TACTICS ANALYSIS: Contrasting Louis Van Gaal’s first season with Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season as Man Utd Manager

Why Do United Struggle To Break Down Defensive Setups?

Manchester United’s season under Louis Van Gaal has had its share of false starts and disappointments. Goals came few and far between, as United, despite boasting world class attackers, struggled to break down defenses. Yet, United’s best run of form surfaced during a spell of tough fixtures. Convincing victories against Tottenham and Liverpool boosted the squad’s confidence and (hopefully) secured a Champions League spot.

But how did Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, with less expensive names, break down stubborn defenses on a consistent basis? Let’s have a look at what statistics tell us.

Who’s Scoring the Goals?

Strikers are not goal getters nowadays. In the 2012-13 season, Robin Van Persie led the goal tally with 26 goals, followed by an injury plagued Wayne Rooney with 12 and a Javier Hernandez, who primarily featured off the bench, with 10. Under Louis Van Gaal, Rooney finds himself top scorer for Manchester United with 12 goals, followed by Van Persie who has scored 10.

Louis Van Gaal has relied on his midfield trio to get majority of the goals. Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini have 18 goals between them. In the 2012-13 season, Shinji Kagawa scored 6. Giggs, Cleverley, Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Anderson, Nani, Fletcher and young Nick Powell scored a total of 11 between them. That’s 10 midfielders then, unable to match up to the goal scoring tally of 3 midfielders now.

Pro-Activity vs Patience: The Difference Between SAF & LVG

Have these statistics been reflected on the field? A primary offensive feature of Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season at United was crossing, by fullbacks or wingers, at the near post. Strikers aimed to beat center backs with quick and instinctive near-post runs. The offensive aim was to go through the center and then exploit the spaces out wide. Strikers, when in possession, were supported by aggressive runs from the midfield into open spaces. They had a wealth of options to choose from. Moreover, defenders struggled to anticipate the final ball.

Things have been different this season. Goals have come from patient pressure on the opposition midfield and defense. Crosses have gone to the back post, and strikers have challenged defenders for height and physicality. Inaccurate crosses have sailed harmlessly out for goal kicks. Many goals have come from midfielders taking shots around the edge of the penalty area with a defender facing them. Penetrating runs from midfield are non-existent. The current atmosphere just doesn’t cater to offensive minded players. Perhaps this is why Wayne Rooney, who enjoys dropping back in midfield, has had a better time leading the line than Radamel Falcao or Robin Van Persie.

Reviewing the Evidence

To illustrate my point, I will present to you two Manchester United attacks from then and now (click the images to zoom in).


Van Gaal’s United: Lacking Aggressive Intent?

There might be a number of variables influencing these scenarios, but the difference in intent is clear. Aggressive runs, previously aplenty, are missing now. This system works a treat against a dynamic opposition looking to snatch possession. However, against a defensive set up, with United midfielders having time and space near the halfway line, there is a clear lack of aggressive intent. Forwards are easily man-marked and midfielders are starved of offensive options, forcing them to harmlessly go sideways.

Both systems have their tradeoffs. Primarily, there remains an obvious difference in priority. Under Sir Alex, United respected the opposition defense more. Defenders had to deal with United midfielders bursting forward with pace and strikers sneaking in behind. Man marking and anticipation was difficult and concentration had to be impeccable for the entire 90 minutes. Eventual fatigue led to lapses of concentration, which bequeathed to Sir Alex’s side a reputation of scoring late goals.

Under Louis Van Gaal, Manchester United play a safer game. The United defense has a reduced burden due to extended periods of ball possession. Van Gaal respects the opposition attack more than the opposition defense; midfielders don’t burst forward. Many opposition defensive midfielders such as Gareth Barry, Alex Song and Nemanja Matic have had exceptional outings against United, because they are able to anticipate isolated attacking runs around their penalty area and get in an important block or interception.

Will 2015/16 Herald a Less Risk-Averse United?

Perhaps Louis Van Gaal is justified in protecting his young defense. Perhaps he is still in the process of implementing his ‘philosophy’ with the players, and it will yield results soon. If the United backline are boosted by a marquee signing this summer, Van Gaal might be prepared to undertake further risks going forward. What is clear is that if Manchester United are to contend for the Premier League next season, the team will have to display more aggressive intent rather than be content with having 70% possession but little to show for it.