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EPL Monday: Immediate Change is Hard for Manchester United, Less So for Tottenham

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‘And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.’ Benefits of a classical education. — Hans Gruber.

What do you do when you’ve won everything? Keep winning? Try to re-invent the sport? Retire to a small, quiet villa in Tuscany and sip wine all day?

In the case of Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal it appears to be the second choice: try something different with soccer. The Dutch coach drew raves from around the globe, leading The Netherlands to a third-place finish at the World Cup thanks in large part to a heralded three-man central defensive system, turning journeyman Ron Vlaar (briefly) into the second coming of Franco Baresi in the process — no small feat.

Wait, let’s not get ahead of things too quickly. In soccer, tactics remain fluid and ever-changing. The rules are loose, so you can field your 11 starters basically however or wherever you want without worrying about having enough guys on the line of scrimmage and what not. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola — another man whose won it all and continues to tinker with new formations — plays a game this season without a recognized goalkeeper, granted Manuel Neuer’s “sweeper keeper” sometimes make you think that way anyway. If you want an in-depth crash-course in soccer’s historically changing tactics, Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid is the default way to go.

In any event, over the last decade or two, four-man defensive backlines consisting of a right back, left back and two central defenders has been the standard. At the 2014 World Cup team like The Netherlands and Costa Rica used three central defenders, flanked by a pair of wingbacks to great success. Naturally, if something works at the World Cup, eventually it trickles down and manifests itself at the club level.

Something to consider: perhaps some of the reason the 3/5 man defenses worked so well in Brazil is due to the fact teams weren’t used to playing against it, thus making it difficult to break down in application in the small window of the World Cup. Using this system, in the case of Costa Rica in particular, worked when playing for a draw or a 1-goal victory in a tournament like the World Cup where it’s survive-and-advance by any means.

Van Gaal, now in charge at Manchester United, seems hell-bent on using his three-man defense at Old Trafford. Although it’s a tiny sample size, through two EPL games — a loss to Swansea City and draw against Sunderland — United looks completely confused on the field. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane have been disorganized and prone to errant passes in the middle. Meanwhile, Ashley Young (once an exciting, game-changing winger at Aston Villa ) is now shoe-horned into a wingback role, along with Antonio Valencia. Perhaps this changes when Argentine defender Marcos Rojo makes his debut, as his versatility will allow him to play either in the middle or wide.

This is what it looked like Saturday vs. Sunderland, producing 55 percent possession but only three shots on target, the same amount as Sunderland in the 1-1 draw.

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The best thing you can say about van Gaal’s three-man defensive system, is it gets Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Robin van Persie on the field all at once in their ideal positions. Meanwhile both wingbacks aren’t accustomed to their spots while Smalling and Jones spent most of their careers either at outside back or in a two-man central pairing. Compounding issues, what happens when-and-if Angel Di Maria’s $120+ million move from Real Madrid is completed? He isn’t going to come to Old Trafford to sit the bench, but does Di Maria play a central midfield role, as he did later at Real Madrid to accommodate Gareth Bale’s place in the lineup  with Cristiano Ronaldo? Does he revert to a wing spot — a place that doesn’t exactly exist in Van Gaal’s new system? Does United try Di Maria as a wingback?

Yes, thanks to its commercial dealing Manchester United can afford Di Maria but you have to wonder if he’s what the Red Devils need right now.

Admittedly, I’ll never know even half a percent of what van Gaal does about soccer, but if my memory serves the Dutchman’s success with three central defenders at the World Cup was created by necessity. The Dutch switched from their traditional 4-3-3 formation after central midfielder Kevin Strootman tore up his knee, and van Gaal deemed that a change was necessary in order to compete.  What is the reason van Gaal is trying to use a radically different system that most of his roster is unfamiliar with? Hubris? Were eight games in Brazil enough for van Gaal to change his entire tactical philosophy and try it with players who’d never used it before in the most-demanding league in the world?

Obviously, Manchester United executive Ed Woodward’s continued lack of competency in the transfer market is an issue, waiting until late August again to squeeze in players. Van Gaal isn’t doing much to help, trying to hammer square pegs into round holes — and if that fails, trying to buy an entire new team in the span of 10 days.

