MANCHESTER UNITED vs WEST BROMWICH ALBION
After successive defeats on their travels United were looking for some home comforts as they welcomed West Bromwich Albion to Old Trafford. The Reds haven’t got a good recent record against the visitors but going into this game found themselves two wins away from Champions League qualification.
In: Van Persie.
- A disappointing performance; predictable football lacking dynamism and creativity.
- United dominated possession having 81.1% of the ball, but they were slow to move the ball forward making it easy for the visitors to maintain their defensive shape. West Bromwich Albion always looked comfortable.
- As West Brom sat back the play became compressed in the visitors defensive third. United lacked the creativity to break through and so repeatedly recycled the ball to and fro across the pitch with repeated square passing. They looked at their most dangerous when they switched the ball quickly but they rarely did this. Too much of their passing was safe.
- The midfield was the area lacking the most. Herrera filled in for the absence of Carrick in the defensive midfield role but he lacks the range of passing required for this role. Herrera is a busy player who manipulates space in small areas combining well with those around him. He doesn’t play many passes over distances of more than 20 yards, whether square to switch play or up the pitch to move the ball forward before the opposition have become set in their defensive shape.
- Ahead of Herrera none of the more advanced midfield players (Rooney and Fellaini in the first half and Rooney and Van Persie in the second) moved well enough on the ball to create passing options and none of them provided the creativity to open West Brom up.
- Up front United lacked pace and forward movement was poor. Swapping Van Persie for Fellaini in the second half did not work.
United started this game using roughly the same shape used in all their recent matches, although again Van Gaal shuffled personnel around to accommodate injury. With Shaw dropping out Blind dropped into the left back position and with Carrick still absent this necessitated Herrera moving to the defensive midfield position. In turn that saw Rooney drop into midfield with Van Persie returning to the side as the central striker. What all this meant was that Rooney and Herrera were being not being utilised in their preferred or best position and this had consequences on both the performance and result.
The match started predictably. West Brom set up with two banks of defenders, a back four and a five across the midfield. They were disciplined and compact; in the vernacular they “parked the bus”. We all expected this, including the manager who had commented about the need to circulate the ball quickly in his pre-match press conference commenting that the task was to disorganise their defensive organisation.
The pattern of the match was set right from the start West Brom defended in depth and United attempted to break them down. In the opening ten minutes United had 79% and that percentage actually increased across the match to a final figure of 81.1%. But what did they do with it, how did they use it?
United did circulate the ball quickly at the start, but they didn’t move the ball forward quickly enough so that West Brom always looked fairly comfortable in their shape. United got themselves into a pattern of moving the ball from side to side, probing by switching play. They looked at their most dangerous when the switch was a quick switch, but even then the space created wasn’t used that well allowing enough time for the visitors to get across and close down. United then had to start again.
The game was effectively a stalemate then throughout the first half, (and into the second half), but there are a couple of points worth picking out. Firstly Rooney and Fellaini offered very little movement in midfield. They kept their shape and Fellaini was a bit of a physical handful, although West Brom coped well with that, but their lack of movement meant that the created few passing options. As a consequence the passing was in lines rather than triangles with the ball being passed across the pitch.
The second point to make related to Herrera’s limitations as a defensive midfield player. We have commented before that Herrera is a busy player who makes things happen, his subtle changes of position, pressing and intelligent passes hurt the opposition in the final third. Unfortunately he does not have the range of passing that Carrick has. Most of his passes are over 10-25 yards and it is rare that he passes long than this. In this game the consequence was that the early ball away from our defensive third and particularly towards Fellaini was rare and United’s ability to switch the ball quickly was limited. Generally United switched the ball quickly only when Rooney dropped deeper to do so.
This second point is a big issue for United as when Carrick is absent we do not appear to have a suitable replacement for the defensive midfield role. Last week at Everton Blind struggled in this role, Herrera had a mixed game in this role previously at Chelsea, (where critically he gave the ball away twice to enable dangerous Chelsea break outs). Surely Van Gaal will address this issue in the summer because this position is so crucial to his plans.
