After three successive defeats, each without scoring, it is clear that a pattern is emerging. In all three games United have had the majority of the ball and opportunities to take the initiative, and whilst they have taken the play to the opposition, they have failed to breach the opposition’s organised and determined defensive shape and score. In all three games they have been hit on the counter-attack and have therefore gained no reward for their efforts.

The defeat against West Bromwich Albion came in a game where the likely pattern of play was known in advance. West Brom “parked the bus” with a low defensive block in the form of two banks of players with little space in between. In his pre-match press conference the manager talked about the need to circulate the ball quickly to dis-organise the opposition’s defensive organisation. At times in this match United did circulate the ball quickly (although not all the time) but to no avail.

So what went wrong, why after a run of six victories characterised by fast adventurous free flowing football have we now endured a run of three defeats? In this piece we take a look at what United are doing wrong and try to identify why United are finding it so hard to break teams down.

Chances versus half chances

Over the last week or so, several players, the manager and a few journalists have pointed to United’s finishing as a key issue. But how key is this, actually? You can point to the number of shots United have enjoyed in games and taking your chances is always significant, especially early on.  For example, if United had scored early in the game at Chelsea (via Rooney’s chance) this would have completely changed the complexion of the match. The longer the team who has parked the bus maintains a clean sheet, the more encouragement they can take.  Conversely, Everton’s early goal probably fortified their resolve, encouraging them in their belief that they could catch United on the break whilst holding out at the other end of the pitch.

The bigger problem in respect of breaking down the low block is the nature of the chances being created. The majority against West Bromwich Albion were really only half chances, which suggests that the primary problem is creating clear cut shooting opportunities rather than finishing. Of course, if Fellaini had taken his chance to equalize early in the game at Goodison Park, it would have made a difference, but how many other clear-cut shooting chances did we create that day and after Rooney’s chance at Stamford Bridge how many other chances can we recall?

If you don’t create many clear chances then how clinical you are with them is a big factor and less so if you create plenty.

Marouane Fellaini

Talking about Fellaini, that brings us around to the subject of his all-round contribution. Just a few weeks ago he was considered an important factor in our run of victories. There is no doubt that he is one of, if not the most, improved player this year, but it was inevitable that teams would begin to devise methods of dealing with him. The challenge for him is whether he can overcome those method and that depends where his ultimate limitations as a player are; how good and effective can he be, long-term?

Fellaini's positioning

Fellaini’s positioning

In the context of overcoming the low block, Fellaini has obvious limitations. In England, teams are very well prepared for high balls towards a big player. Against City and Liverpool Fellaini was successful because those teams did not play an ultra-defensive game (their sense of themselves would not allow it). Fellaini often received the ball with little space around him, certainly not enough to allow him to bring the ball down onto his chest. When teams defend in two deep banks of four, that space is not available when Fellaini pushes high and when he doesn’t have this opportunity his play becomes very one-dimensional. He is left to try and head the ball on to others and usually his header is picked up by the opposition who have numbers around to ensure they are favourites to clear. This happened over and over again against West Brom.

Fellaini's poor positioning and movement not offering a passing option

Fellaini’s poor positioning and movement not offering a passing option

The alternative is for Fellaini to drop deeper into the midfield but this doesn’t play to his physical strengths. In midfield Fellaini does not deliver quick incisive passes that might open up spaces in the centre of the pitch, he is far more likely to spread the play wide where there is naturally more space. This happened on several occasions against West Brom, even when a pass in a central area to a player in space was a better option. On one occasion Van Persie was free in the no. 10 space, but Fellaini made a far more difficult pass to the wing.

Fellaini poor choice of pass

Fellaini poor choice of pass

Fellaini’s passing doesn’t help the flow of our play. His passing (and movement) is slow, laboured and often reduces the pace of our play affecting tempo and rhythm.  You could even argue that Fellaini is a hindrance to the harmonic motion/flow of our attack. We commented after the Chelsea game that the wise thing to do would have been to rest him for that game sure in the knowledge that Mourinho would have been working on a game plan designed to counter his effectiveness all week. Is it now time to rest him? The answer would be yes if we were confident we had a more effective alternative.