Down the road in a couple months it’s possible the changes work and the players adapt — that’s if van Gaal believes three-man defenses are the wave of the future. Obviously change is going to take longer than two league games and some meaningless preseason tournaments. The hardheaded van Gaal — a winner in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands — must think he’s right, so it bears watching how long he sticks with his formation if the players fail to adapt. When van Gaal led Bayern Munich to the 2009-10 Bundesliga title he used a three-man defense once, coincidentally in a 1-0 loss to Hamburg. At 64, it seems the Dutchman wants to try something else tactically.

For comparison, during Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup-winning season (the same season it was relegated from the Premier League) Roberto Martinez used a three-man defense in the majority of his games. When he took over at Everton, he played a flat-back four. Yes, it helped to have Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman on the outside, but the Spanish manager also didn’t try to convert them into wingbacks, or turn a central defensive partnership into a threesome.

Change was necessary for the Dutch World Cup team and a three-man defense rode to the rescue. Coming off the David Moyes era and a substandard roster, change was necessary at Manchester United. Long term is a three-man defense the right change, given the growing pains involved?

Poch Ball:

46. Tottenham completed 46 passes to set up Nacer Chadil’s goal that made it 3-0 vs. QPR on Sunday. Is that a product of Mauricio Pochettino transforming Tottenham into England’s version of Bayern Munich — Erik Lamela, who knew?!? Or, more likely, was it a healthy dose of QPR trying to play a three-man defense when one of said three defenders was the husk of Rio Ferdinand. (Unlike the aforementioned van Gaal, ‘Arry seems to be trying a three-man defense because … well … he read about it on the back of a newspaper while waiting for a bus this summer.)

After two matches, Spurs have six points, five goals scored and zero allowed. They’ve beaten West Ham thanks to a 90th minute goal from a defender (Eric Dier) and QPR at home, so don’t go out and print 2015-16 Champions League tickets for White Hart Lane, yet.

That said, Pochettino’s track record at Southampton shows he knows might “know what he’s doing.” (Since he’s left Southampton the team has over-paid for both Shane Long and, perhaps, Andros Townsend.) It helps that Spurs are basically an entire team of non-English players (Dier was brought up in the Sporting Club de Portugal academy, mind), making Pochettino’s apparent possession, first-touch passing system much easier to implement. Sometimes management is as simple as putting 11 players into spots where they are comfortable, playing to their strengths. Crazy, right?

Before Tottenham fans go overboard, remember this team is still reliant on the always unpredictable Emmanuel Adebayor playing a key role in front of goal, so tempering enthusiasm might be the best course. Spurs host Liverpool on Sunday. (H/T @Rev215, Philly’s No. 1 Spurs fan, for alerting me to the GYF.)

Around the League:

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Down 2-0 at the half and leaving Goodison Park with a draw is a nice result for Arsenal, big picture-wise. Jack Wilshere, however, is continuing to play his way to QPR. … Everton looks great going forward into the attack, whether through Baines on the left or Romelu Lukaku running over defenders and stringing through balls to forwards. That’s the good Everton. The bad? For the second straight week the Toffees dropped points from a winning position. … If you decided to wake up early for Aston Villa/Newcastle United on Saturday morning, at least FXX was running its Simpsons marathon. … Through two rounds the only teams without a point are Burnley, QPR and Crystal Palace — not all too surprising. … Granted Chelsea’s first two matches came against promoted teams, but Jose Mourinho’s team already looks in high gear as Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas have hit the ground running. Chelsea’s only real issue at the moment is figuring out what to do with (now) backups Petr Cech and Fernando Torres. … Reminder how unforgiving the League Championship (second division) is in England — Fulham is now winless after four games following its relegation in May.

Today: Manchester City vs. Liverpool (3 p.m. NBCSN)

Our first big, mega-matchup comes to us on Monday afternoon — great for viewers in England or Europe, less so for American fans of the Prem. (Won’t they think of the Americans!) The unofficial over-under on Mario Balotelli mentions by Arlo White during the match is 15 1/2. Oh right, his move to the Reds was finally made official Monday. It seems like most everyone, myself included, think it’s a calculated risk for Liverpool to make.

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