MANCHESTER UNITED VS SWANSEA CITY
Last season United travelled to Swansea for the opening fixture, this year it was Swansea turn to hit the road. After winning all their pre-season games United were looking to get off to a good start.
(Personnel changes from the last pre-season game against Valencia).
- Individually and collectively United didn’t play well here irrespective of the formation employed. Despite having 60% of possession we did not really look in control of the game and made very few goal-scoring chances.
- The result was a consequence of individual defensive errors. Like United, Swansea did not have that many chances, but when they attacked United’s defensive frailties were undermining.
- Swansea played well and their tactical set up and movement was predetermined to counter United’s new formation. They executed their plan well and after half time United changed as a consequence. There was a period where United might have taken the game away from Swansea, but the Welsh side found a second wind and United seemingly lacked the conviction to respond.
United started in their now familiar 3-4-1-2 formation, with Young at left wing-back and Premier League debutante Jesse Lingard at right wing-back. The three central defenders were Jones to the right, Smalling in the middle and Premier League debutante Tyler Blackett to the left. Ahead of these two Fletcher and Herrera occupied the centre of midfield.
There are a number of points to make about this starting eleven. In a 3-4-1-2 shape when the opposition come forward the wing-backs drop deeper making the shape more of a 5-3-2. This means that in effect United started this game with two ‘defenders’ who were making their debut. We can add Anders Herrera to the list of debutantes. That is a significant deficit in Premier League experience, a deficit for which no amount of pre-season games can compensate. Our new manager was of course also a Premier League debutante.
The other point to make, and we make this with a heavy heart is that Darren Fletcher was a yard behind the play for the whole game. Even in the first fifteen minutes one could witness Anders Herrera beseeching him to close down space more quickly, in one instance immediately prior to a Swansea free-kick when the new vice-captain was slow use a break in play to get back into position. On a number of occasions he was caught out of position and this did not help the inexperienced defenders behind him.
This was a fairly scrappy game in the early phases with some heavy challenges. Swansea set up in a 4-3-3 shape when defending with their front three sitting high on United’s defensive three. This made it hard for United to move the ball out from the back. With two of the Swansea midfield three also pressing, Fletcher and Herrera had to drop deeper increasing space between themselves and Mata. As a consequence United started to hit longer vertical passes which Swansea dealt with comparatively easily.
We saw this pattern emerging in the Valencia match and the result is that United are not able to get good possession in the opponents half in the way they were able to do in earlier pre-season games. United’s plan is to hold the ball in the oppositions half with quick, short passes, interspersed with longer diagonal cross field switches. The hope in doing this is to disorientate the opposition and pull them out of shape. If United play longer, rather impatient vertical passes from the back, (in this instance in an attempt to beat the oppositions press), they are unlikely to retain possession to set up that situation. That is what happened here. Most of those longer passes are at best 50/50 balls. As a consequence of taking the wrong passing options United simply didn’t get going, and this is what van Gaal is talking about when he said we didn’t play to our full quality in his post game comments.
The alternative to this is to use your wing-backs to stretch the opposition and help build up more patiently. Ultimately here it was the defensive side of the wing-back game that caused United problems and specifically the relationship between wing-backs and the outside centre-backs. After 24 minutes Lingard was withdrawn after a crunching tackle saw the player injured. He was replaced by Januzaj. This was a shame as Lingard had made a good start to the game at right wingback. Januzaj isn’t really wingback material and he tended to play a bit higher than Lingard. This necessitated Jones moving across to cover space.
