MANCHESTER UNITED vs WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Having recorded their first win in five games in mid-week, courtesy of a 1-0 Champions League victory, United returned to League action with a potentially tricky home game against West Bromwich Albion; they have become something of a bogey side for United in recent years.
- This game followed a similar pattern to the game against CSKA Moscow with the visitors presenting a disciplined defence and United struggling to break them down. The breakthrough came earlier here so there are patterns of play to discuss thereafter but before the goal things were similar.
- In the first half United’s passing was too slow to hurt West Brom, the tempo improved early in the second half leading to the first goal. Thereafter the tempo dropped again as West Brom became more adventurous searching for n equalizer. United remained largely in control before hitting West Brom again late in the game as they overcommitted.
- Jesse Lingard had another good game. In this match he stayed on the left or the whole game, he was lively and always looked a threat running at West Brom. Again his final ball was a disappointment, but he deserved his goal which we hope will add to his growing confidence.
- United are currently too static ahead of the ball. United players are bound to pass square if they have no forward options. Rooney is dropping too deep and United are often outnumbered in the final third. This issue limits United’s abilities to make the most of Schweinsteiger, who again had an excellent game.
- Why did United allow the tempo to drop after the opening goal? United need to develop the instinct to go for the jugular when they have the upper hand. Does this team have enough of a killer instinct?
A rarity; United started this game unchanged from the previous fixture, with all players arrayed in the same positions. West Bromwich Albion set up in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape, but such was their strategic approach that sitting very deep they were effectively a 4-5-1.
United’s shape from the start and Rooney, was he too deep?
The match started with United dominating possession and probing at West Brom looking for a mistake or opening that was not obviously presenting itself. This is the usual pattern now of course and as in previous similar games whilst they dominated possession United struggled to breakdown an obdurate organised defensive shape. United did create a couple of good chances in the first half and they came from instances where the pattern of play changed for whatever reason. Before we look at those perhaps we should outline a couple of issues which United need to address and a couple of things where they were better in this game.
We are conscious of our repeating ourselves here but again we would highlight that the tempo of United’s play was too slow. This allowed West Brom to constantly re-adjust. They looked comfortable and easily retained their defensive shape. Another repeated point would be that there was not enough forward passing with the ball being moved from side to side rather more than back to front.
To this we would add the issue of Rooney and Martial’s movement. Rooney was too deep here with Martial adjusting his position in relation to Rooney and so also dropping deep. This is happening a lot now and the consequence of this is twofold. Firstly the play is all in front of the opposition. Martial really needs to be on top of the oppositions centre-backs putting them under pressure. Rooney should then be close at hand which with both centre-backs watching Martial but at the same time being conscious of the need to also keep an eye on Rooney’s threat can be a problem for the opposition. This creates a potential 2 v 2 down the centre of the park which would either require a midfield player to drop deep or a fullback to move inside thus creating space in the centre or out wide. Unfortunately this isn’t happening and so United continue to circulate possession in the deep.
The second issue here is that when United move the ball wide and look to make a cross, often there is nobody in the box. Martial and Rooney may be struggling to get there but when they do everyone, (and not just this pair), are so deep that United’s players are always outnumbered. Rooney and Martial need to stay high and create a problem for the opposition’s centre-backs; all too often here they looked untroubled.
So what did United do well? In this game we thought that United’s use of width was better than of late. Of course Mata and at times the impressive Lingard cut inside, but the full-backs when they advanced tended to stay wide. Rojo was perhaps more conservative in his forward movements than Young and this may be as a consequence of a perceived need to protect the space behind the lively Lingard, (West Brom of course exploited the space behind Di Maria and Herrera so well last year). United delivered a large number of crosses in this game but as in previous games the quality of the delivery was generally poor.
The features of United’s play which were exception that proved the rule were good early switching of the play, (resulting in a good chance for Mata who curled his shot round the far post), and an opportunity when United did get numbers in the box with Martial twisting to bring down a cross followed by a side step, but unfortunately he then shot straight at the keeper.
