It's going to be an interesting season on the pitch; it's going to be an even more interesting season on the tactics boards. Just think of all those arrows being drawn, those dots being coloured, those percentages being totted. It's so exciting that we almost don't need the football itself. So, without further ado, let's run through what changes we can expect to see in the upcoming season of Manchester United tactics:
A tweaked shape
Pre-season has seen United shift from last season's traditional 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1; the difference being that the latter has an attacking midfielder instead of a single defensive anchorman. To put it in tacticspeak, Louis van Gaal has experimented with a ‘double-pivot,' with Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin all scrapping over one of the two deep midfield roles.
Van Gaal has justified the presence of an attacking midfielder due to a need for "variation in your attack," adding "I like that and I ask for that, especially from Memphis. It can also be Carrick or Schweinsteiger or Schneiderlin once in a while but mostly Memphis. It depends on our opponents." So while Van Gaal's leaving the option of tweaking the shape, it looks like a 4-2-3-1 is how United will head into the season.
It may seem a pretty minor change, but it still takes some getting used to. Indeed, Pep Guardiola is one man who really doesn't like the double-pivot, as fielding two players in such close proximity can stifle their vision and ability to dictate the tempo of the game from deep. But for United, that problem should be offset by the added defensive stability that should result from having the tough-tackling Schneiderlin in the centre of the field. For the time being, it looks a reasonably good fit.
United's failure (at least at the time of writing) to sign a replacement for either Robin van Persie or Radamel Falcao could lead to some experimentation up front this season. Alas, Wayne Rooney is all but undroppable for most matches, but should he be unavailable or Van Gaal rotates the lineup, we could see a surprise face replacing him.
In the pre-season friendly against Barcelona, Adnan Januzaj came off the bench to take Rooney's spot in the centre of attack -- and did pleasingly well in doing so. He appears to have been working hard in the gym, and the beefed-up Belgian's hold-up play was almost as impressive as his well-taken goal. It remains to be seen if that's Januzaj's best position in the long term, but it'd be surprising if that's the last we've seen of the experiment. There's surely a reason Van Gaal has been reluctant to loan him out.
Further tinkering could be conducted in the attacking midfield area, where United have a combination of players capable of playing in a variety of roles. Juan Mata will start the season on the right, but could play through the middle; Memphis will start the season through the middle, but could play out wide; youngster Andreas Pereira has been deployed just about everywhere in pre-season.
United have plenty of options, and it'll be interesting to see how Van Gaal uses them.
Less of Ander Herrera
It seems that the biggest loser from Van Gaal's summer tweaks is the man who last season stopped United's midfield from being a total laughing stock. Ander Herrera has only featured off the bench in pre-season, and it's hard to see him as a natural fit in Van Gaal's new formation.
Herrera's neither a disciplined holding midfielder nor a genius No. 10; he's somewhere between the two. His greatest attributes are the industry and dynamism he brings to the centre of the pitch in the form of tireless pressing and late runs into the penalty area. While that's all well and good in a standard 4-3-3, such a role doesn't really exist in a 4-2-3-1. He's too weak to play in the pivot, and probably not creative enough to start just off the striker.
It's unfortunate, but it seems United's best midfielder at the start of the summer is the one who has the biggest struggle to break into the starting lineup.
Last season United were pretty weak in the full-back department, with an unfit and oft-injured Luke Shaw ambling down the left, and poor Antonio Valencia looking like a rabbit in headlights whenever he was passed the ball on the right.
Happily, towards the end of last season Shaw appeared to be improving, and by all accounts he's heading into the new campaign in much better shape. Meanwhile, an actual right-back should take Valencia's place, with Matteo Darmian having arrived from Torino. I'll spare you all a paragraph about the importance of the Modern Full-Back, and just say it'll be nice to have a couple of players who can contribute to attack as well as defence.
That's not only facilitated by an improvement in personnel, but by the tweak of the midfield shape. With two holding players, it's easier for the gaps vacated by advancing full-backs to be plugged. For example, when Darmian busts a gut to get to the byline, Carrick can slide in to stop the opponents quickly countering down their right; when Shaw pushes on, Schneiderlin can do the same. United should look more solid.
Daley Blind at centre-back
And last but not least, and precisely because we can't pretend to be proper journos if we don't write a Fifth Thing, here's Daley Blind at centre-back. He's performed adequately in the absence of Marcos Rojo, and appears to have persuaded some people that he's ready to start there in the Premier League. However, for all of our sakes, let's pray that's only a temporary stop-gap before a last resort. If he's too weak to play in the centre of midfield, trying to get him to play in the centre of defence isn't going to end well.