MANCHESTER UNITED VS SUNDERLAND
22.01.2014

United returned to Cup action after defeat at Chelsea hoping to turn round a 1-2 deficit from the semi-final first leg and secure a first final appearance of the David Moyes era.

PERSONNEL

In: Buttner, Smalling, Fletcher, Hernandez and Kagawa.
Out: Evra, Vidic, Valencia, Jones and Welbeck.

KEY POINTS

  • This was a flat performance. United lacked inspiration, their passing was slow and methodical rather than incisive and purposeful. Sunderland denied United space and time all night and United were seemingly unable to respond.
  • Sunderland had a plan and stuck to it. They executed it well and the longer the game went on the more likely it seemed that they would be the winner. They didn’t create many chances themselves and so perhaps a tie decided on penalties was an appropriate outcome.
  • United currently look to be lacking confidence. They need a lift from somewhere and it is imperative that they get both van Persie and Rooney back on the pitch at the earliest opportunity. Carrick played poorly in this game and was injured here. Those two factors do not bode well with midfield creativity at a premium.
  • Are United overplaying Januzaj?

FIRST HALF

United started this game on the front foot, with good early passing. The formation at the outset was a 4-4-1-1 with Fletcher and Carrick in central midfield and Januzaj and Kagawa in the wide right and wide left positions. Welbeck sat behind Hernandez at the front. Even at this point in the game Sunderland were full of running and playing a fairly high line they clearly had a plan to deny United time and space, even in deep areas.

early first half United early in the first half

After only a few minutes this had an effect. Both Januzaj and Kagawa were playing fairly narrow. As a consequence of Sunderland’s high line Fletcher and Carrick were denied space and found it difficult to find the time to pick their heads up and find a forward pass. Both were relatively deep and they were square to each other. This resulted in periods of play were United were labouring to get the ball out of their half. In response Kagawa, already narrow dropped deep in search of the ball. Fletcher and Carrick staying deep and square simply invited Sunderland to push on and restrict United further.

The sum total of all this was that United continually gave the ball away. Faced with a press United simply didn’t move the ball quickly enough or with enough attacking intent to beat that press. Instead they concentrated on trying to keep the ball but imply found themselves pinned down. This pattern persisted for much of the first half with Sunderland in fact having the better of the chances. When they got the ball they kept it well and were not afraid to commit bodies forward to try and snatch a crucial further goal. On 19 minutes they engineered a good break and might have scored when Alonso shot from range. This typified the difference between United and Sunderland’s play in the first half. When United had the ball they struggled to make headway, seeming to lack confidence and conviction. When Sunderland had the ball they were more purposeful in their passing and quicker to decide what they were going to do with the ball.

late first half United late in the first half

Then on 37 minutes United scored. The goal in fact came after a flurry of pressure. For the last ten minutes of the half Kagawa moved to a central position and Welbeck, who had been dropping deeper and deeper as the half wore on stayed higher and closer to Hernandez. Immediately before the goal United hit the post and from scramble gained a corner. Jonny Evans was left with time at the far post to head home after a toe poke on by Welbeck. Boom!

After a dismal first half display United had now drawn level in the tie.

SECOND HALF

Away goals count for nothing in the League Cup so the tie was now all square. The question then at the start of the second half was whether United would now have the confidence to push on and score again. As the half started Welbeck moved to the left and Kagawa moved to the centre. The shape was now closer to a 4-2-3-1, but Fletcher and Carrick both continued to stay deep. United’s shape was now better and with Kagawa dropping deep to link play they did  now find it easier to keep the ball. The first ten minutes of the first half was perhaps United’s best spell of the game, but the game was fairly even and quite open. As in the first half Sunderland were prepared to push men forward and continued to press United in central areas.

Sunderland shape was roughly a 4-1-4-1. Lee Cattermole sat deep in front of the back four with two central midfield players Ki and Colback in front of him. Borini and Johnson occupied the wide positions with Fletcher as the front man. When Sunderland lost the ball Borini and Johnson sat back forming a midfield five. There positioning prevented United from using the full backs to move the ball forward. In central areas Fletcher and one of Ki or Colback would press and deny Fletcher and Carrick time and space. When Sunderland had the ball Johnson and Borini would press forward forming a forward three, often supported by both Ki and Colback in central areas close to Fletcher. Sunderland then left only Cattermole in front of their defence.

second half United in the second half

After the opening ten minutes of the half this pattern allowed Sunderland to get on top. This pattern persisted and for much of the half they looked like the side more likely to score. After 61 minutes Moyes removed Kagawa and introduced Valencia. Valencia moved to a wide right position and Januzaj switched to the left with Welbeck being repositioned behind Hernandez. This didn’t really work and in fact seemed to play into Sunderland’s hands. Kagawa had been dropping deep in an attempt to change the game and pick up the ball from Carrick and Fletcher. With Kagawa removed that central link through the spine was weakened even further.

There were no further changes in personnel or the pattern of play until the 81st minute when Evra was removed with an injury, to be replaced by Buttner in a straight swap. United did exert some late pressure but this was not significant and as a consequence the game went to extra time.

EXTRA TIME

At the start of the first period of extra time United looked quite bright, but this is a pattern at the moment where United start well only for the opposition to assert themselves and United to fade. This happened again in extra time.

In the first couple of minutes of the half an incident occurred which actually typified United’s whole performance her. Valencia found himself with time and space on the left. He delayed his cross and was closed down, the moment of time and space had passed. This happened regularly throughout this match, deliberate methodical slow passing which generally failed to hurt the opposition, but then when a brief opportunity arose it was lost due to a lack of urgency and urpose in execution.

extra time United in extra time

What more is there to say? After five minutes Carrick was withdrawn with an injury to be replaced by Jones. There were a couple of positional changes in extra time, (Januzaj notably moved to the centre behind Hernandez with Welbeck moving over to the left), but the pattern of play did not change throughout with Sunderland having the upper hand.

Then in the last couple of minutes of extra time everything went mad! Firstly Sunderland scored. Despite their attacking intent and some good approach play Sunderland hadn’t actually had any shots on target. In the last minute they did with a speculative shot from Bardsley being fumbled into the net by De Gea. The goal came on 119 minutes with seemingly no time to respond, but United did.

Januzaj played a simple one-two with Smalling to find space to get to the bye line. He whipped in a cross and Hernandez shot first time. Boom! 120 minutes. It was about the only thing that had gone right for Hernandez all night, his first touch had been appalling and as a lone front man isolated at times he had been unable to hold the ball up and retain possession to allow others to get closer to him in support.

PENALTIES

What is there to say? The penalties from both sides were very poor with Sunderland’s being marginally better than United’s. Consequently they won 1-2 and go through to the final. To be reasonable that was a fair result as over the 120 minutes of the second leg the visitors were the better side.

CONCLUSION

United had a really poor game here. Carrick, Fletcher and Hernandez were all particularly poor. Welbeck, Kagawa, (inexplicably removed) and Januzaj all put in great effort, but the whole team laboured. Evans and Smalling at centre-back were solid and perhaps the best performers, but the whole performance was flat. On balance of play Sunderland deserved their victory.

One troubling point is avid Moyes seeming inability to change things when the game was clearly not going United’s way. The change he made removing, removing Kagawa, did not work. Is it the case that with injuries and a midfield weakness he simply does not have the resources to make the necessary change?

Confidence is low and United need a lift. Either the return of Rooney and van Persie or a signing to add a spark, United need something and it can’t come soon enough.