Who should start in Man Utd’s ideal back three?

Centre-Back: Jonny Evans

It may only be pre-season but Louis Van Gaal’s reign as Manchester United manager could not have gotten off to a much better start. After impressing fans and journalists alike in his opening press conferences, United thrashed L.A Galaxy 7-0 in the opening match of their tour of the USA and backed that victory by overcoming Serie A runners-up Roma by three goals to two. Wayne Rooney scored a brace and set-up Juan Mata for another as the Red Devils won their first match in the International Champions Cup.

Tactically, Van Gaal has made it clear that he will use a formation which plays to this set of players’ strengths. Last season under his predecessor David Moyes, United were quite predictable at times, often lining up in a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 formation which left them exposed defensively far too often. During his tenure, Moyes never picked the same starting eleven in two separate games, meaning his team never got the chance to get into any sort of rhythm. It saw them labour to a seventh place finish in the Premier League, lose in both cups to clubs who finished in the bottom half of the table and go out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals.

Although it is United’s tradition to play with two wingers and use the full width of the pitch whenever possible, Van Gaal isn’t bothered. He is a man of principle, one who always sticks to his footballing ‘philosophy’ and the Dutchman picks a system that suits a group of players then sticks with it. In United’s opening two pre-season encounters, Van Gaal has used the 3-4-3 formation that served his Holland side well in their run to third place at the recent World Cup.

It is worth noting that the system Van Gaal seems to be intent on using is a 3-4-3 when in possession of the ball but more of a 5-3-2 when his side are defending. This flexibility is something which United fans have rarely seen over the years with both Sir Alex Ferguson and indeed Moyes preferring more rigid, traditional systems, with four in defence, which produced contrasting levels of success for the two Scots.

There is plenty for the Old Trafford faithful to get excited about with Van Gaal confirming he will stick to using this 3-4-3/5-3-2 formation for the time being. The fluidity in both attack and defence makes it feel like you have an extra player on the field if used correctly. Expect quicker transitions from defence to attack and more faced-paced attacks, something which was certainly lacking during the tribulations of the last campaign.

Having been used to playing in a four-man defence throughout their careers, this new formation means that United’s defenders will have to learn how to make this formation with three central defenders work quickly. Let’s take a look at how their three-man defence could line-up on the opening Premier League game of the season against Swansea in just over two weeks.

Right centre half

On the right of this new look back three, you need someone who is capable of bringing the ball out of defence, stronger on his right foot and willing to cover the right wing-back, who is playing much higher up the pitch than a standard right full-back would be. The strongest candidate for this role out of the current defensive options for Van Gaal is Chris Smalling, who is a natural central defender but has played at right-back regularly, meaning he has improved when in possession of the ball.

Smalling completed 82% of his passes last term, meaning that he is capable of feeding the wing-back or the central midfielders with sharp, crisp passes to start an attack. Preferably, this right-sided centre back should be able to dominate the aerial battle should an opponent whip in a cross to the back post. Smalling won 61 of his 90 headed duels last season and made 186 clearances so he is a decent candidate for this role.

However, with just three central defensive options, Van Gaal should be looking to bring in at least two reinforcements this summer to provide competition. Mats Hummels is a rumoured target but he seems unlikely to move away from Borussia Dortmund. Stefan De Vrij, who performed very well for the Dutch side in Brazil is another option on the right of the three. Should Van Gaal bring in a new signing, they will probably start in this position ahead of Smalling but if not Phil Jones and Michael Keane provide alternative options for the right centre-back slot.

Centre half

In the middle of the three, you need a leader who can pick up and carry out a new formation with ease so he can organise the rest of the backline. Whilst Van Gaal will coach this defender to start attacks with short passes from deep areas, he will prioritise strength and leadership. At the World Cup, Ron Vlaar was in the centre of Holland’s back three. Vlaar was by far the least confident on the ball but was probably the best Dutch defender at the tournament, winning almost every tackle and header he was involved in, leading from the back. When his side lose the ball, it is the central defenders job to get his side organised and make sure the two other defenders in the back three are compact.

The perfect candidate for this role in United’s back three is without doubt Phil Jones, who will thrive on being given the responsibility. Jones has been used as a utility player by his previous two managers but expect Van Gaal to change all that and play him in the centre of a three-man defence. It should play to Jones’ defensive strengths. He loves getting stuck into a tackle and battling with an opposition striker in the air, making him a potential candidate for the United captaincy in the future. He won 51% of his attempted tackles last year and 57% of his aerial duels. An added bonus for Van Gaal is that Jones is much more capable than Vlaar on the ball, having played in midfield on numerous occasions.

Should Jones be unfit or out of form, Jonny Evans is very able to fill his boots, having been tested in the centre against Roma.

Left centre half

The left centre half has a very similar job to the man on the other side only it is desirable that he has a stronger left foot in order to carry the ball out of defence or feed a player in front of him. Versatility is another attribute that Van Gaal sees as a big plus, meaning that preferably the man on the left-side of the back three can play at left wing-back too. Thomas Vermaelen and Daley Blind have been linked to United in recent weeks and it is no coincidence that they can both play in two or more positions in this 3-4-3 formation.

However, even if one of these two rumoured transfer targets is acquired, Jonny Evans should be given an opportunity to stamp his authority on the left centre half role. In the thrashing of Galaxy, Evans lined up in this slot and did not look out of place despite it being the first time he had ever played in a back three. The Northern Irishman has the luxury of being adept with both feet and has played left-back before for his country in the past.

Seen as the most reliable centre back currently at the club by many, Evans completed an impressive 87% of his passes, won 74% of his tackles and 67% of his headers last season, meaning Van Gaal will look to give him a regular starting spot in his new look team.

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Tim Simon
Tim Simon
Tim is a freelance football writer from Manchester who currently writes for Squawka and FourFourTwo whilst also gathering football statistics for Opta Sports. He's a long time football fan, who loves nothing more than a technically gifted left-footed play-maker.
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