MANCHESTER UNITED vs VFL WOLFSBURG
Having won the last three games since their defeat in Eindhoven on UCL Match Day 1 United went into this game looking for a home win to help make up ground and get their Champions league hopes back on track.
- United started slowly, passing was ponderous. They paid the price conceding and early goal to opponents who by contrast were more dynamic and assertive.
- It was only when United picked up the pace that they looked likely to make an impression on their opponents. When they began to move the ball quickly, sacrificing a modicum of control they began to create chances.
- Schweinsteiger, Mata and Martial all played well. The defence on the other hand looked shaky at times ; the defensive work on the first goal was woeful and almost panicky towards the end. How did they survive the last fifteen minutes.
- Wolfsburg are essentially a counter-attacking side, but whenever United allowed the tempo of their play to drop, whenever United’s play became over cautious the visitors seized the initiative. This should be a lesson to United.
- Valencia had a shocking first half and was replaced by Young. He changed the game in that he was defensively sound but also provided much needed attacking thrust into the space created by Mata’s lateral movement. Blind struggled towards the end as Wolfsburg stepped up the pressure and was moved into midfield with Jones being introduced at the back. This was Van Gaal being pragmatic in sacrificing his left footer/right footer principle.
Both teams started this game in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Darmian continuing as the left back. This meant that Valencia continued on the right. Almost immediately United fell behind. The Wolfsburg goal was a break away; they are typically a counter-attacking side. They picked the all up vis a poor United cross and fed the ball to Caligiuri deep in the Wolsfburg inside left channel. He fed the ball to Draxler and then ran diagonally from left to right to receive a return pass. Schneiderlin ran with him but was always behind him and this dragged Blind across towards the touchline. Caliguiri came inside them both and bed the ball back to Draxler who played a square ball across to Kruse. He played a straight ball into the space vacated by Blind and Caliguiri ran in behind to score. Valencia dragged across by the play was too deep and played the Wolfsburg man onside. Darmian was caught out of position by the whole move. Several players were caught ball watching.
The goal apart United’s start to the game was poor. As has often been the case this year their passing across the back was slow and ponderous. This allowed Wolfsburg the time to maintain their shape and cover. They looked comfortable. More to the point United were so slow that they allowed Wolfsburg plenty of time to press United when they tried to pass the ball forward out of defence. Much of United’s play was simply too cautious. This could be contrasted with Wolfsburg’s play. They were proactive and moved the ball quickly when they had the ball, they took risks and as a consequence often gave the ball away, but their play carried a greater early threat. The other contrast was movement off the ball. United’s movement was conservative; Wolfsburg’s was quick and adventurous. In short Wolfsburg looked a far more dynamic force.
United’s first half shape and Scwhweinsteiger; key in getting United back into the game
But United slowly worked their way back into this game so how did this change? At the start Wolfsburg went man for man when United had the ball in the middle of the park. This meant that Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger were generally marked and had little time and space. Wolfsburg allowed Blind and Smalling plenty of time on the ball. The obvious outlet then was in wide positions where Wolfsburg wanted United to move the ball. When the ball was moved there Wolfsburg would immediately press the ball and try to pen United in. On the right this worked well with Valencia being forced to play a large number of passes back towards his own goal, but it didn’t work so well on the left.
That was because Schweinsteiger moved across to the left to support Darmian and Memphis and United were able to overload or at least equalize the numbers on that side. Draxler in left midfield for Wolfsburg had started the game well, but now faded. This could have left United exposed down the middle of course and Schneiderlin was stretched, but he was supported by Mata coming inside and Rooney dropping deep to maintain numbers in the centre. Mata was having an excellent half.
The other thing that helped United was Martial’s physical presence and speed upfront pushing the Wolfsburg defence back. His duel with Dante was fairly even which given Dante’s experience and Martial’s inexperience can be considered a positive. Martial often pulled Dante across to the right touchline and this was important in ensuring that United maintained attacking width.
