This week we saw a different Manchester United. We saw a United that attacked with flair and passion, we saw an emotional Louis van Gaal who may well have been fighting for his job, and if that was the case, we saw players who fought for their manager’s job too.
It was an intense game at St. James’s Park as two off-form teams battled it out. What used to be a guaranteed blood and thunder Premier League fixture threatened to be a damp squib on a cold night in Newcastle, fought between two teams who have seen better days. Instead we witnessed a wonderful evening’s football.
It was totally unexpected because of Manchester United’s obvious problems in front of goal, and the post-match reaction was one of surprise, too. Both surprise and excitement that Manchester United could throw caution into the blowing wind of fan-frustration and attack their opponents with vigour.
Before their trip to Newcastle, Manchester United had conceded just 17 goals all season. It was the second-best record in the league, bettered only by Spurs who had conceded one goal fewer. It was as if United had no problem keeping the opposition from scoring, they just couldn’t do the business at the other end.
But to credit United with a great defence and lament their poor attack would be to miss the most important aspect of Manchester United’s approach under Louis van Gaal. After all, this is a team who were blown away by Arsenal, and conceded three times against Newcastle and against Wolfsburg. So despite the optimism over an attacking performance from United, the Newcastle game wasn’t without precedent for them this season.
Despite their solid defensive record and their poor attacking one, there have been instances of United playing in thrilling games. They beat Southampton 3-2 and lost to Wolfsburg by the same scoreline.
In both games their defence was battered by the opposition attack and conceded goals, even though United managed to put together attacks of their own and, unusually for them this season, score goals. Something similar happened against Newcastle.
This is where Van Gaal’s approach to the game comes in.
For him, everything is interconnected yet fluid. But as soon as he was installed as Manchester United manager a year and a half ago, Van Gaal saw a team who were incredibly weak at the back. An ageing Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra were disposed of, but the partnership of Smalling and Jones was derided, and the likes of Paddy McNair were simply unready for the rigours of consistent starting places in the Premier League.
The first few months of Van Gaal’s reign was tarred with the image of a team with no defence, yet an array of big name attacking players. Heavy defeats to sides like newly-promoted Leicester and League One MK Dons did nothing to dispel the theory of United as a side severely lacking in defensive quality.
Fast-forward to the end of the season, and United finished in a Champions League spot, conceding only one goal more than Arsenal and a goal fewer than Manchester City.
So what changed? United’s defence got better and their attacking play suffered. But that’s not simply due to prioritising defence over attack, or at least, not totally.
After all, for Van Gaal, everything is fluid. Attack and defence are connected, because when you control the ball, you control the game. You have the right to attack the opposition in that case, and by attacking them, you take away the chance they have of scoring. If you see it in this way, attack becomes defence – stopping the opposition from scoring – and defence becomes attack – trying to get the ball back in order to launch an attack of your own. Thus, everything is fluid.
But the greatest threat to Van Gaal’s world view is the rise of the counter attacking team, especially when you have a defence made up of youngsters and players you don’t totally trust. As good as Smalling, Jones and Blind have been at times this season, they were awful at the start of last season, and even now they’re hardly as proven as Vidic and Ferdinand were.
This has been Van Gaal’s problem from the start: how do you deal with the possibility of having 80% possession yet losing the game 1-0 to a sucker-punch counter attack or a lucky set piece?
There are plenty of teams in the modern game who don’t feel like their chances of scoring are diminished when they don’t have the ball. Indeed, teams like Leicester this season feel like their chances are actually greater when they don’t have the ball.
When the opponent is attacking them but can’t break through, it means they’re set to attack and not defend.
The minute the full back overlaps, or one of the midfielders looks to burst through the defensive line is the minute you start to risk a counter attack against a side like that. Theoretically at least, the minute they sense you’re no longer set to defend the counter is the minute they attempt to launch the counter.
Manchester United have learned this from their own troubles with these kinds of teams. Playing midfielders like Ander Herrera and Juan Mata in the centre of the pitch is risky for Van Gaal because they themselves are risky players.
All good attacking players are risky by nature. After all, they are the overlapping full backs or the men trying to break from their position and get into the opposition’s box. So when the risky pass is on, they’re going to take it if it means creating the chance to score a goal. They’ll either be the ones playing it or receiving it.
But as a manager, when you’ve stopped trusting your defence to deal with counter attacks, you stop letting your creative players play risky passes. And so United morphed into a team who played passes around defences, passing in an arc around a set defence, unable to penetrate; they morphed into purveyors of cold porridge, the stodgy, constipated type of football we’ve seen so often from United this season.
Juan Mata and Anthony Martial, for example, seem to be played out wide not just because there’s no room for them more centrally, but also because a risky pass is less risky when it’s on the wing; it’s simply harder to launch an attack from the wings than it is from the middle of the pitch.
Last season, Van Gaal’s answer to the counter attack problem was to play Michael Carrick as a sort of auxiliary defender. He’d sit in front of the back four when United were defending, playing as a standard defensive midfielder. But when United were attacking he wouldn’t just stay behind the attack, he’d actively sit between the two defenders, often finding himself as the last man.
So when United were attacking, they’d effectively be playing with a back three, rather than a back four. This meant that United could be as risky as they liked in attack, because if they were hit on the counter, they’d have a solid back line ready to deal with it.
This season, however, playing a flat back four and not having a player like Carrick to temporarily convert that into a back three when they attack means that they’re always vulnerable to the counter if the full backs bomb on or if a midfielder breaks ranks, because then United aren’t set to defend. If that’s the case, then there is space in dangerous areas, ripe and receptive to the counter attack.
It’s not a coincidence that United win more games with Carrick than without him. Last season they won 13 of the 18 league games in which Carrick played, but managed just seven wins from the other 20.
His ability to help United transition from defence to attack is crucial because he can play the ball out from between the centre backs, but his ability to make United more impervious to counter attacks means that the attackers can take greater risks up front. He helps both attack and defence, so he is exactly the type of player Van Gaal needs in order to achieve the fluidity his approach demands.
Last season’s two-up-front formation that allowed the width to come from the full backs and allowed Carrick to sit between the defenders at the base of a midfield diamond has been ditched in favour of a double pivot of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, but that gives no cover to the defence when United lose the ball in attacking positions.
The answer hasn’t been to revert to a back three or even to play Carrick (when he was fit) in the same position as last season. Carrick, when he does play, just plays alongside one of the central midfielders.
Instead of last season’s pragmatic, almost ingenious, answer to the dangers of the counter attack, the answer this season – even with Carrick in the side – seems to have been to try to play a much more risk-free style in attack so as to avoid suffering on the counter attack, resulting in boring, thrill-free football for the most part.
The fact that United played so well in attack against Newcastle might have pleased supporters and neutrals alike, but the danger is that it didn’t please the manager. The danger is that Van Gaal may not take the same attacking positives from that game, and instead may lament a poor defensive one.
Let’s hope his approach to fixing that leaky defence isn’t simply to lose faith in his defenders and go back to the stodge served up until now, but to try to find some other solution to the problem.
The irony is that many Manchester United fans would rather see their team entertain in a 3-3 draw than win a turgid 1-0 win, but the manager might see it differently.