Despite this the problems came on the other side. Credit has to be given to Swansea here as their attacking tactic was well executed and so effective. When Swansea attacked their outside players in their 4-3-3 shape pushed wide. Dyer and Routledge hugged the touchline leaving Bony up against Smalling as the central of United’s defensive three. Jones had already moved wider to cover Januzaj’s positioning, what would Blackett do. On 29 minutes Swansea pulled Young forward on United’s left and then pushed the ball into the space between Young and Blackett. Blackett wasn’t sure whether to come or stay and came late. This left space for Swansea to move the ball in from the touchline and they were able to thread the ball across the face of the defence for Ki to side foot home from the edge of the box. There are two issues to pick up. Blackett’s hesitancy was because Young was caught out of position, this allowed Routledge time to pick out Sigurdsson who was playing ‘in the hole’ behind Bony. Sigurdsson similarly had too much space to pick out Ki. Neither of these two players was picked up by Herrera or Fletcher. In fact throughout the game Sigurdsson tried to get behind United’s midfield two and at least initially they were not alert to this.
After the goal the pattern of play remained unchanged until half time with United having possession but tending to hit long forward passes which came to nothing rather than easier more patient and short passes. The result was a0-1 deficit at half time.
At half time van Gaal made a substitution removing Hernandez and introducing Nani. Surpirisingly he also changed the shape of the side to a 4-2-3-1. This at least gave a greater amount of defensive stability with Jones at right back, Young at left back and two central defenders. It also played to the strength of Januzaj in that it freed him from defensive responsibilities.
Almost immediately United scored. This had nothing to do with any change of shape however with the goal coming via a corner. Jones managed to head on a Mata corner which Rooney met with a close range over head kick. Boom! After this goal United seemed to settle down and for a few minutes the tempo of the game quickened. They might have gone on and scored again. United were now attacking with width and Januzaj and Nani pushed wide stretching Swansea across the pitch. Mata was now playing almost as high and Rooney. This period was probably United’s best of the match but the tempo soon slowed again and United still tended to rush the ball forward with more haste than method.
On 66 minutes van Gaal made a further substitution with Fellaini replacing Herrera. Herrera had worked hard throughout and perhaps his industriousness in the face of the pace of the Premiership saw him tire. He had had to work hard to cover Fletcher at times and it was a surprise to see him removed rather than the Scot. Unfortunately Herrera had not made a significant impact on the game although some of the criticism of him after the game seems unfair. He will need time to adjust to the game in England and will need those around him to make a greater contribution. He can’t do it on his own. Fellaini made little impact on the game.
The Swansea retook the lead. Again this goal highlights a number of the underlying issues at the moment and we make no apologies for analysing it by way of illustration. Swansea won a free kick. The ball ran lose to Blackett who casually passed it to Bony who was stood in the position where the free kick had been given. This was mistake number one and an example of inexperience in United’s current defensive personnel. Blackett will learn; others were culpable for additional errors leading to the goal.
Swansea took a quick free kick and pushed down their left, United’s right. United were slow to respond and close down space on Montero. A far post cross to Swansea’s right hand side beat Young who making mistake number two, was caught out of position. Young may be able to make a fair fist of the wingback role, but in the second half he was playing as a fullback and showed his shortcomings. That ball was mis-kicked back across goal for the unmarked Sigurdsson to shoot home. Mistake number three was made by Fellaini who had ball watched the deep cross and mis-kicked return and did not seem to know that the unmarked Sigurdsson was there.
United failed to rally after this goal and so lost the match 1-2.
This was a disappointing start to the season. The result was of course a disappointment but the manner of the performance was the most significant set-back. United have played a 3-4-1-2 shape throughout pre-season but were forced to change at halftime. This was as a consequence of two factors.
Firstly with injuries before the game and to Lingard during the game our squad has been exposed as being paper thin. We simply do not have enough players to make this system work if we can’t put out our strongest side. We are lacking experience and quality in defence.
Secondly those players that did play were not calm and brave enough to execute the tactical plan. This requires players to play quick early passes and move the ball and the opposition around the pitch. Instead in response to Swansea’s high pressing United tended to knock easy long passes forward. Players need to be comfortable and confident in possession and have the confidence to move well off the ball to provide passing options for their teammate on the ball. The team should get better at this as they learn the system in the weeks ahead, but this needs to be a steep learning curve to ensure that confidence lost here is quickly recovered with some positive results.