MANCHESTER UNITED vs SWANSEA CITY
After a much improved draw in their last game against Chelsea, United faced Swansea City in their first game of 2016. They had to start winning.
- Perhaps not as good a performance as in the Chelsea game, but a win at last!
- The first half was a non-event. United were lethargic at the start, unlike in recent games where they have started brightly. The two teams cancelled each other out in the first 45 minutes.
- A feature of this game was the number of times United changed formations. From 4-2-3-1 they switched to 4-3-3/3-4-3, then 3-2-3-2 and then back to 4-2-3-1.
- A second notable feature was their wide play. Young had an excellent game, always threatening. Martial did not look so sharp with his close control letting him down at times but he contributed a goal and an assist.
- Schweinsteiger had an interesting game. At times he slows the game down, which is increasingly an issue, but his prompting play can be highly effective. Should he play further forward more often?
Van Gaal chose Jones to partner Smalling in central defence with Blind moving across to left back. Perhaps this was in view of the difficulties experienced by Blind at the Liberty Stadium earlier this season when faced with the physical presence of Gomis. Gomis however started the game on the Swansea substitutes bench.
United set up in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape whilst Swansea were more of a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond. The first half was a bit of a non-event in the end with each side cancelling the other out. In the majority of games recently United have started brightly but despite pressing Swansea in the first few minutes and forcing a number of errors United were generally lethargic throughout the half. A couple of point are worthy of comment.
United’s initial starting shape and Swansea’s 4-3-3 transforming into a 4-4-2 with midfield diamond
Firstly United ended up matching Swansea’s midfield shape. This occurred because Schweinsteiger pushed on leaving Schneiderlin to pick up the Swansea “number 10”, Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson dropped deep as Swansea’s wider forward Ayew and Routledge came narrow. Schweinsteiger and Herrera then matched Swansea’s outside midfield players Cork and Ki, whilst Mata notionally the right sided player of the three repositioned himself as the United Number 10 opposite the Swansea defensive midfield player Britton. The movement of Schweinsteiger and Mata is nothing new so whether this was a response to the Swansea midfield shape or Swansea’s response to United’s shape, or whether it was an accident of circumstance is anyone’s guess. The effect though was a midfield stalemate.
United’s changing shape. Ashley Young exploited the space in yellow created by United’s overloads on the left, (shown in blue)
The only other interesting point then relates to the wide areas. Martial was positioned on the left and with Schweinsteiger pushing high on that side he fed plenty of ball to Martial whose direct running caused Swansea some problems as United overloaded this side. Martial’s first touch tended to let him down with the ball running away from him as he tried to run at the Swansea defence. Often this meant coming inside into crowded areas where he tended to lose the ball. The alternative was that he re-cycled the ball and the midfield players, (Schweinsteiger or even Mata who often came right across to the left) switched play quickly via a long diagonal pass to the advancing Young. United overloading on their left created acres of space on the right as Swansea were dragged across. This meant Young had acres of space in front of him and these quick switches often found him one on one with the Swansea fullback. He made good use of this space and often found himself close to the bye line from where he wiped in a number of good crosses. Unfortunately United didn’t get enough bodies in the box to make this tactic pay.
In fact Young’s advanced position was such a feature of the first half that on the right it felt as if United were playing more with a wingback than a fullback. United then often appeared to be playing a three at the back strategy, more of that later, but at this stage the balance of the team was across the pitch appeared lopsided.
At half time Van Gaal made his first substitution removing Jones and introducing Darmian. Perhaps prompted by the thought of a more deliberate 3 at the back strategy United initially set up with Smalling as the middle centre-back and Blind to the left, Darmian to the right. Schweinsteiger no appeared to stay deeper. Young continued the pattern of play we saw in the first half but Martial, now operating as a wingback dropped a lot deeper. United shape was now something like a 3-2-3-2 with Mata playing almost on the shoulder of the central defenders somewhere up around Rooney and with Herrera as the number 10. United fans will recall the understanding struck up by Mata and Herrera last year and here it was seen to similar effect again.
