MANCHESTER UNITED vs CAMBRIDGE UNITED
After a draw down at Cambridge, United now had to negotiate a replay. Surely home advantage could be made to count to see United through to a fifth round tie at either Sheffield United or Preston North End.
In: McNair, Smalling, Evans, Mata and Fellaini.
Out: Jones, Valencia, Shaw, Januzaj and Falcao.
- A comfortable win; United could have scored more after having 24 shots. Only 9 were on target however, which suggests at least one area where there is room for improvement.
- Employing a 4-4-2 diamond again United looked secure at the back albeit against lower league opposition, despite an early let off when Blind uncharacteristically gave the ball away in his own half.
- United used width to control possession and so the game in a deliberate attempt to run the legs off the opposition on the big United pitch. It worked as they visibly tired.
- Di Maria, playing deeper had a much improved pass completion rate, he took less chances in possession in a deeper position and this saw his rate rise from 69% to 80%.
- With Blind playing in front of the back four, United looked fairly solid at the back. Smalling and Evans coped well with Cambridge’s big physical forwards
- Van Persie struggled but had a number of good chances. The feeling persists that he has lost something from his game and he could be seen on several occasions imploring his teammates to work the ball forward to him more quickly. Does his current game suite United patient possession based methods?
Van Gaal again chose to go with a 4-4-2 diamond in this game although he made five changes from the team that started against Leicester at the weekend. Not only was the personnel different but many of the players were being asked to play in unusual positions. The chalkboard below illustrates this but we would highlight McNair as a right back, di Maria in a deeper position on the left of the diamond and Fellaini as a forward.
Before a game pattern had even been formed Cambridge United squandered a great chance to score. Daley Blind gave the ball away stretching to reach an inaccurate pass. Tom Elliot ran free between United’s centre backs and tried to curl a shot around de Gea. The ball glanced the outside of the post. Chance gone and from that point United took over.
The key feature of United’s domination of possession throughout this game was their use of width. Right from the start whenever United had the ball Rojo and McNair pushed wide and high up the pitch, often running beyond Rooney on the right and di Maria on the left. Both players had excellent games. Di Maria seemed to drop deep very deliberately. This was a clear tactic to try to stretch Cambridge out across the Old Trafford pitch. After the first game van Gaal made the point that the Cambridge pitch was narrow and it seems that he had decided to see how they would cope with an alternative. The tactics meant that Cambridge had to do a lot of running so even if holes did not open in their back line because of the width of United’s threat after some time it was inevitable that the visitors would tire. Over the course of the match this worked, Cambridge were visibly tired by the end of the first half.
The pattern was simple. There was often an interchange of passes centrally between midfield and defence, but as the play moved closer to the Cambridge goal the two outside midfield players would switch play with a long pass to the full back advancing on the opposite side. He would then push the ball inside to the outside midfield player on his side of the pitch, who would then switch play, passing to the full back on the opposite side. Cambridge had to keep adjusting across the pitch which they did well at first but as they tired spaces began to open. Then the crosses began to come in or full backs began to get behind their opposite numbers. This plan was well thought through and in choosing Rooney and di Maria as the two outside midfield players he had selected the players whose skills made them best suited to the required role.
It was inevitable that something would have to give. Boom! On 25minutes di Maria crossed and Fellaini headed back across goal by Fellaini for Mata to flick home from close range. Then seven minutes later on 32 minutes Boom! Again Fellaini was involved, his shot was blocked but ran to van Persie who chipped a cross from a narrow position with the outside of his foot onto the head of Rojo; his first United goal.
Both these goals illustrated another aspect of United’s tactical approach to this game. Fellaini was almost certainly chosen as a striker in this game for his robust nuisance value. He had a hand in both goals but crucially provided another option to United’s passing game. Playing as a forward he always made himself available as a target and regularly changed the angle of the attack then the ball was played into him. His presence meant that Cambridge always had to be conscious of the possibility of a quicker ball played forward and this was a key difference from the threat United posed in the first game.
Cambridge did not crumble after these goals and deserve great credit for their spirit and discipline in sticking to their task, but United were comfortable.
The pattern of the game remained the same after the restart although United now had more chances and half chances. United could have scored more goals in this match as Cambridge visibly tired; they had 24 shots but only 9 on target, which suggests at least one area where there is room for improvement.
Several of the good chances fell to van Persie who struggled in this game as he has done in many of late. For long periods he wasn’t really in the game but he did have a number of good chances, a couple at the end of the first half and four in the second half before being replaced by Wilson after 65 minutes. The feeling persists that he has lost something from his game and he could be seen on several occasions imploring his teammates to work the ball forward to him more quickly. Does his current game suite United patient possession based methods?
United’s defence remained solid and Cambridge did not really look like getting back into the game. Employing a 4-4-2 diamond they looked secure at the back albeit against lower league opposition and despite that early let off with Blind playing in front of the back four, United looked fairly solid at the back. Smalling and Evans coped well with Cambridge’s big physical forwards.
Van Gaal chose McNair and Rojo as his full backs; did he chose these two big players ahead of his more usual fullback chooses anticipating a physical challenge from the opponents? All four across the back played well and hardly ever gave the ball away, (Jonny Evans recorded a remarkable 100% pass completion rate).
With the game won van Gaal replaced DI Maria with Herrera after 71 minutes. Positionally this was a straight swap. Wilso the other substitute then scored. He picked the ball up, picked his head up ran aggressively at the tiring Cambridge defence who were too tired to get tight and placed a fine powerful shot from range across the keeper and into the corner of the goal. Boom!
On 81 minutes Young replaced Rojo, again a straight swap positionally. Game over.
This was an easy win in the end for United. They scored three but could have scored more with greater accuracy in front of goal. The strategy of moving the ball across the pitch, switching play and making Cambridge run on the big pitch at Old Trafford worked. Towards the end of the first half Cambridge looked tired. Credit to the visitors for maintaining their shape and discipline but United could and should have scored more.
Nevertheless they had done their job again for the second consecutive match by halftime and so could afford to keep their powder dry for the next game, a tricky trip to West Ham.