As the half wore on it was a much more even contest with Wolfsburg maintaining their shape and discipline and always looking a threat on the break. United were asking the questions, but they were struggling to land the punch up front.
Fortunately United got a break when Caligiuri, the hero at one end, became villain at the other. He stretched out an arm instinctively and handled a Mata cross in the 34th minute. Mata himself stepped up to take the kick. Boom! This meant that the score was 1-1 at half time.
At half time Van Gaal replaced Valencia with Young. Valencia had enjoyed a poor first half. Often left exposed by United’s movement ahead of him on the right he had frequently given the ball away and had played Caligiuri onside for the Wolfsburg goal. The substitution worked as Young despite playing out of position on the right gave a defensively solid performance but was also a threat going forward giving attacking thrust on that side and so maintaining balance to United’s threat across the width of the pitch. Mata continued to come inside to a more central position. The pattern of play remained unchanged at the start of the second half but for the increased threat on the right coming from Young, and it was this threat which lead to United’s second and winning goal.
This came in the 52nd minute. After a United corner had been cleared the ball was retrieved by Young on the right. He ran down the touchline and delivered a cross which was headed away but fell to Schweinsteiger just outside the box. He miskicked in an attempt to return the hall into the penalty area but the ball popped up for Mata who produced a sumptuous volleyed back heel over the Wolfsburg defensive line. Smalling had anticipated the balls arrival and stretched to divert this ball into the opposite corner of the ball first time. Boom! 2-1.
This goal illustrated an important point about United’s current play. The move involved an amount of good fortune but it also embodied an element of United chancing their arm, taking a risk or ceding a degree of control. Young’s run, the luck of Schweinsteiger’s miskick, Mata’s improvisation and Smalling anticipation. All these factors hurt Wolfsburg in the way that cautious, passing and ball retention, playing the percentages did not. Of course United need to keep the ball to dictate the play, but there has to be a balance and to hurt well organised teams that possession football has to embrace a touch of adventure and intensity. There has to be a sense of patient urgency. Across the whole match when United’s play did embody these qualities they created chances. In periods where it did not they didn’t create chances.
United’s changing personnel in the second half, shape stayed pretty much the same although the team dropped deeper
On 62 minutes Van Gaal made his second change swapping Pereira for Memphis. In terms of position this was a straight swap although Pereira played a little deeper. In fact the whole team was a little deeper now having taken the game to Wolfsburg for about an hour they reverted to being a little too cautious. This allowed Wolfsburg to push forward and take the initiative. They introduced ex-Chelsea man Andre Schurrle became more expansive. Wolfsburg had a couple of good chances before Van Gaal then made another change removing Schweinsteiger and introducing Jones to play as left sided centre back. Blind, who was struggling as a consequence of Wolfsburg’s assertiveness, was moved forward into midfield.
It is not clear how United survived the last fifteen minutes. Their defending was a bit chaotic and they kept giving the ball away, (which is uncharacteristic for this United side), and so invited more pressure. Despite a couple of scares they did though.
This wasn’t a good performance by United but in the end it was effective. They started the game seeming to want too much time on the ball; their passing was slow and at times sloppy. Players were indecisive and ponderous. Wolfsburg would not allow this and pressed all but United’s centre-backs forcing errors.
It was only when United passed at a higher tempo, sacrificing some caution and a degree of control that they came into the game. Then the match became a more even contest but with United perhaps asking more questions. Much of the good work came through Schweinsteiger and Mata (who was always looking to move into the centre). Further forward Martial provided some strength. Schneiderlin by contrast had a poor game, often giving the ball away and rarely showing much invention or initiative.
Wolsfburg always remained a threat throughout the game, principally as a counter-attacking force although they did enjoy a late sustained rally. United survived this but is not clear how as they continually gave the ball away, constantly inviting more pressure. They seemed to lose composure at this point.
Never mind, the result puts United back in contention to qualify from the group.