All this resulted in the score remaining 0-0 at halftime.
After the break the pattern initially stayed the same. A word about West Brom; they were very disciplined and worked hard to retain their shape. They concentrated on marking the space and didn’t make that much of an effort to tackle United players. The obvious thing for United to do then was to run at the West Brom defensive line and make them commit themselves. United never really did this other than through the lively Lingard in wide areas. Perhaps they should have done this through the middle of the pitch. The other alternative strategy United could have adopted was to pass the ball with the purpose of setting up a shooting opportunity from the edge of the box. If you can’t pass through a massed defence shoot through it. The shot might not go straight in, but you might get a rebound which falls favourably or a corner. At the very least you test the opposition’s ability to react quickly to a loose ball in their penalty area.
Then from nowhere with a shot from the edge of the box Lingard scored. Boom! The goal came when a speculative cross was headed out. Lingard in a narrow position on the left hand side of goal just outside the box controlled the headed clearance and calmly curled the ball past the keeper into the far corner. United hadn’t created this shooting opportunity, it had been gifted to them by the oppositions poor defensive header, but the shot and goal prove the point. 52 minutes played 1-0.
The goal changed the game as West Brom now had to come out. They responded by pushing their wider midfield players forward so that their shape more closely resembled a 4-3-3. They now enjoyed their best period although they only really created one chance. They should have scored this as Berinhino headed over from close range. Generally West Brom played higher and United dropped deeper. The opportunity was now there for United to catch the visitors on the break. Unfortunately the pace of United’s passing, which had been better at the start of the second half dropped again to the slow tempo “enjoyed” in the first half.
On 63 minutes Van Gaal made his first change replacing Young with Jones. Jones took up Young’s position at right back. Was this a response to West Brom’s increased liveliness in wide areas? The pattern of the game remained unchanged with United looking fairly comfortable without really threatening to hurt West Brom again. West Brom huffed and puffed.
United’s shape late in the game and debutante Borthwick-Jackson
On 76 Van Gaal changed the other fullback removing Rojo and gave a first team debut to local lad Borthwick-Jackson. Therafter he didn’t have a lot to do in the game but looked comfortable. On 81 minutes Herrera replaced Rooney. The game seemed to be petering out into a 1-0 win, but then on the break United did finally catch West Brom. Herrera intercepted a misplaced pass and sent a pass beyond the West Brom defence for Martial to chase. McAuley chased him, caught him, brought him down and conceded a last minute penalty. McAuley was sent off for his efforts. Mata stepped up to convert this, Boom! Final score 2-0.
This was an important win and United can finally go into the international break on the back of a victory. It wasn’t a great performance however with the team again struggling to break down an organized defence. Everybody knew how West Brom would be set up so the victory is a relief. Anaylsing why United find these games so difficult the obvious answers are the tempo of their passing, poor movement off and ahead of the ball and over-caution which results in too many safe square passes which don’t threaten the oppositions defence. Everybody is focusing on this last factor with some validity, but the other two issues are just as significant.
Van Gaal has also pointed to a lack of speed in wide areas in the final third. He is absolutely right about this with Lingard demonstrating its value. He is a right sided player playing on the left and this restricts his effectiveness. But all credit to him for his goal. We would like to see him play on the right with Memphis on the left; both have pace although Memphis of course is currently out of form and hasn’t adjusted to his new club.
The question then would be where does this leave Mata; and if he were to be moved to a central number 10 role where does this leave Rooney; and if he were moved to the centre-forward position where would this leave Martial? Rooney is currently dropping too deep for the benefit of the side but despite many calls for him to be dropped or rested it would seem perverse to do so as he is our top goal scorer at a time where our goals are at a premium; this and the fact that Martial’s goals (one in nine games) appear to have dried up.