MANCHESTER UNITED vs BURNLEY
11.02.2015

After a couple of days dominated by talk of long balls United got back to work with a home fixture against Burnley

PERSONNEL

In: McNair and Evans.
Out: Shaw and Valencia.

KEYPOINTS

  • Two halves, two formations; both 4-4-2, one with a diamond, one a flatter version. The switch seemed to be as a consequence of the injury to Blind.
  • United were especially poor in the first half and only slightly better after the break. Burnley was excellent throughout; full of energy and purpose. They were positive in possession and alert when United had the ball. They outfought United and it seemed a long time before United realized they were in a contest.
  • United’s second half change of shape suggests that van Gaal does not believe Herrera is robust enough. He played reasonably well however being his usual busy self. In the second half he worked hard, was positive and in conjunction with Rooney competed in central midfield. They screened the defence and pushed the ball wide.
  • United’s off the ball movement was still poor in the second half which was one of the reasons why they played so many square passes towards Januzaj and di Maria. The Argentine layed well in the second half and provided a wide threat.
  • Falcao and van Persie are both struggling. Van Persie improved in the second half when he played as the forward dropping deeper. As a consequence he became more involved in the game. Falcao looks low on confidence.
  • A lack of tempo in their passing is still United’s biggest problem; this is a common theme whatever team and whatever shape they field. Ultimately set pieces saved the day.

FIRST HALF

United started this game with the same midfield four and forwards that played at West Ham. The only difference was the positional with Januzaj playing at the tip of the diamond and effectively having a free role. That meant that di Maria was deeper and playing to the left hand side of the diamond. Burnley set up as a traditional 4-4-2 or more accurately 4-4-1-1 with Ings pushing ahead of Barnes.

first half  Manchester-Uniteds-Chris--008

The fifth minute was eventful. Firstly Jones was forced out of the game with an injury and then his replacement Smalling scored with his first touch. Boom! The goal came from a header following a corner. The corner reached the far post where Falcao managed to head back across goal and Smalling headed home. All this happened before any real game pattern had been established.

After conceding an early goal one might have expected Burnley to collapse. But they steadied themselves and played with purpose. They pressed United and when they got the ball they pushed wide, constantly trying to get at and behind United’s full backs. From there they looked to either push inside or put over a cross. They played with purpose and at a tempo and seized the initiative.

Central midfield tackles

In contrast United were slow and ponderous. Burnley came to compete and United seemed to have forgotten that they were in a contest. United’s lack of competiveness is illustrated by the fact that between them three players who occupied the deep central midfield roles only attempted six tackles in the game. By contract Burnley positive approach is illustrated that whilst they completed only 273 passes to United’s 415, 132 of Burnley’s passes were in the attacking third compared to only 111 by United in the attacking third. Burnley were just more positive and when they had the ball the pace of the game significantly quickened.

general stats

As already described Burnely looked to attack United’s fullback, McNair and Rojo. It was fortunate then that they were probably United’s two best performers over the full match. United’s defence looked shaky, but it was in the central areas that their defensive problems were manifest. Whenever the ball reached the middle panic seemed to set in. Putting aside Jones, (who only lasted 5 minutes before being withdrawn with injury), Smalling and Evans were woeful. They were indecisive, and inattentive, (although Smalling was alert enough to grab two goals in the opposition’s box). All too often they failed to track forwards and allowed them to get goal side. They were seemingly second to everything. Only the excellence of de Gea and some luck saved United, especially in the first half.

It was then almost inevitable that Burnley would equalize, which they did via a close range header by Ings after a centre from the right where Trippier had been a cross with di Maria caught out of position. This goal came after 12 minutes.

For the whole of the first half United were unable to rest the initiative from Burnley. On 39 minutes Blind was replaced by Herrera. The Dutchman had previously left the field for treatment on a face wound but after returning was unable to continue. Rooney now switched to the defensive midfield role and Herrera took up Rooney’s position on the right. United’s aim was to limp on to halftime and have a rethink after this substitution but then unbelievably they retook the lead. This was totally against the run of play and again came from a corner. Again it was Smalling who headed home. The corner was half cleared to di Maria who flicked a delightful cross onto the head of Smalling from a narrow position with the outside of his boot. Boom! The goal came in time added on at the end of the first half.

