How good could Man United be if this super-manager succeeds Van Gaal?

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Updated: January 13, 2016

Diego Simeone has recently been linked with the Manchester United job with Louis van Gaal’s wobbling form and the fact he seems to have lost the fans big issues. Simeone in recent years has gone from a small name in management, winning the Argentina’s answer to the Premier League with River Plate, to the point now where if one of Europe’s biggest jobs comes under doubt or even available, he is one of the first names on clubs’ lists. When predicting what United would look like under Simeone we first have to have a basic understanding of his style of football.

Simeone’s football has most simply been described as ‘Mourinho ball with underdogs’. He plays a very organised and narrow defensive unit that focuses pressure when the opposition enter potentially dangerous positions and looks for quick and decisive counter-attacks. Whereas Mourinho works best with superstars to attack with (Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Mesut Ozil at Real Madrid, Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard at Chelsea and Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito at Inter Milan), Simeone works best when his team are underdogs, and he can inspire an ‘us against them’ mentality.

Simeone’s system is based on a 4-4-2 that involves two solid banks of four and strikers who can not only counter-attack quickly, but also provide pressure on deep lying playmakers like Andre Iniesta or Andrea Pirlo. With this a current developing trend in the Premier League – Watford and Leicester’s success using the 4-4-2 – Simeone would prove a modern and positive choice from the United board, even if his football might not be any more entertaining than that Van Gaal offers up. He deploys certain traps and allows opposition possession in non-threatening areas, while also creating a bottle-neck effect, forcing teams central and into mistakes.

Now let’s look at United’s current squad and how they would fit in under Simeone. In terms of defence, Simeone relies on dependable, strong centre-backs that can not only withstand offensive pressure, but can also look to start counter-attacks having won the ball. Chris Smalling is the most in-form centre back in the Premier League and would easily adapt to Simeone’s football. However, an experienced operator next to him wouldn’t go amiss. Obviously there will be links to the likes of Diego Godin if Simeone were to join United and a leader at the back could prove a vital member of a hypothetical squad. Full-backs play a massive part of Simeone’s style, too, as they have key roles both defensively and offensively. They need positional know-how not go diving in, but also be primed to play a vital role in the counter-attacking moves. Both Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw fit that mould excellently.

In Simeone’s current and most successful system at Atletico Madrid, he utilises Gabi and Tiago as his two central midfielders. These two players are very similar in that they are both considered to be conventional holding players who, despite being at the latter end of the age scale in modern football, have found new leases of life under their current boss. They especially thrive in the big games, as this is when the set-up is tailored to their own, and Simeone’s, strengths. He likes his midfielders to sit back and remain tight (a problem LVG has had with Ander Herrera in the past two seasons) and while this will work against Barcelona and Real Madrid, it is his inverted wingers that provide the attacking flair and know how to defeat the smaller teams. Applying this to United, they are expected to dominate about 35 of 38 Premier League games-per-season. Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea away are games where it’s not assumed United will dominate the possession, shots and the overall tone of the game.

Morgan Schneiderlin is perfect for Simeone’s holding midfield role, as in his short time at Manchester United he has shown the ability to soak pressure and redistribute the ball with ease. The adaptability of the United’s other midfielders will depend on their levels of success. Herrera would need to alter his game and improve his positional sense especially when defending. The two players that I feel may struggle the most would be Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini. Carrick has looked off the pace at times this season and doesn’t seem to offer as much going forward as Bastian Schweinsteiger or Herrera. Fellaini has had a tough time at United and you have to wonder whether his wild and erratic playing style could ever fit in a structured system like Simeone’s.

Inverted wingers are an area where United have a lot of potential and talent but seem to be under producing in years past. Adnan Januzaj would have to prove that he has the work ethic to contribute defensively, but counter-attacking at pace fits completely into his skill-set. Jesse Lingard would prove a more than useful squad players and it could provide Juan Mata with a more suitable role than the out and out winger task that Van Gaal has asked of him. This would be an area where most fans would expect strengthening from any new manager who comes in.

The big elephant in the tactics room is Wayne Rooney; in his prime Rooney fits both the ethos and the tactical system Simeone brings. This was a tenacious, energetic and explosive Rooney who would’ve enjoyed the role of almost false nine whereby he could drop back into midfield and help pressure when United are without the ball and explosively counter attack when it was won back. This is not the Rooney we see any more. His attitude has always been questionable and the player he has developed into doesn’t really fit the system. I may be wrong, but I don’t see Rooney being any more effective in this system than he is in Van Gaal’s. Anthony Martial on the other hand would thrive in utilising the added space provided in Simeone’s counter-attack set-up and still has that explosive arrow in his quiver.

I feel Memphis Depay would also become more of a striker/false nine in this Simeone system and if he can adapt to the new position he could recapture the form in front of goal and on the ball we saw him show at PSV Eindhoven. He would occupy a role similar to Antoine Griezmann in that he would be the one of the striking pair to drop back into midfield and pressure that deep lying midfielder or advancing centre back. A nightmare for Carrick, Pirlo or even Schweinsteiger. Simeone maybe the man in world football to get the best out of Memphis.

A Manchester United XI, using current players, under Simeone would most likely look like: De Gea, Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Shaw, Mata, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, Januzaj, Depay, Martial.