MANCHESTER UNITED vs LEICESTER CITY
31.01.2015

United returned to league action and a home game against Leicester City and were looking to avenge defeat against this opponent earlier in the season. Then United has raced into a 3-1 lead before capitulating in the last twenty minutes. Could United demonstrate an improvement and control the whole game this time?

PERSONNEL

In: Shaw, Rooney and van Persie.
Out: Carrick, Fellaini and Wilson.

KEYPOINTS

  • Whilst this was an improved performance with United again dominating possession, the tempo of United’s passing was still generally too slow. When they quickened the pace they created space and chances.
  • Van Gaal opted for 4-4-2 Diamond with di Maria at the head and Blind at the base. Both players made important contributions and were probably United’s best performers.
  • Di Maria had an excellent game. He was positioned in a deeper and what many would consider a more appropriate position. Notionally playing centrally he was effectively given a free role and moved across the attacking line. He was the main, and or long periods United’s only creative spark.
  • Width remains an issue.
  • Unlike in the game at Leicester, United controlled the game having taken a commanding lead. Their play lacked ambition in the second half when they might have gone on to post a statement score line. Were they overcautious? Yes.

FIRST HALF

United started this game in a 4-4-2 diamond shape with Blind in front of the defence, Rooney to the right and Januzaj to the left. Di Maria played at the tip of the diamond behind the two forwards although it was clear right from the tart that he had a relatively free role. As such he moved across the line and when the opportunity arose was prepared to run beyond the forwards. This all made perfect sense and was an organization which seemed to suit di Maria.

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Looking back on the game now the critical statistic behind this organization is the pass completion average. United averaged 88% pass completion in this game but if you look at the averages across the midfield diamond they were exactly as you would want them to be with greater security the deeper the player. Blind averaged 94% pass completion, Januzaj 87%, Rooney 86% whilst the most advanced player di Maria averaged 69%.

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Early in the game Januzaj tended to stay fairly narrow on the left, as did Rooney on the right. This meant that United were relying on Valencia and Shaw, the fullbacks, to get forward to provide width. They didn’t really do this well and as a consequence early in the game United were perhaps too narrow.

Another feature of United’s play was a lack of tempo in the passing. Since the game several commentators have suggested that United’s passing tempo was improved in this game. If it was then that was only on occasions. Generally it was still too slow. The consequence was another comfortable start where United had a lot of possession without making any real use of it. When they quickened the pace they created space and chances. This is frustrating because on several occasions United player’s were forced to pass early and quickly when in tight situations. They did this well and this change of pace often opened up space. When they had time on the ball United’s passing was slower and as a consequence did not ask questions of the opposition.

Then on 28 minutes United scored. Blind, (who was having an excellent game), won possession back from Leicester approximately at the mid-point of the Leicester half. His position was slightly to the United left and he chipped an early pass diagonally behind Leicester towards van Persie on the right. He hit a cross back across the goal into the opposite corner. A great finish and he was off-side but who cares the visitors certainly got the benefit of a couple of incorrect decisions in the game at their ground. Boom!

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Within 5 minutes United had scored again. This was a fine goal and demonstrated how United are capable of opening sides up when they move the ball forward quickly. The ball headed forwarded from the United defensive line and fell to van Persie in the centre circle. He wriggled free and managed to get his head up and feed di Maria accelerating forward in the inside left channel. He advanced and shot. Schwarzer in the Leicester goal could only half save and the ball ran free to Falcao who scrambled it home under pressure as the Leciester defenders struggled to get back. Boom! Falcao earned the goal by “busting a gut” to get into the penalty area anticipating the situation. From United’s perspective it was the speed of the move which destroyed Leicester.

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United were two goals up without really playing that well. Rooney was relatively subdued and Januzaj hadn’t influenced the game significantly. The difference here in United’s play and ability to create chances in comparison to recent performances was the inventiveness of di Maria. We have noted on social media a number of fans identifying that Wayne Rooney had a subdued game and was generally too deep. We disagree. Rooney had a very good game. On more than one occasion he could be seen directing players to maintain the team shape. The point is that Rooney’s subdued game and relatively deep position provided a security blanket which allowed di Maria to be more adventurous in his play.

Daley Blind was probably the man of the match. He set up van Persie’s goal, retrieving possession and then chipping behind the Leicester defence but most of his work was simple. He patrolled in front of the defence, reading the game so well that most of his work became naturally unspectacular. This made life relatively easy for the defence.

Blind passing

Blind passing

After a relative goal drought in recent weeks United now didn’t seem to be able to stop scoring. On 43 minutes they scored again. Or rather Leicester scored for them when Morgan headed home after a near post flick on from Blind after a United corner. Blind had tried this flick on a few minutes earlier and didn’t make contact. This time he did and that touch caused the difficulty for the defence. Boom!

Half-time 3-0.

SECOND HALF

The second half was a bit of a non-event. United passed and passed and passed. They passed forwards, backwards, and sideways but mostly backwards and sideways. United controlled the game and as a consequence enjoyed 72.1% of possession across the match and completed 592 passes. In the second half they didn’t achieve a lot with it. In recent weeks they have been criticized for this but in this game they were 3-0 up an after their experiences earlier in the season against this opponent van Gaal has admitted that he sent them out to kill the game. They did this and more, but it was all a bit dull.

general stats

One difference in the second half which should be noted was the performance of Adnan Januzaj. Januzaj was perhaps slightly more adventurous after half time when United had a commanding lead. In the first half he was relatively subdued whilst in the second half he moved wider and was more adventurous, taking people on and hitting a number of hard low crosses. It didn’t quite come off for him but this was a promising performance.

The facts of the half are that van Gaal introduced McNair for van Persie on 68 minutes. McNair moved to right back and Valencia moved higher as United’s shape became closer to a 4-2-3-1. Falcao stayed at the front with Rooney joining Blind in a double pivot. On 77 minutes Mata replaced Valencia and then Wilson replaced Falcao for the last couple of minutes. Neither of these final two substitutions altered United’s shape or approach. These changes did hand some initiative to Leicester however who scored a consolation goal in the 80th minute.

CONCLUSION

A better performance from United but the twin issues of tempo and width persist, and this despite a change to what appears to be many fans preferred team shape; a 4-4-2 diamond. The difference here from recent weeks was the inventiveness of di Maria. He was given a free role with the other midfield players effectively watching his back. Rooney could be seen on more than one occasion directing players to maintain the team shape.

United player positions and influence

United player positions and influence

With the game won in the second half United looked to see the game out and were guilty of playing to many cautious, square balls. Having thrown the game away in the corresponding fixture earlier in the season a degree of caution was perhaps inevitable, but at home against the current bottom team in the division this seemed like over-caution.