As the English Premier League enters it’s third week, memories of the epic one-month goalfest known as the 2014 FIFA World Cup has already become a distant memory. Louis Van Gaal can blissfully recall how his Netherlands squad thrashed Spain 5-1, put away Australia 3-0, and demoralized Brazil 3-0 thanks to his 3-5-2 formation. Roughly two months later, Van Gaal finds himself in heat.
Manchester United has yet to win a match after losing to Swansea City and tying with Sunderland. Moreover, they suffered a humiliating 4-0 League Cup defeat to League 1 side MK Dons. The lack of cohesion in the newly assembled midfield and poor quality of defenders have been major issues this season and Van Gaal’s insistence on sticking with the 3-5-2 has not been working.
Newly promoted side, Queens Park Rangers, have been experimenting with three backs and so far the results have been pretty ugly. QPR suffered a close 1-0 home defeat to Hull City before getting pummeled 4-0 by the rising Tottenham Hotspurs. Like United, poor midfield cohesion and lack of communication in the back three have made QPR look worse than they really are.
So is the 3-5-2 to blame for these clubs’ woes? It’s hard to argue against this compact and offensive formation given it’s success at the FIFA World Cup. Netherlands, Mexico, and Costa Rica have used this formation and performed above their expectations in the summer tournament, executing crisp counterattacks and exploiting holes in the opposing defense for golden opportunities. However, the level of cohesiveness in the international game dwarfs in comparison to the English Premier League.
With a decent amount of talent (and brilliant goalkeepers), Mexico and Costa Rica were fortunate to have a cohesive unit (With most players hailing from the same club or playing together on the national team for 3+ years) to utilize the 3-5-2 formation. Given the poor chemistry in most national teams, those two aforementioned countries and the Netherlands had a large margin of error on defense and had the comfort of pushing the ball forward at ease. In Costa Rica’s case, even if the likes of Uruguay, Italy, and England had dangerous players on their squad, Los Ticos could afford to make a few mistakes on defense because both countries didn’t seem capable of exploiting these holes like a professional football club could.
The English Premier League (let alone club football) is different from the World Cup. Louis Van Gaal is dealing with clubs where the core players have trained and played together on a weekly basis for more than three years. Making a switch to a risky formation that requires lots of discipline won’t turn the team into contenders overnight. Regardless of who is on the pitch, poor cohesion and tactical adherence will lead to humiliating defeats against the likes of MK Dons. Even if Robin Van Persie stepped in for Chicharito and Ander Herrera played over Anderson, the best result the Red Devils could have mustered would be a 1-1 draw.
The 3-5-2 is aggressive and supposedly free-flowing, but it’s also stressful. Every player on the pitch are restrained to specific location and have to measure his distance from specific teammates for the sake of ball movement. Wingers are forced to be selfless and cannot afford to venture up as much as they would like to, and everyone has a role on the defensive end. Switching from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 is not seamless for anyone and takes time to adjust. Every player cannot execute their job as if it’s second nature overnight and will need more practice and playing time to grasp it.
To put it short, Louis Van Gaal’s experiment won’t see results anytime soon. The 3-5-2 is not a quick fix to a struggling Manchester United team, but it does pose as a long term solution if United decides to keep Van Gaal on board. Just accept that a fourth place finish this season is a pipedream if United keeps their faith in Van Gaal and know that they will look dangerous next season if they play the 3-5-2 correctly.