Side to side and front to back

One feature of our play in recent weeks has been the number of square passes we have been playing. People often point to the absence of Michael Carrick as the issue here but that is only a part of the problem.

Teams employing a low block will encourage you to push the ball wide by leaving space in those areas, defending on a narrow front at times to encourage you to play the ball to your wide players. They do this because quite obviously the goal is in the centre of the pitch and both teams know that eventually you are going to have to move the ball into the centre to get close enough to the goal to score. Teams are far less comfortable if you attack them down the centre of the pitch because then you have the option of going either left or right rather than one option from wide areas of coming inside in some way. It is harder to attack down the middle where space is at a premium. With our current midfield personnel and the absence of Michael Carrick, this is proving impossible.

Herrera passing versus West Brom. Lots of square passing

Herrera passing versus West Brom. Lots of square passing

The quality of our wide play then becomes critical. In recent weeks, that has meant the quality of the play of Mata and Young, backed up by Valencia on the right and Blind or Shaw on the left. We look at this in more detail below, but first let’s consider our ability to attack down the centre.

The Carrick factor and the Carrick/Herrera axis

It has become accepted wisdom in recent weeks that the absence of Michael Carrick has been significant. But why is this?

When Carrick was fit he and Herrera were able to control United’s tempo and rhythm. Without Carrick and with Herrera playing deeper, United are relying on Rooney and Fellaini to circulate the ball in high areas, assisted at times by Herrera when he is able to push forward. Rooney and Fellaini are not well suited to this role, being timid, almost hesitant in their positioning, passing and general play. They keep the ball but all too often they spread it wide.

This happened a lot against West Brom because they set themselves up to try and stifle United’s territorial advantage in central areas by defending narrowly. This forced United to slow their tempo and push the ball outside. West Brom executed their plan well and United struggled to find space in the middle. They didn’t help themselves through the poor movement of Rooney and Fellaini. Herrera’s movement through the lines could have been a key factor in the game and despite playing much deeper as a defensive midfield player, he still came forward when he could, which resulted in United’s better, more incisive moves.

Herrera incisiveness

Herrera incisiveness

Rooney was timid and hesitant in his approach play and Fellaini’s contribution was poor, so Herrera only had so much help whenever he linked with Mata. Space was constricted of course – because of the low block – and this just made it harder to play 1-2 s. This highlights why Carrick is so important and why his absence in the holding midfield position is such an issue. He would have positioned himself to complete the passing triangle between himself, Herrera and Mata, but against West Brom there was no such triangle. With Fellaini often pushing higher and Rooney failing to drop to the right central midfield zone, it was all straight lines which encouraged square balls across the pitch.

Midfield shape with Carrick - note the triangular relationship between Fellaini Herrera and Carrick. The midfield sets it's positional radar by Carrick's position

Midfield shape with Carrick – note the triangular relationship between Fellaini Herrera and Carrick. The midfield sets it’s positional radar by Carrick’s position

Without Carrick. The team's shape is chaotic at times

Without Carrick. The team’s shape is chaotic at times

Problems in the wide areas

With so much of the play being spread wide, the general play and delivery from the side areas becomes very important. But it is about more than just how well the wide players play; it is also about how well timed your delivery to them from the centre is. You need to create space in the wide areas via overlaps and to do this you need to retain the ball in the centre for longer, drawing players towards the ball before releasing it wide. This should allow the wide players that little bit more time to look up, pick out a target and deliver an accurate cross.

To do this it would be necessary for Fellaini and Van Persie to work the ball more in the centre and for runners on either side of them to move to provide passing options probing at the centre before then pushing the ball wide after the opposition’s back line has narrowed. On Saturday the best that United could do was to play a long switched ball, often via Rooney. United’s better first half moments came from this type of play but they were usually too slow to use the space they had created. West Brom had time to shuffle across and close the space down.