For the first fifteen minutes of the second half United played some excellent football . Rooney, Mata and Herrera all combined well, principally in the central areas, although occasionally one or two of them moved wide to link up with the advancing wingbacks. This worked really well because thre three in the centre of the pitch were able to create overloads which pushed Swansea’s midfield deep and narrow which in turn created even more room for the wingbacks to attack as they moved forward, (Martial particularly seemed to prosper). Swansea struggled to control the wingbacks and with one or other of the Schmidifield, (usually Schweinsteiger) pushing on in support Swansea struggled to hold on. United had come alive.
United early in the second half in a 3-2-3-2 and later in the half reverting to a 4-2-3-1
The pressure exerted resulted in a number of corners and from one of these Martial scored. Initially the ball was cleared to the United right but Schweinstiger managed to steer the ball outside to Young who ran to the bye-line and crossed. Marital had come narrow from the other side and heaed home from the centre of the goal. Boom! 48 minutes 1-0.
After this first fifteen minutes of the second half United adjusted their shape again. Now Young dropped deeper, Blind moved to centre-back and Darmian swapped sides. Mata moved out to the right and Martial moved higher as the shape became a more conventional 4-2-3-1. Why? Was this an example of Van Gaal’s caution, with a lead he chose to go back to a shape with which he felt more comfortable. United had looked a bit more open at the back with a three, but Swansea weren’t pulling up any trees. United’s attacking football never looked as dynamic again. With a 1-0 lead, why not go for a second goal?
Unfortunately for United it only took about ten minutes after they had reverted to a four at the back for Swansea to get an equalizer. This came after 69 minutes. United were casual in allowing Swansea to cross from their right and Sigurdsson was able to out jump the defence to head across De Gea into the far corner. Back to square one, would Van Gaal choose to change the shape again. In fact he didn’t, sticking with a 4-2-3-1 he chose to make a personnel change when immediately after the equalizer he replaced Young, (who was excellent throughout the game), with McNair. Blind moved across to left back and Darmian switched across to right back.
The game looked like it was going to peter out into a disappointing draw with the first fifteen minutes of the second half being remembered as almost like something from another game, but then on 78 minutes from nowhere United scored. This goal came when Martial, (a threat on the left throughout the half), centred and Rooney produced a great piece of individual skill to finish with a deft flick first time. 2-0 with 12 minutes to go. Boom!
Could United hold on to record a first win in over a month. Yes. On 90 minutes Van Gaal replaced Herrera with Carrick as he sought to run down the clock.
This game was notable for the number of changes to the team shape throughout the game. It’s hard to say whether the United’s changing shape was a deliberate ploy or a reaction to Swansea’s shape. Initially Swansea look to be formed up as a 4-3-3 but this changed with the central striker dropping deep and the wide forwards playing narrow. Was this forced by United’s early shape and pressing or did United’s change come as a result of Swansea’s changing shape. We will never know but initially these changes were too little effect.
The change to a back three looked very deliberate at half time although it reinforced a pattern established in the first half with Young pushing on leaving three at the back. Was Van Gaal’s half time substitution then a reaction to an existing pattern?
What we do know is that United played well in the first fifteen minutes of the second half but then reverted to a more usual four at the back. What was interesting is that after the equalizer Van Gaal did not change back to a shape and pattern of play which appeared more effective and the winning goal came in spite of any team shape rather than because of it.
Young and Schweinsteiger stood out as United’s best performers, Young for his direct running on the left and Scweinsteiger for his constant prompting and recycling of play. Schweinsteiger appears so much more effective when played higher, but needs the protection of Schneiderlin to fulfill this role. Rooney and Martial also had improved games and Mata and Herrera were busy.
United will face stiffer tests than this in the weeks ahead, but a win is a win.