Tactics Analysis: Man United's 3-5-2 Formation
Swansea City open their Premier League season with another tough game against Manchester United, this time away at Old Trafford after last year's 4-1 opening defeat against the Red Devils at the Liberty Stadium.
There was plenty of attention on United after Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement and David Moyes' first big game as he filled the almighty boots of his successful predecessor - proving to fail quite miserably having struggled to cope with the pressure in one of the toughest jobs in world club football - given the pressure and the demand for instant success following their dominance in English football.
This season is no different, as Dutchman Louis van Gaal takes over from Moyes - and you instantly get the feeling that this is more like the appointment they need to restore the continuous year-on-year success that Ferguson achieved in an unbeatable 25-year reign as manager.
van Gaal is known to be quite a slow starter with new clubs, and he has already stated that it could his players up to 3 months to fully understand his system and way of playing, as he adopts the 3-5-2 formation that proved so effective for his Holland team in the recent Brazil World Cup. That will be the focus of this tactical analysis, how Manchester United's 3-5-2 has looked over pre-season, what the Swans can expect and what they might need to do to avoid another heavy opening defeat against the former Champions.
'the formation changes - but the philosophy always stays the same'
van Gaal has used many different formations during his career but he always stuck with the same philosophies of playing attractive football 'the Dutch way', but according to Louis, the formation is determined by the players available. He's used 4-3-3 and even 4-4-2 but he has most recently used and preferred a 3-5-2 - and you can understand why - if you have the right players.
In the recent home friendly 3-0 defeat against Villareal, Garry Monk's side showed the opposite of the above, using the wrong formation with the players available. He only had one winger, with Routledge injured and Dyer unavailable due to personal reasons, but he used a 4-4-2 setup, which was severely lacking balance.
Sigurdsson offered no width whatsoever leaving Rangel without any attacking support, drifting inside to join Gomis - and this problem was never resolved throughout the 90 minutes. Sigurdsson is clearly no winger, but he still should have stuck to his position, offered width and support to the full back to ensure the team was well balanced across the pitch.
United's dynamic 3-5-2
With the right players, effective wing backs who are disciplined and can do both the defensive and attacking work well, the 3-5-2 formation is arguably one of the most effective systems in football these days, and there's a number of key aspects to it that the Swans will need to manage if they want to avoid a heavy defeat.
Like the Swans, United will always want to play out from the back to build attacks. The two wide centre backs will move wide to create passing angles and the defensive midfielder will drop deep to retrieve the ball from defence to move the ball up into the middle third.
Liverpool, in their International Champions' Cup final match adopted a 4-3-3 system and pushed high up to try and stop United from playing out from the back and frustrate them. They did so early on, and forced them into mistakes, poor passes and losing possession often. However, they backed off further in the second half and United scored 3 goals to win the game quite comfortably in the end after trailing at the break.
As you can see below, the wing backs push up to provide width. The two wide defenders split to cover them, and if they lose possession, the defensive midfielder (Fletcher in this example) can drop deeper to ensure a 4-man defence.
During their pre-season games, United, when confident and pushing forward with their wing backs, effectively were now playing a 3-2-5 formation with the two strikers at the same level as the 2 wing backs and the attacking midfielder. This is where concerns come in that United could dominate and outnumber the Swans in this area of the pitch. In some games during the Summer, United's Wayne Rooney dropped deeper to add support in the centre, with Welbeck being the top striker and available for a through ball or final cross.
If United do lose possession
As mentioned, if United do lose possession, their system is dynamic enough to avoid leaving as many gaps and space for the opposition to exploit. If the wing backs are pushed up too high, which is likely to be the case at Old Trafford, then the wide centre backs cover the full back areas of the pitch, and the likes of Fletcher and his midfield colleague can drop deeper to join the defensive line.
The image below now shows both teams - when the Swans have won possession in the middle third - assuming they're playing deep with two close lines of four - which they sometimes did last season under Monk - even at home.
Counter attacking and direct balls could be key for Monk's side and the likes of Ki and Shelvey picking the runs of the wingers, or even an attacking midfielder through the central channel.
When Swansea are in possession in defence
When possession is lost, or the opposition are in possession in the first third, United push 3 or 4 players up in an attempt to regain possession quickly. Below, shows the two strikers closing off the passing angles to the full backs, with the two central midfielders prepared to close down Shelvey and Ki.
The wing backs drop deeper to cover the wingers, and again Swansea look outnumbered in key areas of the pitch. On the flanks for example, Rangel and Dyer can work well as an attacking duo, but they could be outnumbered with United's triangle of number 52, 8 and 12. So you can see how dynamic the 3-5-2 could prove to be, whether it's attacking or defending.
If United play deeper, which seems rather unlikely at home, the wing backs drop back and United have a 5-3-2 system, making it very difficult for Swansea City to get past that defensive wall.
It could be a massive risk, but Swansea City could push higher up against United to try and avoid them having their backs to the walls, defending desperately and hoping for a lucky break here and there with a direct ball as a counter attack move.
Below shows how Swansea could push higher up, while United do the same with their wing backs. They can try and get in behind them, forcing the two centre backs wide and creating space through the middle.
You can't take too much from friendly matches, but van Gaal is trying to implement a 3-5-2 system and these ways of playing were always practised against the likes of LA Galaxy, Roma and Liverpool - which they all beat incidentally.
The only slight changes were their decisions on playing a little deeper or pushing up against lesser opposition. A key thing here was regarding how it's dynamic enough to allow them to often outnumber the opposition in key areas.
Moving 5 in the middle third, having width with 2 strikers up top. Against Villareal, Swansea City left far too many open gaps for the Spaniards to exploit, and they really should have scored more goals from open play.
The 4-4-2 setup just didn't work, there was no balance, and despite the fact that Monk concedes that the squad needs strengthening, regardless of the players available, the overall shape needs improving.
Tactical analysis thanks to Come On You Swans.com