Herrera body position when receiving the ball

Herrera body position when receiving the ball

The performance of the wide players is a factor. Whilst there is a contrast between what is happening on the left and right flanks, unfortunately the play on both flanks is fairly predictable. On the left Young tends to run directly but his combination play with Blind doesn’t create many overlaps because Blind tends to be fairly cautious in coming forward. Young’s delivery is often fairly poor, failing to pick out a man in the middle. His play is better when he cuts inside diagonally and shoots or hits a cross diagonally towards the far post.

Mata body position when receiving the ball

Mata body position when receiving the ball

On the right Mata’s play is interesting and it should produce a natural overlap. A few weeks ago the talk was of Mata as a “false right winger” or narrow winger, but in truth he has played both very wide on occasions and very narrow on occasions, presumably depending upon Van Gaal’s analysis of the opposition. On Saturday he started in a very wide position, but when he received the ball he often had his back to the side-line or was even on the half turn, facing more towards his own goal. His body position then suggests that he is either going to pass the ball back inside or run inside across the pitch, he is unlikely to run towards the by-line. This should create the space outside behind Mata’s movement for Valencia to move for the overlap. This did happen a few times on Saturday, but the delivery was poor and given how predictable Mata’s movement was, it didn’t happen often enough.

Mata and Herrera contrast in body positions on receiving the ball

Mata and Herrera contrast in body positions on receiving the ball

The main point in respect of United’s wide play is that both Mata and Young’s actions are too predictable. Young will run in a straight line and Mata will run square. This predictability is one-dimensional and means that both players are easier to deal with.

Van Persie in midfield

Finally we come to Van Persie. In the first half he was playing as the central striker; in the second half he was moved back into midfield and Fellaini moved up front. In the first half as a forward he was living off scrapes and these days we would question whether he has the mobility to lead the line as a sole striker. Yes, his close control is still good but when space is at a premium because a team is playing a low block you need more than that and you need to move to avoid being crowded out.

Fellaini first half passes     RVP second half passes

Comparison of Fellaini and Van Persie’s forward passing from midfield

Many observers, included have questioned the decision to move Van Persie to the midfield in the second half.  It wasn’t effective in the sense that we didn’t score, but it is worth a moment or two to try to understand Van Gaal’s thinking. Van Gaal is a very logical man. He is adventurous in that he is prepared to experiment. Sometimes an experiment comes off, on other occasions it may not, but he always evaluates his decisions and acts accordingly. He may try things that others wouldn’t, but that is not necessarily a bad thing – an experiment isn’t really an experiment if you know exactly what will happen when you do something.

RVP in midfield 1

RVP in midfield 2

Van Persie’s ball over the top to Fellaini in the second picture is the incisive intent van Gaal was looking from Manchester United in the first half. Unfortunately, this tactical switch did not lead to a breakthrough but it did lead to better structured attacks.

To the general fan, playing Van Persie in midfield doesn’t make sense. We think about players as defenders, midfield players or forwards, but Van Gaal doesn’t think that way, he sees a player as a player not a position.  He considers a player’s qualities, asking himself what he is good at and whether that strength is a transferable skill. In the second half, Van Persie played much deeper and combined far more effectively with Herrera than Fellaini had done, offering more penetrative passing. Ultimately it came to nothing but it perhaps it was worth a try as the first half had yielded so little.

So where do we go from here?

On more than one occasion Van Gaal has set out his view that a player returning from injury must train with the first team squad for two weeks on returning from injury to get his “match rhythm” back. But United do not have that luxury at the moment. The defensive midfield position is clearly the most important position on Van Gaal’s tactical system. If United do not have an effective alternative for this position, and the last three games suggest that they do not, then United need to take a chance on an early return for Michael Carrick ahead of this schedule. After all, it isn’t as though he is returning from a long term injury absence.

This article was written by Edikan Umana and You can follow Edikan on twitter @EddieTrulyReds