James Wilson came off the bench to score United’s second goal in Saturday’s victory over QPR, though it was his overall performance which might give Louis Van Gaal some selection dilemmas in the coming weeks.
Manchester United struggled to create many chances in the first half against QPR and Van Gaal freely admitted in his post-match press conference that his side had played the way their opponents wanted them to, with high and long balls often causing no problems for the opposition.
The subsequent change to a 4-4-2 diamond formation allowed United to create, and concede, more chances, though their superior quality in attack eventually proved enough for the side to win, despite the perceived lack of balance in the diamond.
It was the introduction of James Wilson which provoked the change in formation as he replaced Jonny Evans on 57 minutes. Whether the change was forced, tactical, or a combination of the two, Wilson’s presence in attack gave United another option in forward positions whilst allowing other players, such as Angel di Maria, the chance to make a greater impact in a different position.
The change allowed Di Maria to play in a deeper midfield role where he has perhaps played his best football for Man United. However, Van Gaal has experimented with the Argentine’s position on a few occasions this season, notably in the defeat to Southampton where he was played in a more advanced position, often cited as the “Robben role”.
Indeed, in Van Gaal’s Dutch side at last summer’s World Cup, Robben played in a more central position in attack as he was tasked with making the runs behind opposition defences to make the most of his pace on and off the ball.
Whilst Di Maria possesses some similar attributes to Robben in terms of his technical ability and pace, the United midfielder tends to have a greater impact when playing as a central midfielder in a deeper position. This was a position he regularly played in for Real Madrid last season to great effect and has shown similar glimpses of brilliance in this position for United, too.
It is perhaps Di Maria’s pace which has convinced Van Gaal to experiment with the player in this position. For all the technical quality which United possess in the final third in players such as Juan Mata, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Radamel Falcao, none of these players possess the pace to excel in the “Robben role”.
As it doesn’t appear Van Gaal will be dropping the 3-5-2 formation any time soon, playing Wilson as one of two strikers in this formation would make great sense. Wilson’s pace and movement, combined with the clinical finishing of one of United’s more experienced frontmen, could give the side another option in attack and provide an added impetus in their transition from midfield to attack. This would also give Di Maria the licence to dribble forwards and find a pass from a deeper position, as he did against QPR on Saturday.
A change of this nature could then also give Rooney or Mata the opportunity to make an impact in a more advanced midfield role, more akin to their favoured “no.10” role, where they have both enjoyed great success in the past.
Such changes could allow United to create chances in a greater variety of ways in a formation which the fans have often bemoaned this season. Though the 3-5-2 may provide greater defensive solidity in terms of goals conceded per game (0.8 with a back three vs. 1.2 in a back four), a chance for Wilson to play as one of two main strikers could lead to United creating more chances whilst remaining relatively solid at the back.
All that combined with the opportunity to give one of the clubs best youth prospects a chance in the first team could prove a popular move amongst the fans. If that resulting change did see United become more creative in the final third, it would at least allow the fans to regain the belief that a top four place is achievable this season.