MANCHESTER UNITED VS CARDIFF CITY
28.01.2014

After elimination from the League Cup Semi-final and the frustration of sitting out the FA Cup 4th round weekend United returned to League action on a wave of optimism. The sources of that optimism were the signing of Mata and the potential return from injury of Rooney and van Persie. David Moyes made seven changes to the starting eleven that faced Sunderland.

PERSONNEL

In: Evra, Jones, Giggs, Valencia, Mata, Young and van Persie.
Out: Buttner, Carrick, Fletcher, Januzaj, Welbeck, Hernandez and Kagawa.

KEY POINTS

  • This was a marginally better performance. Mata did well on his debut and van Persie showed his quality in flashes. Rooney looked eager and strong when he came on.
  • For long period however United’s play was ordinary and they did not do enough to make a significant impact on Cardiff. Cardiff were able to retain possession for periods and while they did not do enough with it themselves, from United’s point of view this highlighted United’s inability to win the ball back.
  • It was nice to see Cardiff City playing in blue.

FIRST HALF

The focus pre-match was on the potential debut of Juan Mata and the return from injury of Rooney and van Persie. Van Persie started the game as the front man with Mata positioned behind him wearing 8 on his back but essential in the Number ten role. Valencia started fairly narrow on the right with Young on the left. Jones and Giggs anchored the midfield. Rooney started on the bench.

United started the game brightly passing with renewed conviction. Mata was tending to drop deep and most of United’s forward thrusts were directed through him in the opening minutes. Van Persie return to the side added physical presence at the front. This isn’t something he is particularly known for but is an undervalued facet of his game. His physical size and strength is a significant asset, he isn’t a player who puts himself about, but he is more than capable of standing his ground. His return occupied the Cardiff centre backs and generally made United’s forward threat seem more significance. It isn’t just his physical presence of course but also the intelligence of his movement. This was very evident at the start of the game.

cardiff 1st halfUnited’s early first half shape

As highlighted Mata was tending to drop deep, pick up possession and then either look to move forward feeding either Valencia or van Persie or as an alternative looking to hit a longer diagonal ball, right to left towards Young who was successfully finding space on the left hand side, (perhaps after the pre-match hype Cardiff were leaving Young anticipating a more significant danger from Mata). It was just such a diagonal ball from Mata which lead to United’s opening goal after 6 minutes.

Mata dropped deep, picked up possession, turned and hit a sweeping cross field pass to Evra who played a pass in to van Persie, he returned the ball out to Young in space. He had time to look up and pick out Valencia arriving on the opposite side with a cross. Valencia’s header hit the bar and rebounded out. Van Persie had two bites of the cherry converting the second of his headers – Boom!

United were shaped up in a rough 4-2-3-1, with Jones staying the deeper of the midfield two and Giggs pushing on, effectively acting as the shuttler to link through the spin of the team. With Mata constantly dropping deep he was also forming that link. Valencia on the right tended to stay very narrow. United continued with their bright start for about 15 minutes, but despite this Rafael did not really take up the opportunity presented by Valencia’s narrowness to overlap. On the opposite side Young tended to stay wider with Giggs pushing into the inside left channel.

After about 15 minutes United seemed to become less adventurous. In effect they were sitting back and showing less attacking intent. Why? This has been a feature of United games in recent months, they often start brightly, sometimes starting each half with equal vigor, but then lose their way. On occasions this has been as a consequence of conceding a goal, but here they had scored an early goal. Why did they not take the opportunity to go for the opposition’s throat?

The pattern of the rest of the half was as it has been in recent matches. Their passing was too slow and deliberate to cause significant problems for the opposition. Players tended to delay their pass, or take the safe option and passing was not precise enough to make a difference. Any space which did open up was therefore closed down before it could be exploited. When United lost the ball they were unable to win it back quickly. This highlighted the lack of a natural ball winner in the United side. Giggs worked hard running to close down and Jones screened the defence well. But without a ball winner United were unable to put Cardiff under sustained pressure.

SECOND HALF

United started the second half as they had finished the first half. Nothing really changed in the first fourteen minutes and then out of the blue they scored a second goal.

Cardiff had started the half well, retailing possession and developing play. They were shaped up in a 4-4-1-1 formation and they didn’t really create many chances which were in large part due to United’s defence and Phil Jones keeping their shape well. United’s defence had a second good game in a row here and prevented Cardiff developing shooting opportunities as they had done against Sunderland, (whose goal of course came from their only shot and a goalkeeping error). Smalling and Evans looked solid for the second game in a row.

The goal came out of nothing. Young ran down the inside left channel, cut inside past two flat footed defenders and shot from distance. Great shot and Boom! It came after a couple of minutes when United’s play had looked brighter but nevertheless taken in the context of the half it came from nowhere. Ashley Young had a better game here, he was involved more and worked hard, but much of his work seemed to come to nothing. He was however involved in both goals. He was allowed to run unchallenged into shooting range as Cardiff anticipated that he would pass.

After the goal United made their first change when on 63 minutes van Persie was removed to be replaced by Rooney. In terms of position this was a straight swap, although Rooney dropped deeper than van Persie had to link play. Perhaps as a consequence Mata now moved a little higher and United’s shape moved closer to a 4-4-2. The on 71 minutes Giggs, clearly tiring, was replaced by Cleverley. Cardiff had plenty of the play in this period and again this highlighted United’s lack of a ball winner, but they began to get even more of the possession as Giggs tired, and the game had become more open. United were more fluid with Mata and Rooney regularly interchanging one or other of these two taking it in turns to drop deep.

cardiff 2nd half United in the middle of the 2nd half

Not a lot happened in the rest of the half save for the occasional chance. Valencia hit the post not long after 74 minutes but this really only highlighted a feature of United’s play which is all too common at the moment. He could have got his shot away far earlier, didn’t and then had to rush his shot. If he had taken a strike earlier he would have probably hit the target rather than the edge of it. It is almost as if lacking in confidence United are being overcautious, taking too much time and trying to make sure, and so not really making the most of situations. Their passing is currently slow, methodical and lacking in precision. Having scored an early goal here United could have really gone for it, but they didn’t do enough to hurt the opposition further.

On 85 minutes Mata was replaced by Januzaj. This didn’t really give the youngster long enough to make a real impression but it was an opportunity for Mata to get a standing ovation. He played well on his debut and looked more confident and assured than his teammates but he will need time to develop a greater understanding with those around him.

 

CONCLUSION

This was a marginally better performance from United who maintained a good shape throughout. They didn’t do enough however to push on from their early goal. They seemed to be playing within themselves which suggests they are lacking in confidence right now. Passing was slow, deliberate and simply did not pose a big enough threat for long periods.

Despite this the defence plus Jones was solid and Mata, van Persie and Rooney (in the second half) looked brighter and more purposeful suggesting that when they are fitter and more in tune with each other they will create more of a threat.