Manchester United travelled to Burnley in search of their first win of the season having been buoyed by the arrival of Angel Di Maria during the week. The Argentinian made his debut in midfield before a lack of match fitness took its toll, and the Reds laboured to a disappointing 0-0 draw.
As in previous outings, uncertainty in defence was tangibly on show and despite a wealth of possession, the Old Trafford outfit failed to breach the Claret’s back-line. Positives were few and with just 2 points from the first possible 9 the club will need to improve rapidly. Here are five things we learned from what was an underwhelming performance at Turf Moor.
1) Midfield Angel?
United’s record signing started in a midfield role alongside Darren Fletcher and after a few nervy minutes early on the former Real Madrid man grew into the game and showed glimpses of his talent. The Argentinian’s eventual regular position remains to be seen but there is no doubt that his passing ability and dynamic playing style render Di Maria a useful option in central midfield.
On numerous occasions United’s new no.7 broke from midfield and added pace and impetus to attacks. Moreover, there was certainly no hesitancy in seeking to find the strikers early with balls in behind the defence. A beautifully lofted pass into Van Persie who forced a good save from the Burnley ‘keeper was a pertinent example of the penetration the new man may provide.
Defensively, however, the £59.7m man’s eagerness to get forwards left his partner in midfield exposed at times and there is certainly an argument that Di Maria is far better suited to being the most advanced midfielder of a 3 as opposed to the restrictions placed upon him in a 2 if played centrally. Moreover, there is no question that he is now the most talented wide player at Van Gaal’s disposal should the Dutchman wish to switch to a 4-3-3, and it may be that fans see the best of Di Maria in a wider role.
A lovely flick round the corner before galloping on to the return pass was certainly a highlight and had Juan Mata not slipped Angel’s cut-back may well have resulted in a goal. The question remains as to where best to utilise Di Maria, but the talent is certainly there.
2) Building From The Back
Playing in Van Gaal’s chosen 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 formation puts a large onus on the 3 centre-backs to build from defence, pass the ball effectively and step into midfield when the opportunity arises. It was noticeable against Burnley that United’s current crop are struggling to adapt.
Too many times the centre-backs were hesitant and possession was conceded following speculative balls up the field. There were, of course, some good reasons not to offer Rio Ferdinand a new contract, but the new system is one in which United’s former no.5 would certainly have flourished.
New addition Marcos Rojo is likely to have been bought more for his ability on the ball than his defensive qualities. His pace and ability will unquestionably improve the Reds both in attack through his distribution and in defence where his pace will greater facilitate a higher defensive line.
Against Burnley ponderous balls from defence and a perceived lack of urgency hindered the tempo of United’s play and simply allowing the Old Trafford outfit’s defenders to have the ball whilst maintaining a tight and compact unit was too easy for the Clarets to employ.
3) Pointless Possession
Very much symptomatic of United’s inability to play effectively from the back were large periods of pointless and impotent possession. Throughout the afternoon the Reds’ play maintained a worrying lack of tempo, with the typical onslaught only materialising in the last 10 minutes of the game.
Although largely in control, United struggled to pose too many problems to the Burnley defence with their play assuming a familiar pattern of sideways passing across the back line and into midfield. Moreover, the type of long-ball tactic that would have been unanimously derided under David Moyes was prevalent to much of United’s play.
It should be noted (and Van Gaal has gone on record to this effect) that the 3-5-2 system is predicated on patient and deliberate build up, making the pitch as big as possible and dragging the opposition out of position. Nevertheless, it is hoped that in the coming weeks tempo and purpose to United’s possession begins to materialise.
4) What’s The Mata?
United’s no.8 is certainly one who divides opinion, often harshly following numerous outings away from his favoured position. However the Spaniard is one who should be benefitting immeasurably from the system deployed by the Reds’ new manager.
The freedom to play centrally behind two strikers should be bringing the best out of the diminutive playmaker but for large parts of the game against Burnley Mata was ineffective. A serious lack of pace has always been a worry but the Spaniard is the man who should be dictating play and unlocking defences in the 3-5-2 system.
But for an unfortunate slip, of course, Mata may well have had 2 goals in his first 3 Premier League games this season but there is no doubt that the Old Trafford Faithful have yet to witness the former Chelsea man’s truly top form.
With the arrival of Radamel Falcao possibly pushing Rooney towards more outings in a no.10 role and young talents such as Januzaj and even Andreas Pereira also fighting for the spot Mata may fall an unfortunate victim in the coming weeks.
The Spaniard’s form may of course simply be indicative of the overall form of the squad and a more free flowing United side may afford more space and greater options for the playmaker to show his true talents. But following an underwhelming performance against Burnley there is no doubt that if fortunes are to improve the club needs more from Juan.
5) Work In Progress
Van Gaal appears insistent on persisting with the 3-5-2 formation and has constantly advised that it may take 3 months for him to implement his philosophy. Whether the new additions to the squad will affect that and signal a shift to a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 remains to be seen but the draw against Burnley certainly served as a pointed reminder that patience will be required.
The Van Gaal era is very much a work in progress and history dictates that the manager has the credentials to get it right. The signing of Radamel Falcao certainly suggests that the Dutchman intends to continue to deploy two strikers. In that sense it may be that a fluid system begins to emerge which can vary in transition from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond with relative ease when necessary.
Daley Blind and Michael Carrick (upon his return from injury) may prove invaluable in facilitating Van Gaal’s philosophy in that both are well suited to sit at the base of a midfield diamond and then drop back as the central of three centre backs with the full-backs pushing on, producing a seamless transition from a narrow 4-4-2 diamond to a 3-5-2.
The advantage of both systems, of course, is that it allows United to field two strikers as well as a recognised no.10. To the same end, it would not be a surprise to see Michael Carrick deployed at centre back upon his return as his distribution would prove a significant asset from defence.
The performance against Burnley was underwhelming and very much in line with United’s competitive performances so far this season. Nevertheless, this is a new manager, a new system and a new philosophy and patience should be forthcoming.
Under Moyes there was always a hope as opposed to an expectation that things would improve and progression would materialise. But in Van Gaal the club has a proven winner at the highest level; he will get it right.