Manchester United have spent big in the transfer market for two years running to replace a tired looking squad that had just about reached the end of its usefulness. That team was the master of grinding out not only results, but also championships.

It is still important to note that United were still at its heart and core an ultra-attacking team who liked top attack from the wings and create chances from low and high crosses played at pace or from runs from those flanks into the opponent’s penalty box. United are no longer that team. That was just about retired when its long serving manager retired at the end of the 2013-14 season.

Year of Moyes and the reign of the Dutchman

Cue the year of Moyes. David Moyes brought his Everton style and mentality with him, opting to go for players who would implement his style. He got Fellaini after a big fuss. He wanted Baines to supply him and so on. What United evolved to was a long ball and crossing juggernaut. Moyes used the word crossing more than regular pronouns at times in his post-match interviews and he loved players who would cross it. That was United. What wasn’t United was 81 of those of questionable quality. What wasn’t United was the slow build-up play that made those crosses more predictable than Ashley Young diving that very season.

The change in ‘philosophy’ had begun. United began the transition to what they are today.

Usher in the Dutchman Louis Van Gaal. The stubborn, and highly regarded man had his own ideas about the philosophy and judging from the current style we can see why he had a hand in Jose Mourinho’s coaching education. We can also see the Josep Guardiola. United has done a raft of business in the transfer market opting for Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Memphis Depay, Ander Herrera, Morgan Schnierderlin, and Bastian Schweinsteiger as players north of defense. Sure, defensively United was bolstered with Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, and Matteo Darmian arriving. The first season under van Gaal saw inconsistency in defense as the manager struggled to find a working combination. The injuries didn’t help either and by the end of the season we sort of had an idea of the best eleven. The team were generally looking better in attack and leaps and bounds better in defense but still ground out results on their way to a fourth place finish.

It was clear that United had become a slow, methodical, and calculated team that relied on moments of brilliance rather than consistent unrelenting pressure ala Arsenal or Manchester City. The new season is young but what is apparent is that van Gaal wants solidity all round. Midfield has been overloaded and the attack neglected. Wingers play as number 10s while number 10s play on the wings. The back is meant to be a fortress with the solid Darmian preferred over converted right back Antonio Valencia or the shipped away, edgy Rafael. Also in defense is Daley Blind who is quite likely the definition of solid in his approach if not execution. He will struggle against quicker opponents but brings calm to the defense for now. In midfield the two-man pivot is not like the ones employed by the other top four teams. Whilst Arsenal opt for Cazorla as a box to box midfielder, as City do Yaya Toure, and Chelsea call on Cesc Fabregas, United have opted for two players that are more stationary and subdued in Carrick or Bastian, and Schnierderlin. This leaves out the classy, rather obvious choice in Herrera who must wonder what luck God has bestowed upon him that he continues to bench in a team crying out for his running, passing, and goals running in undetected from deep positions. The manager has explained this away that he prefers another forward player instead of Herrera. In truth, this should not even be an issue. Whether in a two or three man midfield, Herrera is the architect wasted as a cheerleader on Manchester United’s bench while United create less chances than necessary.

Worrying stats, worrying philosophy

Looking at this statistically it is clear what the issues are. This is one case where stats do tell a proper story of the insipid football that United fans have witnessed thus far, Seven points is great but the soft schedule so far means United haven’t been tested by a real team with a proper attacking threat. Spurs lacked creativity as Christian Eriksen played out wide and the rest are not teams that should worry United…should.  

Chances created are one indicator of the goal threat that is being posed. United have created less chances than any of the previous three league champions by some way. The 2012-13 United team created 11.53 per game and remember this was a grinding team. The 2013-14 swashbuckling 100 goal City created 14.03 per game and the Chelsea team that is so chastised as being boring created 12.26. Small sample size is true but under van Gaal last year with Mata, Di Maria, Rooney, Adnan, Falcao, van Persie, a rejuvenated Young, and Herrera at his disposal United created just 10.29 chances per 90 minutes. This is still less than the Chelsea team that put many to sleep for their supposedly dull play. Is United the new Chelsea?

