THERE was a moment during Manchester United’s defeat to Southampton yesterday that I found astonishing and summed up the mystifying tactical problems that manager Louis van Gaal is yet to solve.
Having failed to muster a shot on target in the first 64 minutes, Van Gaal took off left-back Luke Shaw and brought on Tyler Blackett, a 20-year-old defender who only made his United debut in August.
It seemed to me like the Dutchman simply wasn’t willing to change the 3-5-2 system that he has persevered with this season despite it not suiting his players and being, to be blunt, rubbish.
That has to change sooner or later. To stick with three centre-backs in a match that is going against you is extremely negative and, for someone of the Van Gaal’s pedigree, surprisingly naive.
I think his use of 3-5-2 stems from the fact that he is not comfortable with his right-back options, but it is a specialist system and United’s centre-backs just aren’t good enough.
Rafael, United’s dedicated right-back, is a little raw and wild, but Antonio Valencia is neither here nor there as a wing-back, better able to attack when he knows he has cover behind him.
The formation doesn’t suit Luke Shaw on the other flank either, who prefers to have someone in front of him to play off. As a result United rarely get round the back and resort to crossing from deep.
The combinations are all wrong. Michael Carrick is perhaps the only United player being used in a role he is comfortable in.
Van Gaal didn’t have to look far for a potential solution yesterday, though, with Nathaniel Clyne excellent at right-back for a hugely impressive Southampton.
They harried in groups, the full-backs stayed tight to the centre-backs so that United couldn’t play passes in the gap, Graziano Pelle works his socks off up front and midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin does as good a job for them as the more celebrated Nemanja Matic does for Chelsea.
Ronald Koeman knows how to set up a team all right. He has great knowledge of the transfer market and then, crucially, uses pretty round pegs in round holes.
Van Gaal could do with following his lead, because right now Southampton look more likely than their immediate rivals, such as United, of stringing together a consistent, Champions League-qualifying run.