Leicester will provide the toughest test yet of Man United's new shape
Last weekend’s home match with QPR was precisely what Manchester United needed. The visitors had performed dreadfully in their previous away game, a 4-0 defeat to Tottenham, and Redknapp had never collected a point at Old Trafford from 14 previous Premier League games. They put up little fight, and the 4-0 procession felt like the real start of Louis van Gaal's reign.
It wasn’t, of course – it was United’s fourth league game of the season - but with so many new signings on display, this was undeniably a new era.
With Daley Blind shining deep in midfield, Angel Di Maria the star on the left, Ander Herrera to the right, Marcos Rojo playing solidly at left-back and Radamel Falcao coming off the bench, this was plainly a Van Gaal side. Luke Shaw, an unused substitute, is still to come.
This weekend, however, might be a greater test. While David Moyes complained about the tough start to Manchester United’s fixture list last season, Van Gaal has been blessed with a very easy start to the campaign, which features matches against all three newly promoted sides within the first five games. However, Van Gaal might discovered that Leicester are more similar to the threat posed by Burnley in United’s recent 0-0 draw at Turf Moor, rather than QPR’s pathetic effort last weekend.
In particular, it will be interesting to see what formation Van Gaal selects. In the opening three weeks of the season he used a 3-4-1-2, despite the fact that a midfield diamond seemed much more suited to the shape of the side. The purchases of Blind, Di Maria and Herrera – and the presence of Juan Mata – means that a diamond is simply the logical shape for Van Gaal to use.
He switched to that system for the 4-0 thrashing of QPR, complaining that the lack of available centre-backs meant he couldn’t field three of them, so had to change system. It might prove to be a blessing in disguise – the diamond suited almost United’s entire team, with perhaps only Rojo more suited to the 3-4-1-2 than the 4-3-1-2. Van Gaal would be foolish to move away from that system after such a comprehensive victory.
Leicester, however, are strong down the flanks, and it will be interesting to see whether United’s narrowness leaves them vulnerable to quick counter-attacking into their full-back zones.
Leicester are similar to Burnley because they both play somewhat old-fashioned, basic – but effective – Championship-style football. Usually playing a 4-4-2 formation, they win the ball and immediately look wide to the two wingers, Jeffrey Schlupp and Riyad Mahrez, who sprint forward before crossing the ball.
Leicester have already earned draws against Everton and Arsenal with this approach, and caused Chelsea a fright too – so there’s no reason they can’t get a result at home to Manchester United.
Leicester also have a menacing, in-form striker who won’t be familiar to the United centre-backs. Leonardo Ulloa has made an excellent start to his Premier League career with three goals in four games, and is nothing but a good old-fashioned No.9 who thrives on crosses.
This will be a different challenge for the United centre-backs, and there are still questions about the defensive ability of Tyler Blackett, promising but extremely raw, and Jonny Evans, who has endured a terrible start to the season and looks some way short of match fitness. Ulloa scored the winner last week from a Paul Konchesky cross – and that was against Stoke, a side who don’t mind defending crosses.
The obvious way for United to protect their centre-backs, and prevent them from having to compete aerially, is to stop the crosses. But United’s full-backs will be exposed in one-versus-one situations, with United playing a diamond midfield, and risk being overloaded if Herrera and Di Maria don’t drop back to help – although both are energetic enough to play those defensive roles well.
Therefore this weekend will represent a good test of United’s new diamond system. The obvious weakness is its lack of natural width, and they’re playing against a side who depend heavily on getting the ball out wide.
Not only will United have to control the game from narrow positions, they’ll also have to react defensively to cope with the opposition’s area of strength.
This game could decide whether the diamond is the right system for United’s new era.