Manchester United’s teamsheet suggested there would be defensive issues as the squad adjusts to a new formation, but also moments of magic and intelligent interplay from a world-class front three. Unfortunately for Louis van Gaal, only the former proved accurate.
United’s struggles with the 3-4-1-2 system were most obvious from the defensive performances of the wing-backs. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young are wingers shifted back into deeper positions, and it showed.
Young looked nervous in one-versus-one situations against Will Buckley, Sunderland’s dangerous right-winger, and made some hesitant passes in deep positions.
Valencia, meanwhile, had problems against Connor Wickham, and made some curious decisions – at one point ducking under a ball he should have headed clear. He also lost Jack Rodwell for Sunderland’s equaliser, although he had created Juan Mata’s goal by beating his opponent on the outside before firing in a low cross.
Van Gaal’s back three were not functioning particularly well, either, with Chris Smalling’s departure before half-time not helping the lack of cohesion. More than anything, United’s central defenders looked nervous, and often took up peculiar positions at deadball situations. At one point, when defending a wide free-kick, Tyler Blackett stationed himself five yards behind the rest of his side before being instructed to move forward and keep a consistent offside line, a basic part of defending such a set-piece. Later for a throw-in in United’s left-back position, Smalling advanced 15 yards in advance of his centre-back colleagues and was in no position to clear the ball.
Injured players will return to help United defensively, but further forward Van Gaal was able to call on his best three attackers. However, there were few examples of Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie combining dangerously.
The build-up play was alarmingly slow, and Rooney and Van Persie spent much time coming short, with no one making the reverse run to provide penetration. Mata’s goal showed his all-round midfield ability, starting the move from the centre circle before motoring into the six-yard box to finish, but overall he struggled to influence the game.
It is with the attack, then, that Van Gaal may be most concerned. He is surely using this system to get Mata, Rooney and Van Persie in their favoured positions, because it does not suit the rest of the squad. If those three do not perform, playing 3-4-1-2 becomes pointless, and the imminent arrival of Angel Di Maria would only add to the awkwardness in that shape.
The league season is only two games old, and the transformation will take much longer. There are few reasons for optimism.