MANCHESTER UNITED vs NEWCASTLE UNITED
After a draw at Villa Park United were working to return to winning ways in this Boxing Day fixture. Newcastle’s results had dipped recently after a run of good form. They came to Old Trafford looking to atone for defeat in the Tyne Wear derby in their previous fixture.
- Van Gaal chose three at the back and wingbacks again, and for once United were able to control the game for the whole match with this strategy.
- Rooney, Mata and Carrick provided a solid, balance and effective spine.
- Falcao and van Persie are beginning to show signs that they are developing a good understanding. Some of their movement and combination play with those arriving from deeper positions was excellent.
- Valencia and Young are beginning to show signs that they are becoming more comfortable and (say it quietly) proficient as wingbacks. Continuing his recent good form Young Had another good game.
- United’s three goals were all well taken, incisive team efforts which reflect the wider van Gaal ‘philosophy’, high tempo passing moves; products of the collective.
United again fielded a team in a 3-4-1-2 formation, but on this occasion McNair was included as one of the three releasing Carrick to play as a defensive midfield player. Newcastle set up as a 4-3-3. This immediately raised a couple of questions. United had three players in the centre of the pitch effectively matching the Newcastle three. The United three were Carrick in the deep, Rooney with a box-to-box role and Mata as a higher more static number 10. The first question then was who would get on top, or would the two sides just cancel each other out in the centre of the pitch. The second question related to the wingbacks. Newcastle’s central midfield three were fairly narrow leaving space in the wide midfield areas. Would United’s wing backs exploit this space and what would this mean for the Newcastle fullbacks? The answer to these two questions was essentially the story of the game.
The opening exchanges were fairly even with their being little space in the centre of the pitch. Both teams were full of energy and closed each other down fairly quickly. For a while early in the game it looked as if it might be Newcastle who might get on top. They kept the ball well and had a number of chances. These generally came to nothing but the warning signs were there. Chances came, (and this was a feature of the half that applied to both sides), when defenders or midfield players were over eager in chasing the ball or over committed to a tackle. This often released space allowing the opposition to play around that attempt to win the ball. Chief amongst the culprits for United was Phil Jones although Ashley Young trying to force things to make use of that space in front of him was also guilty on occasions.
Despite this even in the opening phase of the game United enjoyed most of the possession with Newcastle’s best moments coming on the break. It was after one such break that United took the lead. This goal came when Ashley Young did manage to get forward into the wide left area. He centred the ball to Falcao who stretched selflessly to return the ball into the centre of the box where the on running Rooney arrived for an easy side foot home. Boom!
This goal illustrated a number of features of United’s play, all of which were good to see. Firstly the goal came from a well worked incisive passing move. United worked the ball around quickly and the combination of the movement of the forwards in and around the box, the delivery from Mata and the instant stretched return pass from Falcao created space for Rooney’s run. The goal seemed to come from nothing but in fact the space Rooney found himself in was a consequence of each player involved making a small contribution and executing his task well. It was a collective goal which reflects the approach van Gaal has been preaching.
The goal came on 23 minutes and by that point United had got into a good passing rhythm. The spine of United’s team was playing well. Carrick had a reasonably quiet game, or at least his contribution did not grab the headlines, but returning to his defensive midfield role his simple tidy work was a big part of why United achieved that 61.9% possession statistic and why those further forward had licence to move on and off the ball. This is the sort of performance that justifies Sir Alex recent praise of the player. As in previous games when playing this role he dropped into the defensive line to pick up the ball, combine with those around him and start the forward movement of the side.
This platform and stability provided the opportunity for Rooney, playing slightly higher than Carrick, to play a more mobile midfield role. This was perhaps Rooney’s best performance since dropping into midfield in recent games. For the first time he resembled a genuine box-to-box midfield player. Often deep involving himself in the early part of moves when United had the ball he was also likely to pop up anywhere in the middle of the pitch; wherever the space presented itself. Several gentlemen of the press have suggested Newcastle allowed him too much room. Maybe, but perhaps it was the case that Rooney found that room. Rooney provided energy and drive through the spine of the side and contributed two goals and an assist.
