EPL: No defence, no title

EPL: No defence, no title

Manchester United kept their second clean sheet of their tour of the United States yesterday morning (Singapore time), but Louis van Gaal knows that pre-season friendlies can be deceiving.

The Premier League will present a far greater test of his defence and, right now, it's a test his team will fail.

Put simply, they must strengthen the backline or, never mind a title challenge, they will struggle to retake their place in the top four.

Van Gaal has confirmed that he will be switching United to a 3-4-1-2 formation this season.

It's a bold and potentially brilliant move, with one minor problem.

As it stands, United have only three senior defenders - Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans.

Youngsters Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane have seen action in the US, but it seems unlikely that either of them will figure seriously in van Gaal's immediate plans.

But it is not simply a case of accumulating players to cover the existing staff.

This is a dramatic tactical shift, unprecedented in United's history.

The roster doesn't just need to be boosted, it needs to be improved.

The move to a back three is brave, but it's entirely in keeping with a growing trend across world football.

Van Gaal's Dutch side, of course, were highly successful in Brazil, creating a wall of defenders, flanked by sturdy, intelligent fullbacks.

Costa Rica raced all the way to the last eight with one.

In Italy, the back three reigns supreme where clubs like Juventus and Napoli have used it to great effect.

In England, Everton and Liverpool's occasional use of it has confounded opponents.

It allows a manager to either extend and strengthen the core of the defence, to leave a defender behind as a sweeper, to have him push up into midfield or, as Matthias Sammer used to demonstrate for Germany, a combination of all of the above.

So, this is no "hail mary" pass, but it is still something of a gamble, especially with British centre backs.

In the UK, young players still tend to revere the idea of a back four because it's all they've ever known. Some embrace the challenge, some resent it.

Over at Manchester City, Micah Richards publicly criticised former manager Roberto Mancini for his continued use of the scheme.

That's unlikely to happen at United.

Different Style

Jones, Smalling and Evans are all smart enough to know that they either get with van Gaal's programme or get out, but whether or not they will be able to settle into the new system quickly is a different matter entirely.

It's a very different style of football and van Gaal will surely want to have at least one defender in the line with some experience of it.

Any hopes of luring his World Cup defender Stefan de Vrij evaporated this week when the Feyenoord man agreed a move, yet to be completed, to Lazio.

Efforts to bring Thomas Vermaelen in from Arsenal continue, though you can guarantee that Arsene Wenger will do his best to stop that from happening.

The top name on their shortlist, Mats Hummels, is an even more difficult prospect.

Borussia Dortmund have no intention of allowing their man to leave but, even if they yield, Barcelona are known to have identified him as their No. 1 target, too.

With United out of all European competitions, Hummels wouldn't have to think too hard about that decision.

Van Gaal is keen to move quickly and he has already acknowledged that the first three months of his tenure will be the most difficult as the players acclimatise to his methods.

But he can't do the job unless he has the right tools.

Identifying what United lack is the easy bit. United have to move quickly now and resolve the issue.

Then, and only then, will they have a serious chance of recovery.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 31, 2014.
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