Southampton’s win over Manchester United on Sunday reinforced my thoughts on the 3-5-2 system Louis van Gaal has implemented. My issue with it has always been that it gives a team the security of having possession without offering them the opportunities from which they might score the goals that win the game.
You might remember that Liverpool played a similar system in the mid-1990s and we went into the 1996 FA Cup final worrying whether we would get a kick against them. They may well have had more possession than us but we always believed that playing with two wingers, and one striker off a centre-forward, would give us the opportunity to create the chances we needed to score goals. And so it proved.
Ronald Koeman was clever in his approach to United. James Ward-Prowse kept close to Michael Carrick and made sure Michael did not control the game. Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin did the same to Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney. Because United lack pace in attack the two centre-halves could push up on Robin van Persie and suddenly the lack of options going forward was telling. Van Persie has a great touch but defenders can afford to get tight to him because they don’t have to worry about him spinning off for the ball dropped in behind them.
Angel Di Maria has the pace but is not a centre-forward. As a player, when I was trying to open up opposing teams, a ball dropped in behind the full-back to a wide player often had the desired effect of pulling a defence out of shape. It dragged the full-back across to cover, then the centre-back was often drawn to the space left behind, which created room for the strikers to score goals.
Manchester United summer signings - assessed
Manchester United summer signings - assessed
1/6 Ander Herrera (£29million)
A long-term target for the club, Herrera finally arrived from Bilbao for nearly £30m, United’s first move of the window. The Spaniard has had a couple of injury problems of his own but, inexplicably if you ask fans, has not found favour under Van Gaal. The midfielder, classy on the ball and strong in the tackle, looks a good player whenever he plays, but has only started six Premier League matches. Hit or Miss? MISS
2/6 Luke Shaw (£30m)
Struggled with fitness (and perhaps weight) issues at the start of the season, feeling Van Gaal’s wrath. Had to wait until the end of September to make his first start for his new team. Clearly talented the England teenager has grown in confidence and gained the confidence of his manager; Shaw is now a starter on the left when fit. HIT
3/6 Marcos Rojo (£16m)
Another who has struggled with injury problems, Rojo has only started 10 matches this season. Has been inconsistent and erratic in his performances and has a long way to go to reach the level of the men he replaced, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. MISS
4/6 Angel Di Maria (£59.7m)
The British record signing started his United career fantastically, looking like a player worth all the money that was paid for him. But sadly for the club he has picked up a series of injuries that have limited him to just 131 minutes of action since the end of November. United know they overpaid for him, but he will come good when fit. MISS
5/6 Daley Blind (£14m)
When Blind started his first couple of games, fans and pundits wondered if the club had found a new midfield linchpin. But Blind was then injured and Michael Carrick returned in great form, leaving a those same fans and pundits wondering what the fuss over the Dutchman was about. His versatility will come in handy in the future, however. MISS
6/6 Radamel Falcao (£6m loan)
The biggest disappointment of them all, Falcao arrived on an expensive loan deal that United are now hesitant of extending. The Colombian star has played well in spots, but he was bought for his goals and has produced just three of them in his 13 matches. Still far from full fitness or his very best, a permanent deal will not happen unless Monaco lower their £43m asking price, or the striker begins to find the kind of form that made him one of the world’s best. MISS
In a 3-5-2 formation, that width is just not there for United. Luke Shaw is an orthodox left-back being asked to play wing-back. Antonio Valencia has lost some of that great pace he once had, and it is more difficult for him to get past players when his starting position is so deep.
There is no doubt that 3-5-2 helps you keep the ball. The three centre-halves and the three central midfielders can pass it around to their heart’s content. The problem comes when you try to hurt teams in attacking areas. You can have all the possession you like, but if you are not creating “2 v 1” situations where you outnumber your opposition and get behind them, then you are not going to score enough goals.