Rooney found an excellent foil in Mata, also continuing his recent good form. Playing in a higher, generally more static role behind the front two he provided the counterbalance to Rooney movement in a higher area as Carrick did in the deeper area. His vision here was excellent floating passes for those ahead of him and linking superbly with the advancing Rooney. Mata is often criticized for a lack of pace, but playing this less mobile role that doesn’t seem to be an issue, his speed of thought and vision made up for a lack of speed in his legs.
There are signs that van Persie and Falcao are beginning to develop an excellent forward partnership. The crowd long for Falcao to score goals and they will come but his overall contribution to the side is already exemplary. His movement is excellent and on a number of occasions he just failed to connect with a good delivery from a wide area. He will reach a percentage of those balls.
Fortunately his movement and that of the improving van Persie seems to compliment each others, so providing options for Mata and Rooney arriving from deeper. The movement itself also provides space for players to run into. Falcao tends to drop deeper and involve himself more in the build-up play than van Persie, but this challenges defenders, asking them whether they are comfortable to follow into deeper areas. The only issue at the moment is that Falcao seems to need more space on the ball than he is getting in the Premier League. He will adapt in time without a doubt.
Newcastle weren’t really in the game as an attacking force now and on 36 minutes United, and Rooney scored again. Again the goal came from Falcao dropping deep and winning the ball. The ball ran free from his challenge to Phil Jones who played a simple pass to Mata. Mata played a slide rule pass diagonally from right to left as van Persie moved to the right leaving space for Rooney as he advanced into the box. Another simple finish for Rooney. Boom!
In answer to the two early questions, the balance of Carrick, Mata and Rooney dominated the Newcastle three of Anita, Colbeck and Perez . In respect of the space in front of the United wingbacks in the wide midfield areas it wasn’t always the wingbacks who exploited this but often one of the midfield three or even Falcao dropping deep. United were completely on top and at halftime the score was a comfortable 2-0.
Nothing really changed after half time with United still having the larger share of possession. It is worth saying something about the two wingbacks at this point. Young had another good game, taking every opportunity to get forward and delivering a number of dangerous crosses. Young tend to favour a delivery with his right foot and playing on the left this requires that he cut inside. This begs the question why teams allow him to cut inside? But they do! Valencia was less adventurous over on the right. Perhaps this was because with Rooney playing more to the left and Carrick sitting deep Newcastle had a numerical advantage whenever Valencia reached the half way line. In this game however Young was the more effective attacking force.
Then on 53 minutes United scored again. This time Rooney was allowed time to look up and pick out van Persie with a floated pass over the top delivered from around 45 yards out. Van Persie ran between and behind the two central defenders and headed fist time past Alnwick. This was a simple goal and suggested that Newcastle were now there for the taking. Boom!
Instead United eased off perhaps with one eye on the busy Christmas fixture schedule. On 62 minutes Fletcher replaced Carrick and then on 65 minutes Wilson replaced Falcao. Both substitutions were straight swaps and so did not change the team shape in any way. But both the players introduced were not as effective as the players they replaced and the edge went off United’s performance. Late in the game Rafael replaced Valencia and almost at the end of the game Phil Jones carelessly conceded a penalty with a trip just inside the box. Cisse converted and the match ended 3-1.
This was a good rather than a great performance; Newcastle were not exactly swept away but United controlled the game pretty much from start to finish and looked comfortable throughout after having taken the lead. The overall performance suggested that the team as a whole is beginning to come to terms with van Gaal’s expectations as his comments post match that the performances are improving a little match by match testify.
Rooney, Mata and Carrick were all excellent and their efforts provided a balance through the spine of the team which in combination with the movement of the forwards proved too much for the visitors.
United only had four shots on target but scored three goals. Each goal was well taken with good clinical passing moves creating space for the player receiving the final pass into the box. Each player involved was selfless and it is this type of patient, yet urgent play which speaks of the van Gaal philosophy.