The third point about the first half performance relates to United’s wide attacking play. On the left Young looked dangerous, he stayed wide and was direct. On a couple of occasions he cut inside to shoot but his delivery of crosses was poor. On the right Mata started wide but often cut inside running across the pitch with the ball. This created space behind him for Valencia who did look to advance into it. Valencia’s delivery was also poor.
Van Gaal chose to further shuffle his pack at halftime and this was a bit of a surprise. Van Persie dropped into midfield and swapped with Fellaini who became the centre forward. I can’t remember Van Persie ever playing in midfield for United? One can only speculate as to the thinking here. Perhaps the manager thought that Fellaini would hold a high position and disturb the West Brom back line, perhaps he felt that Van Persie would offer more in midfield, perhaps he thought that West Brom’s central defenders would follow Van Persie into a deeper position leaving holes at the back.
In the first half Van Persie had been a disappointment. He offers very little pace up front but his movement had been minimal and he was comfortably marshalled by the visitors; in fairness to him he was offered scraps to work off but he is clearly no longer the player he was.
The pattern of the game remained unchanged by the re-shuffle. Van Persie saw plenty of the ball but he did what all the other midfield players were doing and passed the ball square. The on 63 minutes West Brom scored after McNair nudged Darren Fletcher on the edge of the box to concede a free kick. West Brom are known for their set pieces under Tony Pullis but the deflection which gave De Gea no chance at all was fortunate. Olsson scored.
Van Gaal immediately made a change introducing Di Maria for Blind. Again a re-shuffle but this time a little more logical perhaps. Young moved to left back and Di Maria took up position on the left hand side of the attack. Still nothing changed but Di Maria is perhaps the only other significant issue of real note in the game was the performance of Di Maria. He now looks a shadow of the player who joined United in the summer. His passing was poor, his crosses were over hit or failed to beat the first man and his general link play was ineffective. He hasn’t played many minutes lately and perhaps he is missing Van Gaal’s now famous “match-rhythm” but on the other hand one could also read the performance as that of someone who didn’t really want to be out there.
United however almost got back into the game via a penalty, when on 73 minutes Gardner handled a Valencia cross. This was a harsh award as the player was right on the edge of the box and could even have been outside the box. It was also hit towards him at close range. That is all academic however as Van Persie’s penalty was saved. It is tempting to say that this dispirited United but they looked no less likely to make an impression on West Brom after the miss than before it.
On 84 minutes United made a final change removing McNair and introducing Falcao. This meant that they now defended with a back three of Young, Smalling and Valencia as they looked to press for an equalizer. It didn’t come and they were left to contemplate a third successive defeat.
This was frustrating game. Earlier in the season Van Gaal experimented, regularly changing tactics and team shape in an attempt to get the most out of the players available. Some of those experiments worked, others didn’t. More recently he has settled on what is roughly a 4-3-3 shape and has looked to fit the component parts into that shape. For a while this worked with a run of six wins in a row but United have now lost three games in a row and this suggests that when key players are missing the squad is not suitable to be to accommodate reshuffling of the parts. Van Gaal has talked all season about the need for balance and this is applies to the squad as much as it does to the team; without a balanced squad when injuries and suspensions restrict your selection options it is more difficult to maintain a balanced team. United need a big summer transfer window.
In this game United missed Carrick and they do not have an adequate alternative in the squad. But it would be lazy and wrong to suggest that this is the only problem. In this game United lacked creativity in the centre of the pitch and pace and movement in attack. They also lacked a collective sense of adventure. Much of their football was too safe. United need a midfield “can-opener” to open up a tight disciplined defence and at the moment they don’t have one.
Squeaky ass time is upon us. United now have three games to secure six points ensuring the seasons objective is achieved. No margin for error.