The recent European Championships have said to be success for tactics, rather than technicality. Players and teams were set up to make the best use of their resources. Instructions were given about their particular role and how that benefitted the team. Italy made use of this system to allow for the Juventus trio of Bonzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini to provide solidity and a base for their forward players to start from. Wales incorporated this method to fit in the mid-field trio of Ramsey, Allen and Ledley to provide the chance to let Bale play in a free role. Wherever the team was strongest, managers were using this to being out the best of it.
As systems are highlighted for their success in a major tournament, club managers are often tempted to bring this back and use it themselves. Formation systems have come and gone in varying degree of success. Spain and Roma in the past, and Germany recently, used a system without a recognised centre-forward so that defenders would be unable to track runners. The lack of a focal point left them bemoaning missed opportunities. Some managers have gone with a forward supported by a player on either side. This was reliant on pure pace and often fell down when forwards were expected to fill the role of a winger.
‘So how many are you expecting to score today?’
So how is this going to affect Manchester United? When Van Gaal arrived post World Cup 2014, he told journalists that he was going to set out the system as being three at the back. He had built the success of the Holland team this way, and Manchester United were going to play that way also. He seemed determined to use a concrete system that seemed to be lacking under Moyes. All of his defenders were going to be given their chance to prove themselves, regardless of their age. There were just one or two problems. He had inherited one of the most nervous looking set of defenders in the club’s recent history, aligned to an appalling set of injury records. Players did not seem to know how to adjust to the new system and the constant changing around of personal did nothing to encourage confidence. He eventually relented to a more recognisable system that helped them finish in the top four.
It could be said that the planned system for last season was disrupted at an early stage, and throughout the rest of the season, by injuries to key players. The excitement of seeing young academy players coming through, was tempered by a dour season. With many teams choosing to set up in a system designed to stifle opponents, the lack of pace and a clinical striker became evident. Martial and then Rashford were introduced to provide that thrust from the flanks, but when the service was not forthcoming, this fell down. Slow progress through midfield that was characterised by players taking an extra touch where it was not necessary, or checking back to maintain possession, made it easy for teams to set up against us. Fear of losing, rather than a determination to win, became the mind-set.
The tactical one?
So where does this bring in our current manager? He has in the past changed systems according to the opposition. The 2010 Champions League was won by Diego Milito being flanked by Eto’o and Pandev with Wesley Sneijder providing the main assistance from behind. At times, with Chelsea on away games, he used Drogba up front on his own to hold up the ball for runners behind him. This seemed to have been replicated in his second spell at times with Diego Costa providing the physical presence and Oscar and Hazard providing the pace. His spell at Real Madrid, although tempered by fall-outs with the press, the hierarchy and opposition managers, saw them sweep all before them in La Liga breaking points and scoring records. So, he is not just a one trick pony.
Did someone ask for unpredictability?
The more predictable a side is, the more likely it is that opponents can plan for that. Hopefully the combination of players used in their right position, the injection of speed and a solid defensive base, will give fans something to cheer about this season.