Following a defeat at Swansea, United returned to Old Trafford for a home fixture against Sunderland keen to record a home win as the race for a top four spot becomes ever fiercer. With van Persie missing through injury the burning question was who would feature up front?


In: Smalling, Evans, Valencia, Young and Falcao.
Out: McNair, Jones, Shaw, Fellaini and van Persie.


  • Van Gaal switched to a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 shape for this match. Despite this United’s play was still slow and over cautious for long periods, and especially in the early stages of the match.
  • “Attack, Attack, Attack” was the cry of the crowd after one passage of play resulting in a back pass and this seemed to wake the team up. Immediately after this they increased the tempo of their play, took a few calculated risks and as such asked a few difficult questions resulting in a number of half chances. On this basis Gary Neville has a point.
  • Di Maria had a very poor game and was replaced by Januzaj at half time. The Belgian played wider and stayed wider so stretching the Sunderland defence across the pitch. This helped United’s second half performance.
  • Falcao had a poor game again. In this match he kept dropping deep and crowded the space around Rooney, both with his own presence and by attracting Sunderland bodies to that area. He needs to stay higher and occupy the oppositions centre backs by pushing them deeper leaving space behind for Rooney and others to exploit.
  • United looked brighter when they played at a higher tempo and took a few risks. Safety first football may not to be the liking of the Old Trafford crowd but whatever the formation or personnel chosen the principle that you have to play quicker and take a risk to take the opposition out of their comfort zone applies.


United started this game poorly. This is an emerging theme this season where on a number of occasions we have started slowly had a poor first half but then improved later in the game. In this game Van Gaal chose to go with a slightly lob-sided 4-2-3-1 with Falcao as the front man and Rooney in behind. Herrera and Bind anchored the midfield. The poor start came in the form of the usual low tempo sluggishness but in this game sloppy passing which saw United give the ball away and invite the visitors to break. Sunderland employed a 4-1-4-1 formation with Defoe at the front and Cattermole in front of the back four. The wider midfield players Wickham and Johnson are both fairly quick and with Defoe’s pace this meant that Sunderland’s approach was to sit deep but await opportunities to break. In the opening period they plenty of chances to do this early in the game and it is not an exaggeration to say that United could have been two down after 15 minutes.

1st half sunderland falcao-manchester-united-vs-sunderland-2822015_uft1qg2630mk1bzseso2w1n32

When United had the ball they passed from side to side awaiting an opportunity to exploit space. Sunderland were disciplined however and very little space emerged. This lead to some disquiet in the crowd and this boiled over into boos and a cry of “Attack, Attack…….Attack, Attack, Attack” after United contrived to engineer a back pass from their own corner. This occurred around the 25th minute of the game. Putting aside the particular circumstances of this move this illustrated a problem with United’s play at the moment. Generally United players now seem far more comfortable in possession and the team as a whole finds it easy to retain the ball. United regularly enjoy over 60% possession in game and here enjoyed 74.8%. But this is at the expense of attacking verve. Much of the football is slow and much of the passing is risk averse.

Immediately after the shots to attack United increased the tempo of their play took a few calculated risks and as such asked a few difficult questions resulting in a number of half chances, (Young was unlucky not to score and another move saw a shot deflected against the bar). Smalling, Blind, Rojo and Rooney were all “guilty” in this respect and this has to be welcomed. United’s play was better for it. On this basis Gary Neville has a point; United have to take a few risks.

United looked brighter from this point on but a cover of other aspects of United’s play in the first half demand comment.

Angel di Maria had a very poor game and was replaced by Januzaj at half time. His statistics from the first half tell a story and as Januzaj played the second half in his place a direct comparison is possible. Di Maria had two shots neither of which was on target; Januzaj had four shots of which three were on target. Di Maria attempted 3 take-ons, (dribbles), none were successful; Januzaj attempted 3 take-ons, of which one was successful. Di Maria’s pass completion average was 71% whilst Januzaj’s was 91%. The overall team average was 89% meaning that despite being adventurous on the ball Januzaj was on average less likely to lose possession than the team as a whole.


In the first half Di Maria’s movement also hindered the side. He tended to play narrow and come inside into the area around Rooney. This congested that area and made it easy for Sunderland to defend narrowly on the United right.

