An Extensive Analysis of Van Gaal’s tactics against Arsenal


van gaal tactics


• The front four are fairly well established at this point and the tactics up front were pretty much what we’ve seen since Martial’s arrival. Memphis playing as a mostly traditional winger with the exception of an emphasis on ball control over crossing. Rooney playing mostly as an Attacking Midfielder but quite frequently pushes up into a traditional Centre Forward role when Martial goes wide and Mata tucks in. Martial plays mostly as a Centre Forward, but his pace means he quite often moves wide onto the right, especially on counterattacks to compensate for Mata’s deficiencies as a winger, when this happens Mata tends to move into the centre as an attacking mid.

• The midfield pairing was Schweinsteiger and Carrick. Scwheiny appeared to be playing his version of a box-to-box role with Carrick playing as a Deep lying playmaker. Now I have to make an assumption here as to what Van Gaal wanted because I don’t think his vision played out. I think he wanted Carrick to move either in-between Smalling or Blind when vulnerable to counterattack, but the score line meant he really had to be further up the pitch for most of the game. This midfield was probably chosen because Carrick is better at playing the false-CB role than Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger is better going forward. That said I didn’t see Carrick drop in much, but it’s the best way I can understand his selection.

• The fullbacks were not fullbacks in the traditional sense. I believe whilst United’s formation was the usual 4-2-3-1, van Gaal expected to dominate possession and attack in what has previously appeared to a be a defensively fragile Arsenal and as a result United were supposed to move forward in such a way that’d they would  function as a 3-3-4/3-4-3 (depending on whether Rooney was in the CF role or MF role). Darmian and Young both have experience as Wingbacks, however I don’t believe either have played as Wingbacks with Wingers in front of them. This was a risk, it was a signal that United were there to take Arsenal on the front foot and attack.

• The Smalling – Blind connection is a double-edge sword. The best thing about their partnership is that one’s weakness is the other’s strength. The worst thing about their partnership is that well they both having glaring weakness in this system that can be exploited. For Smalling that’s his passing game, which is fundamental to a possession based system, and for Blind that’s his strength and tackling ability. I also think they were asked to operate slightly differently in this game than before. Smalling was clearly asked to cover for the Blind and Young and as a result spent a large amount of time in the centre of the pitch. This left Darmian to operate as both the RB and RCB whilst also being asked to contribute upfront.


• Like all good coaches van Gaal would have schooled the team on what to do if they went behind early. However it would be mostly speculation considering how early the game went to 2-0. I would guess that United would have played the same way, as I believe van Gaal was in for an offensive battle.


• I’m less certain as to whether van Gaal would have had a game plan for going 2-0 behind as early as they did. I’m sure he assumed that if such a score line would occur it would be at the very earliest by halftime and he’d be able to adjust.

• From what I saw he didn’t adjust the tactics with the exception of Carrick not playing the false-CB as much and Schweiny being asked to move even further up the pitch.

Half Time

• Valencia came on for Darmian: As I said Darmian was left with a lot of work in this game, and unfortunately he didn’t cope. Darmian’s best qualities are his ability to predict behaviour and then either but his body in the way or make the tackle. He was basically left with a quarter of the pitch to defend and he simply didn’t have the pace to pull it off. Valencia was most likely thrown because even if he couldn’t defend as well, he was fast enough to get to players and put pressure on. There’s no use being good at physical defence if you’re nowhere near a player.

• Fellaini for Memphis was not a huge surprise, at least in terms of Fellaini coming on. I can only assume that all pretence of defensive fullbacks had basically disappeared at this point and they were being asked to provide the majority of the width going forward, although Martial and Rooney did drift wide every now and then.

• The arrival of Fellaini didn’t actual translate into a large amount of long balls however they were definitely used, and increasingly so towards to the end. I can only think of one time when they were moderately successful but if I remember correctly the following ball was scuffed by Fellaini.

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• Martial seemed to play a much larger role in this half and the tactics seemed to have a very large shift away from the rotating forwards role that Memphis, Rooney and Martial have played and towards having Mata, Fellaini and Rooney as passing routes up field with their main goal being, get it to Martial.

• United dominated possession and field position this half and even had two clear goal scoring opportunities, but it’s worth noting, Arsenal were no longer prepared to take them on offensively and were happy to play out the rest of the game defensively.

Wilson On, Mata Off

• The optimist in me says this was a positive move to throw another striker on the pitch with more offensive, striking ability and was a clear tactical shift to get 3 in the last ten minutes.

• The cynic in me says this was an opportunity to play a young player in a game we knew we had lost and that hopefully he could bag a goal or an assist and gets some confidence.

• The cynical side is more likely correct considering Mata has been one of United’s best goal scorers and Carrick would have come off (with either Fellaini or Mata dropping into a CM role) if it was a signal that van Gaal believed they still had a chance.


• Van Gaal wanted to take Arsenal head on, whether this is a response to criticism that he’s too defensively focused or whether he believed that Arsenal’s defence was simply vulnerable enough to exploit in a game where 3 points was more beneficial than 0 points was detrimental, is unknown. But more likely the latter.

• Offensive Fullbacks, Rotating Front Four, Two Defensive Mids playing Box-to-Box and false CB respectively, a ballplaying CB and an almost Sweeper-esque CB.

What went right?

• The Rooney, Mata and Martial trio played fairly well in the first half. The rotations were fluid and there was definitely a lot of confusion caused by their consistent positional shifts and runs onto the ball.

• Second Half Martial was brilliant, there was a transition from the rotation three towards him as Centre Forward, his hold up play consistently amazes me, he is much stronger than he appears, his ability to dribble out of tight spaces is great. Basically the fact that he’s 19 and already playing so well is exciting.

