At the World Cup this summer, Louis Van Gaal fielded a 3-5-2 for the Dutch National Team and rode a wave of momentum to the semifinals. During the Manchester United preseason, LVG attempted to fit the roster left behind by David Moyes into the 3-5-2 shape. Not surprisingly, the season started poorly with draw after draw after draw. Oddly, the team defended reasonably well, but failed to score goals.
Then came the blockbuster signings of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao….and LVG’s tactical switch. In the September 14th fixture vs. QPR, United coasted to a 4-0 victory. More importantly, they fielded a flat back four of Marcos Rojo, Rafael, Johnny Evans, and Tyler Blackett. In terms of shape, the midfield and forwards resembled a 4-3-3. Rooney, Van Persie and Mata played as attackers, while Blind and Herrera shielded the back four. The energetic Di Maria frequently linked the two lines. A week later, the Red Devils disappointingly lost to Leicester, but actually started that game quite brightly – they scored two goals in 20 minutes at the start.
At that point, LVG was at a crossroads – the 3-5-2 (actually a 5-3-2 in defense) provided a shield but failed to score. The 4-3-3 scored goals but left the backline woefully exposed. In true Dutch fashion, he stuck to his attacking guns. Blackett’s red card meant he was suspended, so against West Ham Patrick McNair slotted in for him, Rojo played centrally, and Luke Shaw returned to the field at leftback. LVG fielded a 4-3-3 and they won. The win was far from convincing, but, once again, United got that important early goal (first two goals) and held on for a 2-1 win. A week later, against Everton, LVG kept the same back four but fielded a much more adventuresome 4-3-3, this time with Tony Valencia and Di Maria alongside Blind. The result was another 2-1 victory.
By LVG’s own admission, United aren’t play particularly well. Still, they find themselves at fourth place: a Champions League position. More importantly, even though the offense and new signings are not all clicking, LVG has found his backline: it consists of four players, not three, and has been almost airtight. If United can keep scoring that crucial first goal, the season could be a return to the upper echelons of the table. Nobody expects a trophy, but a good post-Moyes pick me up will do.