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Analysis: How will Manchester United line up against QPR on Sunday?

Can Louis van Gaal fit Falcao, Van Persie, Rooney and Mata into his starting XI?

THE TIME FOR excuses is over. Manchester United need three points against QPR on Sunday. Nothing else is good enough. A reboot is desperately needed. Two points from three games, a humiliating League Cup defeat to MK Dons and a grand total of two goals scored. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading.

But, after an incredible last few days of the transfer window, United can genuinely boast of having a collection of Europe’s finest players to count on for the remainder of the season and beyond.

Britain Soccer Falcao Blind Introduction Expect new signing Daley Blind to play in a holding midfield role should Van Gaal decide to start with a 4-3-3 formation against QPR. Source: Jon Super/AP/Press Association Images

Though having only played for seventy minutes against Burnley a fortnight ago, Angel di Maria was the team’s best player – his intelligence, awareness and vision providing the only spark for an otherwise lethargic United. Elsewhere, Daley Blind is a technically astute and flexible talent, his ability to provide telling crosses and through-balls (as well as the odd goal) plus a general appreciation of ball retention (a rare thing at United these days) should see him become a crucial ingredient. Marcos Rojo is a largely unknown quantity but his performances at the World Cup were certainly eye-catching as Argentina’s defence proved impenetrable at times. Luke Shaw, a David Moyes signing really (along with Ander Herrera) is finally set to make his debut at Old Trafford this weekend too though the most anticipated arrival is surely that of Radamel Falcao.

The Colombian’s signing has been greeted with suspicion in many quarters with a large amount of hardcore United fans stung by the home-grown and unsung Danny Welbeck’s subsequent switch to Arsenal. But, with an abundance of attacking talent at their disposal plus a little defensive boost in the form of Rojo and the adaptable Blind, this new version of Manchester United is an intriguing prospect. The biggest question that everybody wants answered though is: what team will Louis van Gaal select?

The formation:

The revolutionary 3-5-2 has had some teething problems. In the opening game of the league season against Swansea, Van Gaal reverted to a four-man defence at half-time owing to how Garry Monk’s team sat back and made the pitch bigger, rendering United’s wing-backs relatively anonymous.

Britain Soccer Premier League Despite Wayne Rooney's goal, United struggled with the 3-5-2 formation against Swansea. Source: Jon Super/AP/Press Association Images

The injury problems also caused a headache or two. Early on against Swansea, Adnan Januzaj was introduced for debutant Jesse Lingard and was deployed as a makeshift wing-back, albeit temporarily. After the switch in system, Ashley Young, already a makeshift wing-back too, became a makeshift full-back and there was little surprise when his defensive error was punished by Gylfi Sigurdsson for what proved the winning goal.

There was also the general nervousness, as personified by a couple of anxious performances from Chris Smalling.

And for all the talk of Van Gaal adopting the formation to get the best from his players – namely a two-man striking partnership supported by a play-maker, both Wayne Rooney and in particular Robin van Persie, certainly seem quite a way from an exhilarating dynamic. And the future of Juan Mata is now unclear given the arrival of Radamel Falcao. So, there seems a distinct possibility that Van Gaal will play a 4-3-3 on Sunday, or a mild variation. Though that brings about its own problems.

With a three-man front-line, Van Gaal will be minded to drop Rooney deeper, to find space between the lines, allowing Falcao and Van Persie more central roles. But the question of width comes into play too. Normally in a three, two will naturally pull wide but it’s hard to see where that will come from in a Rooney-Falcao-Van Persie attacking trio.

United 433 Source: Special to The Score.ie

Perhaps Van Gaal is counting on his full-backs to provide some offensive threat in wide areas? Rafael loves to get forward while Luke Shaw certainly hasn’t been signed for his defensive prowess. With Di Maria granted something of a free role as part of a midfield three (Van Gaal feels the extra body in a central zone provides security but can also offer something creative, like Di Maria for example), that would leave Daley Blind and one of Darren Fletcher and Ander Herrera as a more stationary midfield duo. All three players are positionally sound though Herrera and Blind would appear the long-term choices, technically more efficient than the combative and energetic Scot.

