason and the start of the league campaign saw United line up with a 3-5-2. Louis Van Gaal had recently used the formation during the World Cup with the Holland national team to great success, finishing the tournament in third place. Although the 3-5-2 is not LVG’s preferred formation (he usually favours 4-3-3), there is no doubt that with the right players, the 3-5-2 can be effective.

holland lineup

However, United’s use of the 3-5-2 has been less than stellar. After a shaky start to the season, LVG has since abandoned the formation, moving on to the 4-4-2 diamond, the 4-2-3-1, and finally the 4-3-3. United’s play this season has been slow and methodical. The possession-based system has been more reminiscent of the tiki taka style of the Barcelona and Spain teams than the swashbuckling United of the Fergie years.

This video shows the Holland 5-2 Spain match during the World Cup. Spain lined up with the 4-3-3, while Holland the 3-5-2. Spain’s possession-based game was completely neutralized by the organization in defence and speed on the counter-attack. For many United fans, this will sound ironically familiar. Too many times this season, United have been found too slow. Although United have dominated possession game after game, often they have not done much with the ball. Not creating many chances and consistently caught on the break, Van Gaal’s tactics this season have resembled that of Spain and Barcelona, but executed with less polish by players who don’t offer the same technique or movement.

The question is why should United return to the 3-5-2 when it did not work for them the first time? Here is this simple truth: United were not prepared for the formation then. United were still trying to adapt to Van Gaal’s ways, and some would argue that United didn’t have the right personnel. So what has changed?

For starters, the players seem far more settled. We have seen improved performances from Fellaini, Young, Smalling, Herrera, and Mata. The recent games against Tottenham and Liverpool were the most complete performances of the season. Those also happen to the two teams that have not sat back and parked the bus. United fans have bemoaned teams like West Brom and Everton for sitting back and striking on the counter-attack, but the recent loss to Chelsea will probably be the hardest to take. Watching Jose Mourinho’s team grant United nearly 70% possession for a majority of the game, to simply hit them on the counter and win it 1-0, was painful.

There are a couple of reasons for a 3-5-2 that would solve all our current problems: First, it allows United to play with two strikers. Second, it allows us to field players in their preferred positions.

Two Strikers

United traditionally have been far more effective with two strikers. We pride ourselves on striker combinations. Considering the current strikers – Rooney, Van Persie, and Falcao – playing with two would be in United’s best interests. None of the current strikers are capable of holding up the ball and playing in others – Rooney comes the closest. Currently United use Fellaini as a target man – we cross the ball to him and he heads it down to the forward. However, this is too predictable. Opposition players know to mark Fellaini out of the game. Playing with two strikers gives United more options. Regardless of whether we drill the ball to the near post, or float to the far post, there is a striker available. It also gives defending opposition more to think about, having two forwards making different runs into the box.

Players in Their Best Positions

This season we have seen Rooney play in midfield, Di Maria play in his “Robben Role”, Mata play as a winger, etc. In the last match against West Brom, United saw both RVP and Rooney playing a midfield role while Fellaini was the lone forward. The 3-5-2 formation allows for players to play in their preferred positions. With Rooney and RVP as the forwards, and Mata (or Di Maria) in his preferred central role, we already have a more cohesive looking front line. Our central midfielders could be any combination of Fellaini, Blind, Herrera and Carrick. Right wing back – Valencia. Left wing back  – Shaw, Blind, or Young. And Rojo, Smalling and McNair/Jones as the back three. Every player is in their natural position.

With the summer transfer window coming up, it is entirely possible that Van Gaal brings in the players necessary to make a 4-3-3 work. The acquisition of Memphis Depay may suggest that Van Gaal prefers to stick with the 4-3-3. However, it is also entirely possible that Van Gaal will try to resurrect the “Robben Role”. Van Gaal first attempted this with Di Maria, and recent statements in the media suggest that Van Gaal wishes to convert Januzaj into a striker. This suggests that playing with two forwards might be in LVG’s future plans. If anyone is capable of playing the “Robben Role”, Depay has to be a strong candidate. In addition to playing on both the left and right wing, Depay is also fully capable of playing as a secondary striker, and has been used as such on more than a few occasions. Using RVP or Rooney as a more out-and-out striker, with Depay as a secondary striker in this role is entirely within the realms of possibility.

Regardless of whether United stick with the 4-3-3 or convert back to the 3-5-2, one thing is for sure; United need to abandon this slow, possession-focussed style. United need to play with pace and creativity. The current system is too easy to defend, with teams sitting way deep and staying compact. This is resulting in a lot of possession, with nothing to show for it. The 3-5-2 could be the answer, utilizing the pace and strength of Shaw and Valencia bombing down the wings, playing with two strikers that are making different runs; Mata in his preferred central role, dictating play, with Blind and Herrera as central midfielders, recycling possession and making tackles.