MANCHESTER UNITED vs WEST HAM UNITED
After a draw at Leicester a week before United faced a home fixture against a West Ham side that are having a good year so far. Their form has dropped off lately but then so has United’s. Despite this both sides were reasonably well placed in the table going into the game although frustrations amongst United fans continue to grow. Could United take advantage of the day’s earlier result? To do so they would need to improve on recent performances in front of goal and score.
In: Schneiderlin, Lingard and Fellaini.
Out: Carrick, Young and Rooney.
- United as they often do at home started brightly but then gradually their play became more cautious, less adventurous reverting to the more usual pattern as the game wore on.
- Their play was much more direct in this game though, particularly in the first half. Much of that direct play was channelled through Fellaini, either via an early pass in his direction or by Fellaini himself charging forward with the ball. The problem was that his contribution was a bit cumbersome with the player choosing the wrong option or others failing to co-ordinate with him.
- United did have chances in this game, and one is left wondering how different things might be in a game when United take an early chance. Goals change games and the perception of games. The longer the game goes on without United scoring the more the frustration grows. That doesn’t help matters of course.
- United’s play was unbalanced across the width of the pitch. For most of the game Lingard and Darmian, two right footed players operated on the left which was where most of United’s threat came from. That meant Mata and McNair on the right. Neither of whom tend to push forward. That changed a little when Valera came on at right back after halftime, but making his debut he was relatively cautious. Late in the game Memphis was introduced on the left and Lingard switched to the right; United then looked more balanced.
- Smalling as is now usual had an excellent game, but West Ham still had some good chances and were worth at least a draw overall. That in itself tells a story. Smalling aside and despite United’s defensive record just how good is our defence and to what extent is United’s relatively cautious approach designed to protect a defence that Van Gaal does not trust?
Despite injuries Van Gaal chose to return to a 4-2-3-1 after his use of a three man defensive strategy at Leicester. Fellaini played as the number 10 behind Martial. Lingard featured on the left and Mata on the right. Rojo’s injury in training required an alternative at left back and so Darmian switched across to the left hand side (where he plays for Italy) and McNair came in at right back.
United’s starting shape and Fellaini who featured in an almost box-to-box role
The most notable feature of the first twenty minutes was the increased speed at which United were moving the ball forward. It is tempting to see this as the Fellaini factor and United’s attacking thrust often came through him but not always in the way one would anticipate. Last season an early pass to Fellaini’s chest was the default way of moving the forward forward quickly and this occasional happened here, but just as often Fellaini was dropping deep and moving the ball quickly himself via a forward run or pass. Actually Fellaini was playing more of a box to box role that that of a second striker.
The other issue for United was the balance across the width of the pitch. With Mata and McNair on the right United offered very little forward attacking thrust on that side. Mata as we are aware tends to come inside and McNair, a centre back rather than a wide player tended to stay deep. Fellaini tended to move towards the right hand side as United attacked down the left side. On that side Darmian was energetic in surging forward, occasionally as far as the by-line. When he advanced in this way he threw over a serious of crosses aimed directly at Fellaini. Lingard a right footed player playing on the left tended to cut back before delivering his crosses.
The crosses when they came in were often nodded down by Fellaini for others and unfortunately the ball didn’t quite fall to other players. The combination play in the middle didn’t quite work. Despite this United’s more direct play created a number of good chances which United failed to take. Martial had a really good chance when a fall fell to him in the middle of the goal. His shot was blocked by a diving defender. The ball hit his arm as he dived. A penalty? The referee chose not to make an award.
Conversely West Ham always looked dangerous when they came forward and had a couple of good chances to score. They hit the post and De Gea made a couple of good saves.
Just before half-time in the 44th minute Schneiderlin was withdrawn with an injury, Michael Carrick came on.
At half-time Van Gaal was forced to make another change due to injury. McNair was replaced by Valera, coming on to make his debut at right back.
United’s formation early in the second half and debutante Valera
Valera did really well for a debutante. He was no more or less adventurous in his forward movement that McNair had been and was defensively nervous but competent. West Ham did seem to be deliberately targeting him by looking to break on Valera’s side.
As the half wore on you could sense the crowd becoming more restless and this seemed to make the team as a whole more nervous. Their play gradually became more cautious with an increase in the number of square passes. The pace of passing also dropped and the more direct vertical passing of the first half was now a distant memory. The game was now in a rut.
United’s shape late in the game after the introduction of Memphis
On 73 minutes Memphis replaced Schweinsteiger. As a consequence Fellaini dropped deeper, Mata moved to the number 10 position, Lingard switched to the right and Memphis took up position on the left. Fellaini’s play was a little stilted in the deep but this apart this re-organisation gave United a much better balance across the width of the pitch. In the last fifteen minutes United picked up the tempo again, playing with more urgency. This late rally resulted in a number of other good chances but finishing was poor and the game ended goalless in another disappointing draw.
It is tempting to forget that United currently have a mini-defensive injury crisis. All the focus currently is on the lack of goals and United’s inability to hurt opponents but Shaw, Valencia, Rojo, Jones and now McNair are all missing through injury. Smalling is proving a rock this season and whilst Darmian is doing okay at the start of the year many were questioning the wisdom of utilizing Blind as a centre-back. In this game Valera was asked to make his first team debut after McNair’s injury. He did okay but the bigger picture is an often inexperienced or makeshift defence continuing to keep clean sheets. Many are questioning why Van Gaal choses to use two “defensive” midfield pivots, especially at home? Perhaps this is because he feels the need to protect a defence in which he is not completely confident. He did after all speed a period of time in the summer pursuing Sergio Ramos to strengthen that rearguard.
Rightly however the focus will be on the lack of goals again. United started brightly here and did create chances periodically enjoying 21 shots in the game. Unfortunately only 1 shot was on target. In previous games United haven’t created enough, they have often failed to create clear cut chances instead creating only half chances making the managers claims seem a little inappropriate, (at least as inappropriate as the Stretford End shouting “Attack, attack….attack attack attack” as United are attacking!) . Here they created chances but their finishing was woefully inaccurate.
The result was another stalemate but this was not a dull game, frustrating but not dull. Despite this United’s methods remain cautious and in the middle of the game United were slow to move the ball forward over relying on square passes. At times one is desperate for one of the defensive pivots to step forward and be more proactive. United still need to do more to hurt the opposition.