What went wrong?

Everything. Simply put, van Gaal’s tactics did make sense in theory. He took a punt, one that could have paid off, but it didn’t. I don’t think he expected Wenger to actually call his bluff for a battle of the forwards, but that’s what happened and he got punished. They had scored two before United’s forwards had even touched the ball.

• I personally don’t think Memphis played as badly as people have made out, but he didn’t have a good game either. He’s young, he has promise, I’m not worried yet. Playing with quasi-wingbacks may have him apprehensive, he has played as a Striker with wingbacks and as a winger with fullbacks, but with exception of a few late Young subs, this is fairly new to him, it’s fairly uncommon for wingers in general to have to play as wide but only sort-of wide.

• Martial did have a good game, but there were times he tried to take the team on his back. It is probably unfair to criticise him for that, as if his selfish dribbles paid off he’s be lauded and he was absolutely asked to play that role.

• Rooney, I don’t even know anymore. The team plays better when he’s in the squad, but increasingly his individual performances may be counteracting that. I still think he has a spot in the first XI, but a Winter transfer of a Right Winger could definitely throw his spot in jeopardy considering Mata and Martial’s performances. He definitely wasn’t all bad, and he was one of the better players but he just seems to have no confidence in his passing ability and hesitates way too much.

• The Schweiny-Carrick partnership. The Codger Midfield as it were didn’t perform as a duo or individual as well as we’ve seen. Carrick is a great player as Deep Lying Playmaker and as a Centre back, but asking both of him was probably too much. I love seeing Box-to-Box Schweiny and he definitely threatened enough times, but he simply needs someone faster next to him or someone defensively better infront of him. Hindsight is 20/20 but Schneiderlin simply has to start, he just too good defensively.

• I feel sorry for Darmian, too much was asked of him, for the role he was asked Valencia was probably the better choice in hindsight, but I can absolutely understand why van Gaal would hesitate to take yet another strong tackler out of the line up.

• Young was asked to play left back but it seems he was given assurance that Blind and Smalling would cover him. I think Young took this advice too much too hard and forced Blind and Smalling to continuously play more to the left than was ever intended. United were constantly stretched over the first 30 minutes and Smalling had to come consistently lefter and lefter to cover both Blind and Young leaving Darmian forced to deal with both Walcott and Sanchez, their fastest players.

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Van Gaal:

• I would hesitate to be too critical of van Gaal, he probably wanted more creativity and less rigidity, this line-up absolutely could have provided that if things went slightly differently. It didn’t though, ultimately it was the wrong decision.

• He mentioned that over half the team didn’t do what was asked of them, and I agree, however I also think what was asked of them was probably too much, too new and against one of the best sides in the league naive and even condescending.

The Future:

• I imagine van Gaal will revert to his more considered approach to a backline. Luke Shaw being out is an absolutely travesty for what he offers, but he has no choice. I imagine Blind will stay in the middle as his passing from the back is too good. Against smaller teams Darmian-Valencia may become a common partnership, but I imagine Young will need to start challenging Memphis’s position not as a FB. Rojo could do well as LB, but his injuries and off-field behaviour is not warming him to van Gaal I imagine.

• Transfer wise; I think a solid fullback is needed. Not necessarily one who’d challenge Shaw or Darmian, but someone who can do a job. Alternatively a more defensive Ballplaying left-footed Centreback (but I would have no idea who fits that role) would allow Blind to serve that role. A right winger could do so much for this side whether that be to allow Mata into the centre of even just to threaten Rooney enough to start playing better. Long term Man United need another CM, Schweiny and Carrick have time limits, but I don’t think it’s that important for the upcoming winter transfer period.

• Overall I don’t think much will change. The rotation four of Memphis, Rooney, Martial and Mata works for the most part, but I can see Young challenging Memphis and to a lesser-extent Rooney for their position. The midfield needs Schneiderlin with Schweinsteiger playing the main starter role with Carrick replacing him or Herrera when playing against teams where defence is less important and Schweiny needs a rest. Some may call for Herrera to adopt the AM role or RW role as he has a great partnership with Mata, I’m not necessarily against it, But I think someone needs to assume the Rooney role as team talisman, right now it’s him and Carrick, and Carrick is not going to play every game. Schweiny obviously has that ability but he won’t do it unless asked, and of course Smalling is almost definitively United’s next Captain, so I’d love it if van Gaal started calling on him more to take that role.

Positional Index

Just a quick note so people know what I’m saying by the names I’m giving to positions as I know people use terms differently (looking at you EA FIFA)

Centre Forward – The most advanced player on the pitch, sometimes used as a target man

Wide Forward – More common in two striker systems (we have a 1.5 striker system as Rooney’s role is blurred) but essentially a forward who stretches the defence wide so as to provide space for the CF, although if he’s not picked up on is often left with plenty of space himself. Whilst a 4-2-3-1 system usually plays without one (although many AMs are natural second strikers and play that role anyway) the fact that our front four rotate so frequently we quite often transition in a way that Martial or Rooney play that role, usually the former.

Box-to-Box – It technically means a player that plays both defensively and offensive but I know that I tend to use it when referring to the more advanced midfielder in a midfield two as opposed to the Defensive Mid. So in a 4-2-3-1 there is often a DM, B2B and AM.

Sweeper – An actual sweeper played behind the backline, I’m just using it here to describe Smalling’s role, he’s often ever so slightly behind Blind and ready to run behind him if necessary.

False-CB – The vast majority of DMs do this anyway when one or both fullbacks are up the pitch but basically its when a DM drops in between his two centrebacks for extra defensive protection against the counter. It’s not a real position because as I said, that is the role of most DMs on the counter.

-C.K. Hodgkinson

This post first appeared on r/reddevils

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