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8 Things We Learned about van Gaal’s System

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With the Dutch manager set to take over Manchester United after the World Cup,  United fans will be curious as to what to expect from his philosophy.Watching the Holland v Ghana match over the weekend, we can see what Louis van Gaal has in store for the Dutch. But what does this mean for United? We’ll take a look at some general principles illustrated in this match which he may also bring to Manchester United after the World Cup.

Here are the 8 components we noticed about van Gaal’s system for the Dutch and how it may be useful for United:

  1.  Tactical fluidity – On Saturday, Holland played a 3-4-3 but depending on the game situations, would fluidly transition to a 5-3-2 or a 3-5-2 which allowed the Dutch to assert their control on the match in different ways.
  2. Energetic and combative engine room – In van Gaal’s system, the center midfielders work tirelessly. Pressing the opposition, cutting out attempted passes through midfield and assisting the fullbacks in wide defensive overloads (aka double/triple team).  They are very instrumental in forcing the opposition wide and quickly recycling possession when the team is on the offensive.  Specifically, the center midfielders always look for a probing pass through the middle but are instructed to the move the ball quickly to either flank to keep the opponent on its toes.
  3. Combination play in central areas – Last season under Moyes, United mainly used the wide areas as the main route and space to create chances for the team.  There is no better example than the 81 crosses attempted against Fulham at Old Trafford. van Gaal’s system for the Dutch makes use of the wide areas but the end goal is to create openings in central areas.  From here, the players look to then exchange quick, neat 1-2 passes with teammates in central spaces to further open up the opposition in an attempt to fashion a shot on goal.
  4. Interchanging creators – An interesting concept which van Gaal seemingly toyed with against Ghana.  Sneijder and Robben took turns operating in a central role while van Persie joined the attack from a wide right position. At times, the Ghana defenders were not sure who to pick up because Sneijder/Robben would occupy space between the flank and central midfield (known as halfspace) which meant either the LB,CB or DM had to choose whether or not to close down the player in this space, knowing it would create defensive gaps elsewhere. This is exactly how the Dutch scored their goal has Robben took advantage of this hesitation and combined with Sneijder to setup van Persie with what would be the only goal of the match.

    As a reference, United fans can look to how Moyes allowed Mata and Kagawa late in the season to act as a pivoting axis in midfield to create openings on either side of the pitch and help take pressure off Rooney in the 9 role. However, under van Gaal’s system, they would be higher up the pitch and interchanging positions in different spaces. Mata & Kagawa interchanged positions as if connected by a horizontal axis across the pitch whereas Sneijder & Robben were more vertical and direct.

  5. Varied offensive transitioning – When the ball is won deep in Holland’s own half, offensive transition is focused on maintaining possession leading to a slower buildup out of the back.  If the ball is won higher up in their own half or in the opponent’s half, players then look for a quick counter. Often times, after winning the ball in these situations, ball is played to furthest forward player whose task is to hold the ball up giving time for support runs from other attackers.
  6. Pressing – The Dutch pressed and harried Ghana’s players relentlessly in the opening minutes and hopefully we see a similar tactic when van Gaal arrives.  It shifted the momentum of the match in Holland’s favor and allowed them to dictate play as Ghana was rattled from the Dutch pressure.  The early pressure paid off as it was in this period where Holland scored.  The pressing starts with the attackers who attempt to recover possession in high areas and counterattack immediately.

    Anytime the Dutch lost possession, one or two players would immediately press the ball carrier while the others cut off passing options.  If the opposition found its way past the initial press, de Jong or de Guzman (the 2 CMs that day) would front the attacker to force him to make a decision. If this phase is also bypassed then the players retreat to more organized defensive positions.

  7. Mixed passing style – Although van Gaal’s system is focused on good ball circulation and maintaining possession, he does give room for his players to mix it up. There were several times throughout the match where a vertical, over-the-top pass was made to player furthest up the pitch.  We should expect to see these type of passes when the opposition chooses to press high as Ghana did in the second half or when there are reduced passing options for the ball carrier. A vertical pass is common way to break a high press and in a few occasions, it led to some good breaks for Holland despite them not capitalizing on such opportunities with a goal.
  8. Good player spacing – The spacing and positional structure of the Dutch players allowed them to move the ball quickly up the pitch and recycle possession effectively.  It also led to maintaining a good passing rhythm and tempo which is instrumental in playing an effective passing game. For United, this will be a key component in counterattacks as last season, United scored very few goals from counterattacks and much was due to the players’ spacing after recovering possession.

What could this mean for Manchester United?

Well at the very least, we can be certain van Gaal will make sure each player clearly knows their role in his philosophy. Last season, Manchester United looked bereft of ideas when the opposition set their stall out and you wondered how well the players knew their roles from their performances and disjointed attacks. We should expect to see a more cohesive pressing scheme, more sophisticated play in the final third, good balance between attack and defense and hopefully a return to the lightning quick counterattacks United have been known for over the years.

van Gaal also isn’t afraid to put players in different positions than what they prefer. Against Ghana, he experimented by using van Persie in a withdrawn right forward role where the Dutch striker assisted Janmaat (right wing-back) in defense and then partnered with Sniejder and Robben in attack. It was similar to how Martinez used Lukaku on the right against Arsenal and surprisingly enough, the impact was very similar too.

So if we see Rooney in midfield next season or wide left, we shouldn’t worry. “King Louis” always has a plan and in time, it will be plain for all to see.

Thanks for reading!

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2 Responses to “8 Things We Learned about van Gaal’s System”

  1. Redmike7 says:

    Very informative, some good observations here

  2. Krish says:

    Rooney In midfield. Yes i think that will be the first move Van Gaal make. If rooney accepts it with out usual tantrums, then i think we are in for a treat. Otherwise i foresee rooney leaving either in next summer or as early as January.

    One thing is for sure. Van Gaal likes a midfielder going forward to be No.10 and he should be intelligent too. He should deliver 20-25 goals a season. The above description suits Mata perfectly in my view.

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