1. Van Gaal reintroduces the diamond
Last month’s decision to dispense with the diamond in favour of a 4-3-3 was successful in stemming accruals to Louis Van Gaal’s goals against column. Unfortunately, it also had the unintended consequence of reducing his side’s attacking threat. United’s primary creative outlet, Angel Di Maria, looked particularly discommoded by this switch, forced to toil in wide areas rather than his preferred shuttler role on the left of the diamond.
Having ridden his luck with a shaky looking 3-5-2 against Arsenal, Van Gaal was expected to persist with that shape today – indeed, media present at Old Trafford reported that his coaches had drilled the side in this configuration during the pre-match warm-up. Van Gaal chose to spring a surprise, however – United started the game with a back four and a midfield diamond, forcing Hull manager Steve Bruce to rush (other verbs are available) to his technical area in the opening minutes to clue his players in on the situation.
What of Di Maria? The switch back to the diamond did not coincide with a return to his natural position. He bizarrely continued as part of a front two as he had done against Arsenal last week. Alas, his game was short lived anyway. The Argentinian lasted less than a quarter of an hour before being withdrawn with a hamstring problem. Another muscle injury for United – bringing their total injury count during Van Gaal’s short-lived reign to 41.
Robin Van Persie, who had begun the game in an unfamiliar trequartista role, was moved up top at this point. His role at the point of the diamond was taken by substitute Ander Herrera, who went on to enjoy arguably his strongest performance to date in a United shirt. Herrera played a delightful through ball to Van Persie in the 39th minute, only for the struggling Dutchman to shoot tamely at McGregor with his weaker right peg. The left served him much better in the second half, however – crashing in a long range effort after Herrera had intercepted a misplaced Robertson pass in the final third. This was one of many successful ball recoveries that United executed high up the pitch today. Their pressing was extremely impressive, and benefits from having an energetic player like Herrera to lead it.
2. Hull outmanned and outgunned in midfield
Hull, for their part, were fielding a 5-3-2, with Hatem Ben Arfa playing just off Nikica Jelavic. This meant that while the three most advanced of United’s midfielders had direct opponents, holder Michael Carrick was completely free to receive the ball in front of his defence. Carrick went on to run the game, completing 108 of 117 attempted passes. Bruce, who had clearly instructed Ben Arfa to drop on to Carrick in those frantic opening minutes, was less than thrilled with his player’s efforts. Ben Arfa was hauled off in disgrace after only 35 minutes, after deciding not to track an Antonio Valencia run. His replacement Sone Aluko was far more enthused, but not much more effective.
Hull’s other three midfielders – Diame, Livermore and Brady – struggled massively to deal with the fluidity of United’s midfield. Brady was particularly overworked as United looked to focus the majority of their play down the right hand side. United ended the game with 77% of the possession and were allowed to complete a whopping 92% of their attempted passes – a shocking indictment of Hull’s commitment/ability/both to get near them. Admittedly only 176 of United’s 807 attempted passes occurred in the final third – but then the home side were one ahead after 16 minutes, and two up at half-time.
3. Converting possession into chances remains a problem for United
There remains some concern about United’s ability to penetrate the opposition with a wingerless formation, however. The dearth of players making runs in advance of the ball is still painfully evident and the home side were perhaps a little fortunate today to benefit from some shocking individual errors from Hull City players. All three goals could be attributed at least in part to the faux-pas of McGregor, Curtis Davies and Andrew Robertson respectively.
United only managed six shots on target throughout the game, which is troubling, given the level of absolute possession dominance that they enjoyed. Only three of those chances were created by a player looking to run in behind. The second goal resulted from a forward run from Ander Herrera toward the left-back area. United also had a pair of chances late on when Mata ran into the space vacated by Hull left-back Andrew Robertson, who had come into the middle to try (and fail) to dispossess Falcao. Mata squared to the Colombian, who was foiled twice in quick succession by two Michael Dawson blocks.
There is certainly a sense that if Van Gaal is going to persist with this shape, he needs to either incorporate more direct players, or encourage his existing players to be more direct. Both of his marquee strikers, Rooney and Van Persie, are players that naturally tend to move toward the ball. This, perhaps, gives us an insight into why Di Maria has been fielded in what most would consider to be a completely unsuitable position over the last couple of games.