MANCHESTER UNITED VS SWANSEA CITY
11.01.2014

After three consecutive defeats there had been lots of talk of crisis. In this context the British press appeared to be awaiting this fixture with some relish; a ‘crisis’ at United makes good copy of course and the press have papers to sell. United fans however have a team to support and whilst some have been expressing doubts about the current situation the mood within Old Trafford was one of defiance. Against this background United stepped out to face Swansea City for the second time in a week.

PERSONNEL

In: Smalling, Fletcher and Kagawa.
Out: Evans, Cleverley and Giggs.

KEY POINTS

  • This was very much a game of two halves. In the first half United looked understandably nervous and hesitant, whilst in the second half they looked bolder and more assertive.
  • Januzaj, Welbeck and Fletcher had excellent games closely followed by Kagawa; all played well, particularly in the second half.
  • Despite a better second half performance the game again highlighted an old concern; the lack of a ball winner. Swansea were too easily able to retain possession.

FIRST HALF

United started this game in 4-2-3-1 but with Januzaj rather than Kagawa in the central position behind Welbeck. Carrick and Fletcher anchored the midfield. Both tended to stay fairly deep.

1st HalfUnited in the first half

United started this game in 4-2-3-1 but with Januzaj rather than Kagawa in the central position behind Welbeck. Carrick and Fletcher anchored the midfield. Both tended to stay fairly deep.

It was a scrappy disjointed start by both sides but before long Swansea got on top. United were generally too deep and their play was fairly cautious. A pattern son emerged that persisted for the whole half. With United sitting deep, Swansea had plenty of time and space to get on the ball. United were losing most of the 50/50 balls and appeared reluctant to chase down lose balls. They just seemed very tense and nervous with seemingly only Welbeck not hamstrung by fear. Swansea are a good passing side, but United made life easy for them by standing off. They had time to pass, time which they didn’t really need as they passed early and crisply. There were times when United were chasing shadows. At the end of the half the possession statistic was 34% to United and 66% to Swansea. This tells the story of the half. Despite this Swansea didn’t create many clear cut chances. They fashioned a few opportunities to shoot from range but generally their moves broke down around the edge of United’s box.

This was largely due to good defensive work by Fletcher and Carrick, both of whom sat pretty deep to screened the defence and whilst that was significant defensively but it was also part of the problem. Fletcher and Carrick were generally pretty deep and critically square to each other. This prevented United from working the ball out of their defensive third with any ease and also allowed plenty of space for the Swansea midfield to pass and move with impunity.  Januzaj also stayed pretty high, almost level with Welbeck at times. As a consequence there wasn’t a link through the spine of the team. Jonjo Shelvey, of all players had lots of time and space virtually ran the game for long periods; now he has never looked anything but ordinary against United in the past.

United did have a couple of good moments; a free-kick from Januzaj which hit the bar and a shot dragged wide by Welbeck after a good move down the right involving Januzaj, Rafael and Valencia, but these failed to spark an improvement in United’s play. Instead United looked nervous with most United players treating the ball like a hot potato so uncomfortable did they look in possession. They rushed the ball forward and with very poor movement off the ball resulting in few passing options. Only Welbeck and Januzaj appeared to have the confidence to hold onto the ball for any time. This meant that United often surrendered easy possession to Swansea and without and ball winning intensity it always took a while to win it back.

SECOND HALF

We have to consider a chicken and egg question at this point. Immediately after half time in the 47th minute United scored – Boom! The goal came in the form of a shot from close range by Antonio Valencia after a period when United had retained possession and kept some attacking pressure on Swansea probing at the Welsh defence from a number of angles. The ball broke to Valencia who made no mistake. The game hadn’t really settled down again into any sort of pattern prior to the restart so the question is – was United’s improved second half performance thereafter as a consequence of the goal calming nerves, or was it as a consequence of tactical adjustment put in place at half time? Everybody will have their own view; our view is that it was a bit of both.

Nerves were settled by the goal; this was the first time United had scored first in a game since 28th December 2013 at Norwich. But there were tactical adjustments. Firstly Januzaj was moved out to the left and Kagawa moved to the centre and secondly United played about 10 yards higher, (so squeezing space and denying Swansea the space they had enjoyed in the first half).

2nd HalfUnited’s second half shape

Now with Kagawa in the middle there was a link through the spine of the team. Kagawa actually often dropped so deep that he formed a midfield three and throughout the second half Carrick and Fletcher both took it in turns to push forward. As a consequence they were not a square to each other, United were able to keep the ball for longer and develop passing options.

Januzaj on the left also provided good balance to Valencia on the right. When Kagawa plays wide he has a natural tendency to come narrow and at times in the second half United’s forward thrusts had seemed a bit lopsided. United also started to move the ball quicker and move off the ball. They just seemed generally more assured. That doesn’t mean that it was all United, Swansea still had their share of possession (and the statistics for the second half as a whole were 50% each). But United were now much more competitive in what became an even half.

Then on 59 minutes Boom! United scored again. This time Welbeck reacted to deliberately divert an Evra shot. This was pinball in the box but United had shown persistence in applying pressure to Swansea for a minute or so before the goal came, probing from all angles and moving the ball well round the attacking third. This was not dissimilar to the first goal. Welbeck deserved this goal as he played well throughout this game.

With a two goal cushion United could have scored more having perhaps the better chances in an even half. When Swansea had the ball they were able to retain it and make good progress towards the edge of the United box, but when United had the ball they kept it for longer and created further chances. Kagawa had the best of these and should have scored on 76 minutes when Januzaj and Rafael combined. They combined to feed Kagawa, who still had plenty to do, but his shot was weak. Kagawa had a really good second half and was a big part of the improvement in United’s second half display. He dropped deep to form a link through the centre of the side, combining well with Fletcher and Carrick and feeding the ball well to Valencia and Januzaj or the overlapping fullbacks. His dropping deep made him the fulcrum of the side allowing Fletcher and Carrick to concentrate on retaining a central barrier. They focused on shuttling backwards and forwards in turn to close down space and support forward thrusts as appropriate.

United made a couple of late substitutions; Buttner replaced Evra on 79 minutes, (it was later revealed that Evra had taken a knock), and Hernandez replaced the tiring Welbeck, (who had run all day) on 86 minutes. United were able to comfortably close the game down and see out the victory.

CONCLUSION

This victory has come as a welcome relief to many. United looked almost hamstrung by nerves in the first half. They looked so much more confident after the goal. It was noticeable that throughout the second half David Moyes stood in his technical area and frequently encouraged his players to push higher. This was especially the case whenever Swansea had the ball. This suggests that United playing higher in the second period was deliberate and that sitting deep in the first half had been identified as a tactical weakness. This made a difference as did the half time repositioning of a number of players; Kagawa provided creativity and a midfield link and Januzaj was a far greater menace on the left. All this suggests that the second half performance was not just down to a goal settling nerves; although that will undoubtedly have helped.

Welbeck, Januzaj and Kagawa all played well here, especially in that second period. Fletcher had his best game since his return and looked to offer a midfield nous often missing this season.

United’s next game is Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That will be a tough game but let’s hope that United can take some confidence from this victory to London with them.