United now travelled on to Denver from Los Angeles for their first game in the International Champions Cup against Roma. The weather, (the game kicked-off in sweltering conditions at 2pm) and the opposition, (Roma finished 2nd in Serie A last season) ensured that this would be a sterner test than their first game on tour.

So it proved. Roma are a far more composed and tactically astute team than LA Galaxy and posed United a number of problems which United did not convincingly resolve. Perhaps that is to be expected given that this is a period of adjustment to new methods.

The main problem United had to solve was how to deal with a situation where three attackers confront three defenders. United again had 3 at the back in a 3-4-1-2 shape. Roma faced them as 4-3-3. This left United with a dilemma. The central player in Roma’s front three, Destro, was always looking to play on the shoulder of the deepest central centre-back, usually that was Evans. His two striking partners pulled very wide to drag the two outside centre-backs to wide positions leaving Evans one-on-one with Destro. Several times Destro’s run behind caught United out with long passes over the top from deep with Destro looking to run behind Evans. United were very lucky that they did not concede in this way.

1st half        438860_heroa

The choice United had to make was whether the outside centre-backs should follow Roma’s wide attackers or whether the wing-backs should drop back. Initially the centre-backs went wide but after a while it was the wing-backs who dropped back.

This of course created another problem. With the wing-backs deep United had less presence higher up the pitch, fewer passing options when in possession and a reduced ability to put pressure on the ball when Roma were in possession. Consequently United, whilst still looking to pass early and play at a high tempo struggled to retain possession. The central triangle, so successful against LA Galaxy failed to control the game. It was Roma who passed well and had the lion’s share of possession. When Roma lost the ball they dropped back from a 4-3-3 to a 4-5-1 and United found it difficult to make progress against two banks of Roma defenders without the width of their wing-backs in advanced positions.

Weather and altitude played a part in this game and van Gaal had asked for a drinks break at the mid-point in each half. This gave him an opportunity to reorganise.  After the first half drinks break it was noticeable that the wing-backs movement was much improved, dropping deeper to close off the wide space when Roma attacked, but moving forward to provide width to United’s attack when they had the ball. United also moved the ball forward far more quickly after the adjustments. The consequence of this was the three late goals in the first half. The first was a moment of excellence from Rooney with a great shot from outside the box. The second was a quick ball from deep from Rooney for Mata who controlled superbly to lob the advancing keeper. The third came from a clever interchange between Mata, Rooney and Welbeck which released Welbeck to run into the box. This drew a foul and Rooney converted the penalty.

Early 2nd half        article-2706965-20054F5400000578-582_634x359

As in the first game United made wholesale changes at half-time. So did Roma who made further changes during the second half. The pattern of the game remained un-changed although Roma finished the game strongly after introducing two of their better players, the experienced Totti and Pjanic. Two goals, one a wonder strike from their own half made the final score 3-2. United were lucky to hold on in the end although the back three looked fairly solid; it was those in front of them who looked a little at sea.

Later 2nd half              article-0-2005414600000578-501_634x443

Cleverley notably kept giving the ball away and was removed after 66 minutes when it had been planned that he would play the whole game, Shaw is yet to convince as a wing-back, Young looked uncomfortable in the same position, (he was booked after several rash tackles) and Nani kept drifting wide instead of playing from the central position required of him.

The key points of the game were:

  • Van Gaal will learn a lot about his players from a game like this. Several were played in unfamiliar positions, some fared better than others.
  • United have a lot to learn about this tactical system. Roma, a more accomplished side than LA Galaxy asked more searching tactical questions. United will have to learn how to respond to these questions.
  • United looked better when the wing-backs got the balance right between supporting attacking play and closing spaces wide of the three centre-backs. It is critical that the players fulfilling these roles learn to do this.
  • Weather conditions and altitude played a part in this game and United really needed to retain possession to conserve energy. This was even more pertinent after taking a 3-0 lead by half-time. Unfortunately United gave the ball away far too easily contributing to difficulties late in the game.