I would attribute being a fan of/watching Manchester United at the moment to stubbing your toe or standing on an up-facing plug – you just don’t think it will hurt anywhere near as much as it actually does and the pain ceases to amaze you.
This exact feeling for me was epitomised on Tuesday when the Red Devils suffered a 4-0 mauling at the hands of third-tier side MK Dons in the League Cup, which brings me to beg the question: is 3-5-2 the problem?
The Red Devils played the “philosophy” (you know, the word that is uttered practically every other sentence by Louis van Gaal?) throughout pre-season and it reaped rewards, with a 7-0 thrashing of LA Galaxy and wins against European giants Roma, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Liverpool.
Upon returning home to Manchester, the last pre-season fixture was scheduled against another European giant in the form of Spanish side Valencia, which United nervously won 2-1 thanks a last-gasp Marouane Fellaini header.
Football is a game based on confidence. We’ve seen notably how players like Tom Cleverley heavily rely on self-assurance, buoyancy and poise. I think the Old Trafford side’s current failings prove just how brilliant a manager Sir Alex Ferguson was as he was able to lift players’ games an extra 10%,15%.
For example, the United starting line-up for the 8-2 abolishing of Arsenal in August 2011, three years ago yesterday was: De Gea – Smalling, Jones, Evans, Evra – Nani, Anderson, Cleverley, Young – Rooney, Welbeck.
Staggeringly, all of those players bar Patrice Evra are still on the books at Manchester United (although Nani is on loan at Sporting Lisbon) and with the exception of Anderson, all have played a key part this and last season. Confidence is indisputably a major concern at the moment and playing a huge part in United’s troubles but what of 3-5-2 itself?
As stated above, it did work pre-season to great effect but since the competitive fixtures have begun, United have been in disarray. Is 3-5-2 too defensive?
Manchester United are a club that pride themselves on their attacking mentality, whereas the current shape doesn’t offer as such often enough. There is no natural width as the wing-backs are supposed to function in both attacking and defensive phases of play so it’s often difficult for them to be involved proficiently in the counter-attacks, for example.
The midfield appears to be bypassed altogether and United have, so far, struggled to dominate possession comprehensively like we’re typically accustomed to seeing, particularly under Sir Alex. 3-5-2 would hardly be playing to the strengths of new £59.7million record-signing Angel Di Maria either and would also stutter the development of Belgian wonderkid Adnan Januzaj, both of whom require space to run into and attack. They are both at their fluid best getting at opposing full-backs from wide areas.
Furthermore, do the Red Devils possess strong enough central defensive options to merit playing three in the same side? Tyler Blackett was excellent in the US but looks understandably nervous in Premier League and Jonny Evans, who I’ve long said is United’s best centre-back, has been mistake-riddled of late. I’m a big advocate of Phil Jones, who I think has come on leaps and bounds in a difficult period while playing in his preferred central berth and youngster Michael Keane fits well in the role too but still has much to learn. Ultimately there probably isn’t enough strength in depth at present to justify playing three at the back in my opinion.
Also, the formation is supposed to be tailored to bring the best out of the front three – Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney – but they’ve looked off colour and chasing shadows. There seems to be no cutting edge, no penetration and perhaps a change of shape - something that van Gaal has alluded to when discussing how he plans to integrate Di Maria into the side. He might freshen up things.
4-3-3 would bring natural width, midfield control and an attacking nature – all three components key in the historical Manchester United blueprint. Whether this approach, or van Gaal’s 3-5-2 brainchild, is utilised or not, a holding midfielder is imperative.
An authoritative, domineering figure like Daley Blind, Arturo Vidal, William Carvalho or Nigel De Jong to play as an anchor-man in front of the defence, breaking up the play and being the catalyst in the transition from defending to counter-attacking would give the midfield more bite and aggression in either of the philosophies.
With all of that said, it’s still too early to say 3-5-2 is a failure and give a definitive judgment on the style, but the initial signs aren’t promising. I support the notion of Louis van Gaal trying to instil his own methods at Old Trafford and bring a new philosophy but going back to the tried and tested, especially with the three promoted teams – Burnley, Leicester and QPR – up next, might be best for morale.
Time will only tell whether 3-5-2 will eventually flourish or whether reverting to a more fluent formation will be employed. I just hope the sharp decline of Manchester United halts as soon as possible.
By Neil Vincent - Manchester United/Bristol Rovers fan - @