Though it seems immensely delicate, United do have the added advantage of an extra defender in this formation so, in transition, the team should have four players withdrawn as security, much the same as the 3-5-2 (against Burnley, Fletcher screened the centre-backs and essentially didn’t move from the position for the entire game). With two composed, solid footballers sitting deep, Van Gaal may feel comfortable enough to select so many attack-minded players.

Juan Mata

The Spaniard has made seventeen starts for the club since his £37million move from Chelsea back in January. He’s scored seven times, creating four more goals for team-mates. It’s certainly not an underwhelming return. But, has it been money well spent? Hardly.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Manchester United - Stadium of Light Could Juan Mata be frozen out at Old Trafford, despite joining the club for a then-rcord in January? Source: Steve Drew/Press Association Images

Mata’s was a panic buy as United frantically tried to get some confidence back by securing the services of a subtle, game-changing play-maker. At times, he’s had some eye-catching moments and there’s always the impressive passing stats that his admirers will name-check. But, he hasn’t been a play-maker. In fact, the juxtaposition of urgency and delicacy that Di Maria brought to proceedings from deep against Burnley painted a picture of what Mata isn’t. A lovely footballer certainly, but someone that can be slow and ponderous and very easily brushed off the ball.

Under Moyes especially, United always seemed short of ideas in the final third. Outside of Januzaj, they didn’t possess a player comfortable enough or quick enough to take on an opponent. And without quickness of thought or of foot, they would surrender position, allow a defence get players behind the ball and could do little to break them down (the now-infamous game with Fulham is surely the perfect example).

Mata, deft as he is, doesn’t possess the ability to get away from defenders. He likes plenty of space in front of him and for attackers to make intelligent runs. In many ways, Mata needs substantial help and doesn’t have much individual craft and nous. And that’s okay. After all, very few can make goals or score them by doing everything themselves. But, when three attacking positions are up for grabs and the competition is Falcao, Van Persie and the team captain, it’s tough to see where he fits.

Britain Soccer Falcao Blind Introduction Falcao's arrival at Old Trafford has already signalled the end of Danny Welbeck's United career. Could it also lead to Juan Mata leaving? Source: Jon Super/AP/Press Association Images

There’s a genuine possibility, however shocking it sounds, that after a then-record deal to bring him to Old Trafford just nine months ago, Mata’s best chance of getting back in the United first-team is if injuries force Van Gaal’s hand. Though, as workable as it is to feature so many attacking players in domestic games, European competition is a completely different proposition. Mata’s ability to keep the ball and rarely be wasteful in possession will certainly be an advantage should United qualify for either the Champions League or Europa League.

Surprises?

Like his decision to select Jesse Lingard as a wing-back for United’s opening league game of the season against Swansea, Van Gaal prides himself on the ability to surprise. Should he stick with a 3-5-2, he may have to play the nervy Chris Smalling if Phil Jones misses out due to that niggling injury he picked up while on England duty.

Surely buoyed by Di Maria’s debut, it would be almost guaranteed that the Argentine would stay in a midfield position, alongside Darren Fletcher or Ander Herrera. But with Rooney then set to play in the hole, that would mean no starting role for Blind and a substitutes’ role for Mata.

One thing seems certain: Van Gaal likes Falcao and his ability to score goals wherever he goes. It’s almost inevitable that all three attackers will start at Old Trafford on Sunday with Di Maria handed a free role again. Everything else though seems up for grabs.

Probable line-up: (4-3-3)

De Gea, Rafael, Evans, Rojo, Shaw, Fletcher, Blind, Di Maria, Rooney, Van Persie, Falcao.

Probable line-up: (3-5-2)

De Gea, Smalling, Evans, Rojo, Rafael, Shaw, Fletcher, Di Maria, Rooney, Van Persie, Falcao.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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