United have lagged behind in attack in van Gaal’s reign. Is it philosophy or will it get better?. Statistics courtesy of Squawka

United strikers have felt the woe from this philosophy also. Van Persie was regularly ripped to shreds by United fans who still saw him as an Arsenal player, forgetting that he is the main reason United have 20 and not 19 league titles to their credit. Van Persie was said to be old, slow, disinterested, and not moving enough. He struggled and was sold. Rooney was to be the saviour who would resume his world-class form of his two world class seasons with consummate ease. The result? No goals in his last ten games. They are both at fault for not moving enough since in less than thirty minutes Javier Hernandez, as game rusty as he is, created more havoc in the box than both do in a game. A striker’s role is not to simply convert chances. He is also expected to move off the ball and constantly keep defenders guessing and moving around. That creates spaces and chances as it were. A striker taking a few paces in a slow build up team will lead to lots of diagonal passes as there are no forward options. Yes, that’s why United pass it sideways.

In the absence of a dribbler that City or Barcelona can call on for example, the pseudo Barcelona style won’t work. Its not that they don’t possess those. Its that they are being shackled from doing so by the new United style. Remember when Adnan was the most fouled player in the league? In the absence of a striker who will get in behind the defense like Hernandez did on his missed chance United will always be predictable, and struggle to create and score. Hernandez is dismissed as a poacher who contributes little off the ball. This is most untrue. His movement alone, which is near world class creates openings for other players. Yes, that’s why United started creating more chances after he arrived. He is limited technically but he does the simple things and might be the remedy at this point. He know how to be a striker. Rooney might just have forgotten that and should be employed just behind.

This leads to the controversial thought that Memphis who is eager to impress should sit and come off the bench for a few games. He is having a start much like Januzaj did last season. The difference is that he is a big money signing and not a slender kid from Belgium. This doesn’t mean to dispense with him but he needs a few games to find his feet and get his head level. Too often he tries to do too much and shuns passes. In that vein, Hernandez can be employed as the main striker with Rooney in behind. A move from Januzaj to the left flank would be in order as Mata and Rooney would then work to create for themselves and Hernandez who relishes gobbling up anything at all. Januzaj himself isn’t ready to start week in week out and would be much of a stop gap till Memphis calms down from 30 minute cameos after the pressure is not so much on his shoulders. At the moment United lack goals and this set-up would be a refreshing one and plays to what van Gaal likes in a striker. Finally, it can’t be reiterated enough how much Herrera needs to start even if it means that Bastian or even Schniederlin sits. It is criminal that he should find himself out after being a main source of adding fluidity to United last season.

Its early days yet but the philosophy has stifled players from their natural instincts. Players who would take on opponents are content to knock it around waiting for an opening that never comes. United are not attempting to dribble past players? Again, borne out in stats. United have completed 6.67 dribbles per game this season…that’s in 90 minutes. Compare that to 10.5 for City this season so far, 12.8 for Chelsea, 8.92 for the 2013-14 City, and 9.84 for last year’s United. They also lag behind in shots taken which is obvious given the philosophy of methodical build-up. Sadly this has meant two goals in three games as compared to upwards of two for all but last year’s Chelsea. Interestingly United have made far more interceptions than any other team which highlights the solidity.    

It won’t get better till the tactics get better

One fears what some teams will do to this United team. Not every side will sit back and allow the variety of passes United make. No team in the league is without problems but many of United’s are self inflicted. It’s no surprise that Rooney has struggled. In his diminishing state he will be made to look worse than he is. This is still a top player but he is being given a rather holey basket to carry water at the moment and should be withdrawn behind a hungry Hernandez to interchange as the number ten/supporting striker with Mata.

Van Gaal is the overcomplicator. The preaching about philosophy and the lies about a 0-0 draw with Newcastle being a ‘fantastic’ performance need to stop. A certain former manager would have pulled some players at halftime and gone for ‘Little Pea’ much sooner. He saw his value as a man to turn around lame performances, poacher or not. A 4-2-3-1/ 4-2-2-1-1 would suit united perfectly as described and it would show how much of an unnecessary albeit shrewd signing Bastian was. Memphis should sit for a bit…but calm down. This is to allow Rooney, the man so much depends on, to settle on a role which right now should be his best while allowing Mata to get more involved and Memphis to eventually slot in where Januzaj would then occupy. Januzaj will get his chances, maybe if Rooney finds his feet or when Mata can afford to be rested, or Memphis himself but this pressure that the young man must be feeling to create for van Gaal’s insipid philosophy could spiral.

There is nothing wrong with easing a talent into the league. It is clear, however, that the changing philosophy at United is at the bequest of the manager and only what striker his fancy. It will stifle creative players like Mata, Memphis, Januzaj and even Rooney. Perhaps the players themselves must let common sense reign and seek to express themselves more and break the shackles imposed by this philosophy of creating military style possession football at Carrington.