Louis van Gaal tinkered with formations quite frequently last year, confusing even the most loyal Manchester United supporters. His determination to use different setups and play stars out of position (see: Rooney, Wayne) rubbed many up the wrong way, but some of it stemmed from lacking the right personnel.
With a second transfer window under his belt, Van Gaal seems to have acquired the right players to fit his possession-dominant, high line system. How will that translate tactically? Here are the three formations Van Gaal is most likely to use at Old Trafford this season:
Option 1: 4-2-3-1
In addition to fielding Juan Mata in his favored No. 10 role, this alignment provides Wayne Rooney with support and plays to the strengths of United’s wingers. Angel di Maria is at his best when he can pick up the ball deeper and cut inside; Memphis Depay’s pace and strong right-footed shot make him similarly dangerous. Mata will be able to pull United’s strings and pick his spots to make runs into the box.
Newcomer Bastian Schweinsteiger will be tasked primarily with acting as the pivot from defence to attack in this setup, spraying the ball around the pitch to start forward moves. Morgan Schneiderlin will be the “tackler,” shielding his back line; luckily for United, he led the Premier League in tackles last season.
The back four is straightforward. With Di Maria and Depay cutting as much as they will, expect Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw to take advantage of the space for crosses and one-twos. This is a lineup that can break down more defensive, organised sides (Chelsea, Southampton, Juventus, and Atletico Madrid come to mind).
Option 2: 4-3-3
This formation gives United more of an initiative against teams that may look to overwhelm the midfield. The attack is similar to the 4-2-3-1, with Depay and Di Maria expected to work in tandem with Rooney to drag defenders out of shape. As Barcelona showed this year, the front 3 in this setup can act almost independently; Van Gaal will expect his attackers to take full advantage of quick counter-attacking opportunities.
Midfield is where things get interesting. As Sam Tighe wrote in a piece a few years ago, “The midfield will house one certified anchor accompanied by two all-action pure central midfielders who are required to scour the pitch like crazed ax men and contribute in every move.” Schneiderlin can certainly anchor while Herrera and Schweinsteiger are both tenacious. Herrera is especially quick to close down the ball, while Schweinsteiger has shown a proclivity for making well-timed runs into the box to finish off moves.
With only Schneiderlin truly sitting in front of the back line, United’s center-halves will have to be on high alert and ready to cover any space the Frenchman cannot. United’s full-backs will also have even more license to bomb forward given the compact midfield—as Alba and Alves do for Barca.
This setup makes the most sense against high-pressing, attacking-minded sides who emphasize the midfield (Arsenal, Manchester City, and Bayern Munich come to mind).
Option 3: 4-1-4-1
Van Gaal used this formation to perfection last season when Michael Carrick was healthy; it was the setup that led to wins over Tottenham, Liverpool, and Manchester City in a blistering run of form that left United third in the table. This setup would likely see the introduction of Marouane Fellaini for Schweinsteiger and Mata for Di Maria.
This formation revolves around Fellaini, who put in a series of man of the match performances during that hot streak. Going forward, Fellaini acted a second striker running from his inside left position, imposing himself on the opponent’s deep-lying midfielder and winning 50-50 balls (through the air and on the ground) to transition out of defense. Once he held the ball up and got it out wide to an advancing winger or full-back in space, Fellaini would run into the box and use his aerial prowess to get on the end of crosses.
As you can tell, playing from the outside-in was a staple of this formation, with the full-backs finding a lot of joy going forward. They would often play intricate one-twos with their respective wingers until one of the following two things happened: a central midfielder made an incisive run into a dangerous area or Fellaini and Rooney were well-positioned for a cross into the penalty area.
This setup often left the wide areas open for counter-attacks, requiring more mobile midfielders behind Fellaini. Schneiderlin offers the sort of cover that Carrick cannot while Herrera’s relentlessness makes him capable defensively.
Against teams who rely heavily on their defensive midfielder to shield the back line, the 4-1-4-1 can be extremely effective. With Fellaini providing far more defensive cover than Schweinsteiger or Mata (his 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 counterparts), it is also a good formation for United to use against a high-powered attack like Barcelona or Real Madrid.