The art of defending has somewhat gone out of fashion in recent months, although this is the last mention of David Luiz and Brazil, I promise.
Last season’s Premier League title race was closely contested between a Manchester City side who, in Martin Demichelis, usually housed a defender who was a laughing stock for many before his improvement in the latter months of the season, and a Liverpool team which seemed to be the living embodiment of “you score three, we’ll score four.” It usually worked.
The fact that it did and that they and City contested a fascinating challenge which was deservedly won by the latter ensured “defending” was something of a dirty word in the last campaign. We all just wanted to see City and Liverpool attack and score goals. Stopping them at the other end was of little importance.
The pair have and will make improvements in this regard this summer, but whilst their next shot at glory will still likely be focused on attack, the same can’t be said for their mutual rival.
Louis van Gaal’s arrival at Manchester United has been met with much bluster, with the Dutchman benefitting from the principle traits of being an outspoken, quotable figure and simply not being David Moyes.
In many ways Van Gaal has inherited an easy job at Old Trafford, one in which he has such a low bar to climb over in order to do better than the last guy. As Homer Simpson once told Bart, one of the three sentences that will get you through life is “it was like that when I got here.” Van Gaal can always fall back on that if he isn’t successful.
He won’t have contemplated that possibility of course, but as he appears set to trust a three centre-back system at least at the start of his reign, much of his fate will be placed in the hands – or rather the minds and feet – of players who aren’t used to the United spotlight.
Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are the three most senior central defenders currently at the club, and so in the absence of a new signing in the position then the indications are that the trio will line up at Old Trafford in Van Gaal’s first competitive match against Swansea City in 13 days’ time.
All three have had their critics – although Evans has been quietly impressive for a while now – but they could hardly have wished for a better chance to prove themselves, or a manager who will be willing to give them that opportunity.
Because something changed in Van Gaal in Salvador, Brazil, on June 13th this year, the day that his Netherlands side lined up in a 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation and hammered the then world champions Spain 5-1. United fans were seeing their possible future if Van Gaal has his way. Contain and then ruthlessly counter-attack. This is how they’ll set up against technical, attack-minded teams and look to execute their plan, and this was certainly an execution.
Popular belief was that the system was only designed for the Spain game, but Van Gaal loved it so much he kept it for the rest of the tournament, and that’s where problems set in. The Dutch needed two late goals to see off Mexico in the second round and then didn’t score in a meaningful game again.
Because by its very nature – the fact that there are three men when there is usually two – it is a defensive system, meaning that if Van Gaal’s United are to challenge for the league title then they will be relying on that defence much more than the two teams who came closest last time.
The wing-backs, too, will have a huge say in their fortunes.
We all saw Dirk Kuyt and Memphis Depay – once considered forwards – play in the positions in the summer, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the likes of Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Nani, Adnan Januzaj or even Wayne Rooney play there on occasion ahead of the more recognised full-backs like Rafael or Luke Shaw. Indeed, Valencia could make the right-sided position his own.
Van Gaal didn’t invent the system, but he’ll probably have you believe that he did.
The addition of an experienced centre-back – Thomas Vermaelen looks the most likely, although signing Ron Vlaar from Aston Villa wouldn’t be as crazy as you might think – would help complete the jigsaw and help the system work, and then if United start winning with it then they could be hard to stop.
And the art of defending, with Van Gaal and his team at the forefront, could suddenly become cool again.
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