There is a paradox at the heart of Louis van Gaal’s philosophy. While the regimental, structured approach gives United a defensive solidarity – flair seems to be reduced as players are encouraged to play the percentage game. In Europe that is something that could possibly favour United as games over two-legs often become like chess. However, while the measured build-up might be an advantage in Europe, the same cannot be said of the Premier League. Teams often put ten men behind the ball and ask the question of United – can you break us down? As people witnessed last season, and against Newcastle at the beginning of this one, the answer is often no. This is mainly because the opposing defences have got time to get organised due to United’s slow build-up play. There is a lack of pace when United have the ball and defenders are rarely dragged out of position. The game is played in front of the defence rather than in behind, which is where you generally tend to get the most joy. But as mentioned before this is a process which might help Van Gaal in Europe were protecting leads – and not conceding away goals – become vital. He has the option of switching between a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 (likely to be used to protect leads) to a 4-3-3. In a 4-3-3, he can put pacey wingers on either flank like Memphis Depay and Adnan Januzaj as well as bring in Ander Herrera into midfield. The team would look a lot more dynamic on paper and give United a threat on the counter attack.
United look very laboured in the first-half, and apart from Rooney’s goal, they rarely looked like getting in behind the defence. But the introduction of Bastian Schweinsteiger changed everything as it freed up Herrera. The rotation between the German and the Spaniard was excellent while Michael Carrick stayed disciplined as the shield just in front of the back four. At times, Schweinsteiger played the Regista role (deep-lying playmaker) but he shared this responsibility with Herrera. As a result, United created a succession of chances and regularly broke down Club Brugges’ fragile defence. What was also noticeable was United’s threat on the counter because the three-man midfield allowed Depay and Young – who came on as a late substitute – to stay high up the pitch. This meant that whenever Rooney dropped deep to initiate counter-attacks he always had a winger on either side of the pitch to pass, too.
Even in a poor first-half showing from United, Rooney played well and deservedly got his goal. Depay cut inside and hit a lovely reverse ball which the striker latched onto before dinking the ball over the top of the keeper. The 29-year-olds influence grew even further when Van Gaal changed the system in the second half but what is clear is that if given service – Rooney can still finish. There have been many issues with Rooney this season but in his defence he has been isolated. The burden on a striker in a 4-2-3-1 is very high as he is expected to hold the ball up as well as score goals. However, in a 4-3-3 the striker tends to have support further up the pitch and this proved to be the case in the second half. Every time the striker picked the ball up around the half-way line he had someone to pass to on the wings. The other noticeable aspect is how playing a number 10 can sometimes inhibit Rooney as he often looks to occupy that space to initiate attacks. When Adnan Januzaj was involved in the first-half Rooney held his position as an orthodox number nine – but his impact on the game diminished because of this.
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