The Van Gaal Press

People have noted this season (particularly in the wake of the weekend’s dire Manchester derby), that midfielders are playing very deep against Manchester United. The trend is so noticable it’s hard to believe this is merely a tactical choice by the opposition, it seems to be a result of Louis van Gaal’s system.

To investigate, I’ve calculated touch and pass position data for central midfielders that have faced each team this year, shown below. The numbers show the average touch, pass origin and pass destination positions for all centre midfielders that have faced each team (the scale being 0-100, with 50 the half-way line):

Team Avg Touch Avg Pass Origin Avg Pass Destination
Manchester United 44.51926063 47.14841735 51.55053695
Leicester City 45.05928718 47.32132381 52.12353278
Manchester City 45.4496121 48.24134365 53.19319751
Liverpool 45.89123026 48.95034476 54.04786207
Swansea City 46.18809823 48.32293877 53.11346676
Southampton 46.25431495 49.22049595 54.61689272
Chelsea 46.50900395 49.70079151 54.99465714
Arsenal 46.8681167 50.68533242 55.81001527
Tottenham Hotspur 47.03199819 49.89996785 54.3030956
Norwich City 47.14109456 50.31740135 54.9030868
Aston Villa 47.45585136 49.54328543 53.8444452
Crystal Palace 48.13725296 51.21570527 55.9466553
Watford 48.24922592 50.75826777 56.71823835
West Ham United 48.77145302 51.10018841 56.01941418
Bournemouth 48.83120838 51.76185565 55.25849846
Everton 48.94061809 51.58424266 56.5168618
West Bromwich Albion 49.51670881 52.29698356 56.89588286
Newcastle United 49.94203841 52.23178746 56.66736148
Sunderland 50.02737643 52.0606335 57.20442918
Stoke City 50.58672432 52.27340464 56.65906781

First, average of averages klaxon, I’m actually calculating the average position of each centre mid in each game, then taking the average of those. That’s slightly naughty, but if you think of the first average as the player’s position within a system, we’re really just averaging out the systems, so I’m alright with it. I also think in at least one case, I’ve miscategorised players playing 4-1-4-1.

Manchester United sit at the top of this table – their opponents have less space to work with in the centre than any other team this year. But how are they doing it? Rewatching a few games, there are a couple of reasons.

First, it’s entirely possible that opponents are just giving Man Utd respect. If you push up against Man Utd’s centre and lose the ball, often they’ll switch it out wide and counter. Contrast Man Utd’s numbers to Everton’s above, another ostensibly possession-oriented side – if you lose the ball to Everton, Ross Barkley is just going to run into a dead end and give you the ball back, or they’re going to whack it forward for it to bounce off Romelu Lukaku with his back to goal. There just isn’t that same threat, but I don’t think this is the primary reason, and I don’t know why Man Utd would have more of a fear factor than City and Arsenal.

A second observation is that, Man Utd’s attackers have been very good defensively. Wayne Rooney has done few things well this season, but he’s actually doing a good job as a defensive forward, winning 8 of his 11 tackles in the opponent’s half, and dropping deep to press. Juan Mata has also attempted a surprising 14 tackles in the opponent’s half. It’s clear than Man Utd are defending well as an entire team.

But thirdly and most importantly, I think van Gaal has instructed his players to press in the centre of the field to the point that it sometimes looks like they’re man marking opposing playmakers. One thing I’ve noticed is that Rooney, Herrera and others are constantly communicating to pick up players in the centre:

It’s clear there’s a lot of organisation here, to keep central midfielders from having space anywhere near the centre circle, so it must be an explicit tactical instruction. But how did this all fall down against Arsenal?

First, somewhat ironically, Santi Cazorla seemed entirely happy to drop very deep, and his long passing was hitting the mark. There were also constant communication problems between Bastian Schweinsteiger and Memphis Depay over whose job it was to pick him (or indeed anyone) up. Lastly, Arsenal’s movement in the centre was just excellent that day, with Cazorla often drifting to make space for Aaron Ramsey dropping deep.

Arsenal’s first goal ultimately came from Depay wandering inside, unsure who to pick up, leaving Arsenal space to break (albeit skilfully) down the right hand side.

It’s possible you’ll disagree with my interpretation of the games, but there is no doubt that Manchester United have been very affective at driving opposition central midfielders deep, and I think the per-team data is very interesting to study going forward.

The Van Gaal Press