Are Louis Van Gaal's tactics to blame for Man United's scoring struggles?
Manchester United's limp performance in Sunday's 1-0 defeat to Southampton was summarised neatly by one single statistic: they didn't manage a shot on target in a match at Old Trafford for the first time since 2009.
That statistic, however, isn't entirely surprising. In the reverse fixture they somehow managed to defeat Southampton 2-1 despite having only three shots. United have managed only the 11th-most shots in the Premier League this season, the eighth most on target, and the fact that they've scored the fifth-most goals is a reflection on the finishing qualities of the forwards, who have repeatedly bailed them out. Put simply, Louis van Gaal's players aren't creating enough chances.
There are two different problems here, although they're inevitably linked. The first is the nature of Van Gaal's preferred formation and, consequently, the structure of the attackers. The second is a recent stylistic development of those attackers.
The first point, the structure, is where Van Gaal received most criticism after United's disappointing defeat at the weekend. He is determined to persevere with the three-man defence, a system that's brought the Dutchman success elsewhere but is foreign to the Old Trafford supporters and has generally been unconvincing so far in this campaign. Van Gaal has often switched to a four-man defence midway through matches, albeit frequently because of injury.
The defensive section of the side isn't necessarily the problem, however, and the format of attackers seems more peculiar. Man United's three-man midfield is organised in a triangle, with Michael Carrick usually at the base plus Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata given license to move forward. This type of triangle naturally works effectively in a 4-3-3, as those players naturally move into pockets of space either side of a lone forward.
In conjunction with a front two, however, it feels flat and uninspiring. At the weekend, Van Gaal fielded Mata and Rooney behind Robin van Persie and Angel Di Maria, a quartet of wonderfully gifted attackers. Yet the positioning of these players compromised United's ability to play combinations between them, or drag the opposition out of position; they were frequently located in extremely narrow positions, failing to fill enough attacking channels or stretch the play. It was, quite literally, boxy: a square of attackers in the centre of the pitch.
In modern football, good goal-scoring opportunities often arise following clever lateral movement from an attacking player. This comes in two forms: the first is when a wide player drifts inside, as David Silva does so majestically for Manchester City. It sounds very simple but is a catalyst for so many things: it creates different angles of attack, opens up space for a full-back to advance, overloads the opposition in a central area, asks positional questions of the opposition full-back, means the midfielders have an extra forward passing option and ensures the forwards can remain high up the pitch.
The second type is a central player drifting wide, something Mesut Ozil could consider a specialty. Again, this causes the opposition confusion; central players don't like moving out wide in the defensive phase of play, while full-backs find it difficult when multiple players appear in their zone. It also encourages one of the wide players to cut inside, prompting dynamic and cohesive movement.
Against Southampton on Sunday, Manchester United had none of this. Everything about their play was entirely straightforward. The wing-backs surged up and down. Rooney and Mata dropped deep to collect the ball then ran into goal-scoring positions in the box. Most frustratingly of all, neither Van Persie nor Di Maria worked the spaces out wide, which is criminal from a front two playing in a narrow formation.
Most damningly of all, United's midfielders and strikers were making similarly vertical runs yet never crossed paths. Southampton were basically man-marking in midfield, but rarely did United cause problems by, for example, Van Persie coming deep to create space and Rooney or Mata running beyond him. None of the movement seemed cohesive.
Attacking in such straight lines isn't problematic if the overall approach is also about playing the ball forward directly, but United's build-up from deep positions is frustratingly slow. It gives opponents time to park eight men behind the ball before United's attackers get involved. Then, the poor and predictable movement becomes more obvious.
Another issue is simply about the nature of the attackers themselves. Van Persie, Rooney and Mata are all more basic players than when they joined Manchester United. All three are naturally creative players, considered No. 10s in their younger days, but have been pushed forward to become goal scorers rather than providers.
The most obvious case is Van Persie, who has developed from being a No. 10 to a false nine to, in his words, "a nine-and-a-half," and finally to a simple number nine. Van Persie's game is simple: he now thrives on good service, often on the outside of the far centre-back, and finishes coolly. But his creativity is now almost nonexistent. He's managed two assists this season and recorded only three last term, compared to nine and 10 in the previous two campaigns. "Chances created" statistics tell a similar story: down at 1.0 this season and 0.8 last season, compared to 1.9 and 2.4 in the preceding two campaigns.
This wouldn't be problematic if the creativity was coming from elsewhere, but Rooney is arguably a similar case. The debate about his best role has continued for the past decade (there's no point recapping here), but the basic situation is that Rooney seems more of a centre-forward or a second striker than a true No. 10, let alone as a central midfielder. He's a competent midfielder but his passes are generally diagonal balls out wide rather than dangerous forward passes.
Mata is a more curious case. The Spaniard is widely recognised as a playmaker yet has rarely stamped his authority on a game in Manchester United colours. Although his goal-scoring record of 11 goals in 33 games is very good, is he now more of a goal-scoring midfielder than a creator? Even his assists tend to be selfless final balls when already in dangerous positions; his excellent square pass for Van Persie to wrong-foot Brad Jones in the 3-0 victory over Liverpool is a good example. That's not really creativity; it's certainly not penetration either, which is what United lack.
Maybe Di Maria should be the one providing the incision. He offers it in a different manner, with a burst of pace to eliminate opponents, although that acceleration and mobility still create dangerous situations, draw opponents into different positions and enable passing triangles.
Yet Di Maria was fielded up front at the weekend; again, this works if United are playing on the break (see his goal against Yeovil in the closing stages) but not against a deep-set defence. Van Gaal is trying to recreate the role Arjen Robben played for him at the World Cup, but the Netherlands rarely dominated games in the way Manchester United expect to.
Manchester United's situation is hardly disastrous; finishing the season in fourth place was always the general target. However, Van Gaal has a reputation as a coach who drills his players relentlessly in his desired shape, creating a cohesive side that functions perfectly in possession of the ball with clever positioning and seamless movement. Right now, that feels like a very distant dream.