Smalling2

SECOND HALF

Van Gaal changed shape at half time. It was still a 4-4-2 but without the diamond. Effectively Rooney and Herrera now sat in central midfield in front of the back four. Herrera was usually slightly further up the pitch than Rooney. Di Maria therefore moved to a wide right position and Januzaj to the wide left.

Burnley BT 2nd  Manchester+United+v+Burnley+Premier+League+q4tdf2gqByul

The change to a flatter shape was a move back towards the traditional United approach, but the problem of a lack of tempo persisted and was joined with a lack of movement. This resulted in a preponderance to push the ball square to Januzaj and di Maria. It appears inconceivable that van Gaal will embrace this approach because it will not in itself address the underlying problems and it will make it harder for his side to dominate possession with only two players in central midfield.

Rooney passing

A lack of tempo in their passing is still United’s biggest problem; this seems to be a common theme whatever team and whatever shape they field.

Herrera passing

Many fans have been asking why van Gaal has rarely selected Herrera. Herrera did okay when he came on here but he did not excel. He was busy and always showed for the ball, being prepared to take a pass in the tightest of spaces. Ironically these are qualities that van Gaal needs if he is to make a success of his possession based game plans. He kept the ball moving and was well suited to the task at hand after the woeful first half as he competes. He is rather the terrier to Rooney’s bulldog however and perhaps that is why he hasn’t been getting the games; does van Gaal think he is a little too lightweight?

In his after match press conference van Gaal explained that whilst he recognizes that Rooney is a better forward than midfield player, he feels it necessary to play him in midfield at the moment for the sake of the balance of the team. We have felt that this was the case for some time. Rooney can give the side a physical presence and robustness that we are lacking without a box-to-box midfield player and he watches the space behind the likes of di Maria and Januzaj.

The other significant problem in the second half which perhaps encouraged the tendency to pass square was a lack of movement off the ball. This was the case throughout the team but was noticeable in particularly through the spine of the side. With a diamond the shape creates passing opportunities through the midfield but with a flatter shape there is a need for the forwards to make passing options as if they don’t the sideways movement of the ball to the wide players becomes to predictable. That is exactly what happened here.

Falcao and van Persie are both struggling at the moment. Van Persie improved in the second half when he played as the forward dropping deeper in the flatter 4-4-2. As a consequence he became more involved in the game. He was still providing very little movement off the ball but starting deeper he tended to see more of the ball and when he got it he then collected, moved with the ball and brought others in to play. He generally followed the trend of pushing the ball wide.

Falcao looks low on confidence. He tends to move back towards the ball but for much of this game he didn’t do that. His first touch was also poor so if a ball was pushed up to him he tended to lose possession because of poor close control.

Is it time to give James Wilson a run in the side, rather than the cameo substitutes role he had here replacing Falcao after 74 minutes? When introduced he injected some energy into our forward play and his pace made Burnley take a step back.

As the game wore on Burnley had to commit more players forward and take more risks to try to equalize. There was always a chance that United would catch them then and they did after Scott Arfield brought down di Maria, running on the break into the box. Van Persie stepped up to convert United’s first penalty of the season. Boom!

Manchester United's Robin van Persie scores his team's third goal from a penalty during their English Premier League soccer match against Burnley at Old Trafford in Manchester

United had rescued themselves with three set piece goals!

CONCLUSION

This was another poor ponderous performance from United. Burnley came to compete and seized the initiative after conceding an early goal, they were positive whilst United forgot to compete in the first half. At least United woke up to the fact they were in a contest after the break.

Van Gaal wants his sides to play a high tempo possession game, but the question remains, how many of the current squad are technically proficient enough to play this way?