Following Holland’s progress in the World Cup deploying the system, it was always likely that Louis van Gaal would consider bringing the 3-5-2 formation to his new club, Manchester United. That the Dutchman is a coach of world-renown, with a trail of trophies and titles behind him in countries across Europe is of course widely accepted. What may be less well appreciated however is that his adoption of the formation was less part of a strategic plan, and more a reaction to the knee injury sustained by a key player.
Throughout the qualifying tournament for the World Cup, van Gaal had deployed his team in a more traditional 4-3-3 line up. With the passage to the final secured however, the manager’s plans were disrupted when Kevin Strootman, Roma’s Dutch midfielder suffered a serious knee injury in a Serie A game for ‘i Giallorossi’ back in March. As is often the way, although one of the lesser known amongst the ‘Oranje’ glitteratti, Strootman was a key component of the team. Offering the defensive solidity in the three-man midfield that allowed the more flamboyant players to express themselves, made the 24 year-old a recognised fundamental element to his manager, if perhaps more of an unsung hero to the watching public.
The national manager, faced with losing Strootman for the World Cup, quickly decided that in the absence of ‘an adequate substitute’ it would be necessary to reorganise his forces. To secure the midfield without his reliable anchor therefore, van Gaal opted to add numbers to the team’s engine room and settled on a 3-5-2 formation. In fairness, this was no radical departure for van Gaal. As one of the more innovative coaches of his generation, flexibility in the way he deployed his players was nothing particularly novel. Indeed, he had deployed a similar system during a period of his time with Barcelona. Additionally, in contrast to a large number of their British counterparts, Dutch players are often thought to be more amenable to adopting different ways of play. This clearly made the switch much easier to achieve effectively.
With the new formation in place, following a disappointing 2-0 defeat to France, the Dutch then went on a run of 10 unbeaten games – excluding defeat on penalties to Argentina in the World Cup semi-final – culminating in a victory to secure third place in Brazil. By this time of course, van Gaal had been appointed as manager at Old Trafford, and as success breeds success, converting United’s set up to the approach of the Dutch national team was clearly on the cards.
For a number of United’s players, the new set-up has served their aspirations well. Last season, with a fairly rigid 4-3-3 system applied by David Moyes, and even the season before by Sir Alex Ferguson, there was always the dilemma of trying to accommodate Rooney and van Persie in their favoured role as a central striker. Often this resulted with the England captain-apparent being shipped out to a more wide position where, although he performed adequately, it was hardly a satisfying experience for the player. Juan Mata, when signed for big money from Chelsea, similarly suffered when Rooney was deployed by David Moyes in the number 10 position behind van Persie, with the Spaniard this time exiled to the wide position.
Moving forward however, the 3-5-2 formation allows not only Rooney and van Persie to form a spearhead partnership, but also neatly accommodates Mata in his favoured position where his craft and passing ability can best be deployed to feed his strikers. All of a sudden, everybody is happy – or perhaps not.
Rumours still abound that van Gaal’s strong admiration for Strootman will lead to a bid for him in the January transfer window. At the moment, as the midfielder strives to regain health and fitness, any move is clearly unlikely to happen. Come the new year however, if all goes well, Strootman could be back and firing on all cylinders. Will van Gaal renew his interest in the player? And, if he does succeed in bringing him to Manchester, will that suggest a reversion to 4-3-3? A lot may depend on the success, or otherwise, that the club is experiencing with 3-5-2.
It’s perhaps a little ironic that if the formation that came about due to a knee injury he sustained, thus creating the need for a change to the Dutch formation, may turn out to also be the cause of Manchester United not seeking to buy Strootman after all.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘offsiderulepodcast’ website).