Falcao was another player who had a poor game. With this team shape he was given the opportunity to lead the line as a solo striker with Rooney dropping in behind. That is an opportunity he hasn’t had this season but instead of leading the line he dropped deep to involve himself in the play and like Di Maria coming inside he clogged up that area where Rooney was trying to operate both with his own presence and by attracting Sunderland bodies to that area. He needed to stay higher and occupy the oppositions centre backs, pushing them deeper leaving space behind for Rooney and others to exploit.

Falcao action areas

Rooney action areas

It is worth noting that all four of Falcao’s goals this season have come from first time strikes, (including a bullet header), in the box when he has met a ball fired in from a wide position. United aren’t delivering many balls like that across the face of the goal. They delivered one in this game late in the first half. Falcao was nowhere to be seen as he had dropped deep to involve himself in build up play.

What United actually needed to happen in this game was for Falcao to stay high, Di Maria and Young to stay wide, (Young did stay wide and played well), and for Herrera and Blind to push forward to support Rooney. Herrera and Blind did push up but di Maria and Falcao’s movement simply congested the area in the middle of the Sunderland half.

United overall action areas

Half time 0-0.


Januzaj replace Di Maria at half time. The most telling comparison between Di Maria’s first half performance and Januzaj’s in the second half is illustrated by the player’s heat maps. Di Maria’s indicates that he often cut inside in a deep position. Di Maria narrow; he helped to compress space doing the opposite of what an attacking team would want, (when you have the ball make the pitch big by spreading out is the orthodoxy). Januzaj’s heat map shows him staying wide and attacking the dead ball line. This helped to stretch the Sunderland team across the width of the pitch creating space in the middle by increasing the space between each Sunderland player. Januzaj did come inside but generally this was when he was in a far higher position than Di Maria had been. This created the space for Blind and Herrera to push higher in the centre and as a consequence United took control of the game right from the start of the half.

ADM action areas

Januzaj action areas

That is not to say that there isn’t room for improvement in Januzaj’s game. One aspect of his game which did not compare favourbly with di Maria was his crossing. Di Maria achieved a 28.6% cross success rate whilst Januzaj’s was 16.6%. The majority of Januzaj’s attacking thrusts resulted in corners or crosses that were over hit. He was however a player whose willingness to take a risk made life uncomfortable for the opposition.

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United pushed at Sunderland and whilst they still contrived to overcomplicate at times they appeared more willing to take risks and ask difficult questions of the visitors. Eventually the pressure told when O’Shea, (or was it Brown!?), fouled Falcao in the box. Penalty! After a delay caused by the referee’s decision to send off the wrong man Rooney stepped up and calmly fired home a well taken penalty. Boom! 74 minutes; 1-0.


Van Gaal immediately withdrew Falcao and introduced Fellaini. Fellaini dropped into the number 10 position and Rooney led the line. Not a lot changed after the goal. United continued to press but much of their play was still deliberate. At no point did 10 man Sunderland look like getting back into the game.

Then on 84 minutes United scored again. Januzaj stepped inside to shoot. This was saved but the ball sprung up to Rooney to head home from close range. Boom! 2-0.


Another goal, another substitution. On 86 minutes Mata replaced Rooney. Fellaini now led the line and Mata slotted into the number 10 position. United had a further attempt ruled out for offside and they played out time to win 2-0.


Van Gaal has talked a lot this season about the need for balance. One aspect of a teams play is the relationship between safety and risk. In that relationship the balance currently is right. In a recent article Gary Neville made the point that Sir Alex Ferguson always asked his team to take a few risks. Van Gaal’s approach appears to be naturally more risk averse. He aims to control a game by controlling possession and as such many of United’s passing moves take the easy option and don’t go anywhere. We don’t believe that this is van Gaal’s aim but that is what is happening in a season where the tempo of the teams play is far too slow. This is causing some frustration amongst United fans.

overall stats

An increase in tempo will help as it did in many passages of play here. Equally a willingness to take a calculated risk will help. That will almost always have to be in areas of the pitch where any damage from a loss of the ball can be minimized but safety first football in the opponents final third resulting in a period of play dominated by endless cross field passes isn’t working. To be clear a team of 11 risk takers is likely to lose more than it wins, but a team of 11 water carriers is likely to draw more than it wins.

A functioning clinical forward line that takes a higher number of chances and whose movement is better co-ordinated with the rest of the team might also help.