WIGAN ATHLETIC vs MANCHESTER UNITED
So for the first game of Jose Mourinho’s tenure as United’s manager the Reds travelled the short journey to Wigan. Which team would he pick? What would be the tactical approach, the team shape? In fact coming so soon after the players returned for pre-season training and with so many of them still away on holiday could this match tell us anything?
United started this game in a 4-2-3-1 shape with new arrival Mkhitaryan at number 10. Wigan set up as a 3-5-1-1 which should have meant that United were outnumbered in the middle of the park. They weren’t however because their superior technique allowed them to keep the ball and as a consequence the Wigan wingbacks dropped deep. Carrick, Herrera and Mkhitaryan stayed narrow and this resulted in a strong spine. Mkhitaryan tended to run high, almost as high as Wilson and at times this made United’s shape resemble a 4-4-2. When he did go high one of either Carrick or Herrera pushed on which meant that the front line was never isolated from the midfield.
United’s first half shape and impressive debutant Henrkh Mkhitaryan
The consequence was that United were able to develop play quickly through the spine of the side with lots of vertical passing and a number of encouraging passing moves through the centre of the pitch. United had a couple of good chances most featuring Mkhitaryan but these came to nothing perhaps as a consequence of pre-season rustiness. Most of the play was disjointed. Despite this United showed far more willingness to take a chance than they did last year, passing was less cautious even if they did give the ball away a little too frequently.
It’s worth describing a couple of the key first half moves as they illustrate interesting points. The first chance came in the 11th minute; Mkhitaryan having dropped deep turned and ran diagonally from right to left brushing off a couple of challenges and outpacing the Wigan players. He slid a diagonal pass inside the fullback to Memphis in space. He took too long, took an extra touch and was closed down the ball going out for a corner. This run demonstrated Mkhitaryans strength, speed and vision. It also illustrated Memphis’s ponderousness, a hangover from Van Gaal’s tactical credo or a characteristic inherent in Memphis’s play. He needs to be quicker when the space opens up, more decisive.
In the 24th minute after a quick turnover of possession Mkhitaryan again starting on the right whipped in a low cross/pass behind the Wigan defence and in front of the keeper who could not reach it. Memphis shot wide as he was pushed in the back. Perhaps a sharp Memphis would have done better but not wanting to overly criticise the player the key point here was the vision for the pass and the willingness to make it. Last season United would have probably recycled the ball into midfield and so retained possession. This wasn’t a safe pass but making that pass made that chance.
In the 36th minute Mkhitaryan also missed a great chance blazing over after Lingard picked him out with a cross to the far post. All these missed chances meant that the score was 0-0 at half time.
United’s first goal of the season came very early in the second half. This was a give-away when Jaaskelainen in the Wigan goal played a sloppy pass meant for his left back. This was hit straight at Mata who had the presence of mind to realise he had a teammate on hand. He squared to Will Keane who had a simple tap in. Boom! 1-0.
United’s shape at the start of the second half and goalscorer Keane with assist provider Mata
Jose Mourinho had made seven substitutions at half-time notably introducing Mata at Number 10 and Andreas Pereira in central midfield in place of Carrick. Phil Jones came on at the back to replace Luke Shaw so that Blind moved to left back. A straight swap at right back saw Valencia replaced Fosu-Mensah. Further forward Young replaced Lingard whilst Januzaj replaced Memphis. Up front the goal scorer Will Keane replaced Wilson.
United scored again after 57 minutes when following a free-kick pull back and a Herrera blocked shot the ball fell for Andreas Pereira who shot first time, (note no extra touch so taking a leaf out of Lingards book from the Cup final). Great shot, Boom! 2-0.
After this Mourinho started to make a number of substitutions which make it hard to draw tactical conclusions but just to say all who were introduced looked composed against a modest Wigan side who didn’t really ‘lay a glove’ on United throughout the game in truth.
So what conclusions can we draw about the second half? In the first half United’s play had been too narrow at times with the better moves coming when Mkhitaryan had gone wider. In the second half there was better width. The United three playing behind Keane, notionally from left to right Januzaj, Mata and Young were very fluid. This meant that Mata might just as often popped up on the right as in the middle or it might have meant Young popping up anywhere across the front line. Across the whole match United seemed more prepared to deliver a cross than they were last season and whilst these often came to nothing that is the nature of a cross. You are asking a question of the oppositions defence rather than ‘keeping your powder dry’. The defence might have the answers but they might not. But for some rusty finishing United would have scored more from this.
The use of Mata is also a talking point. At Chelsea Mourinho famously sold him to United on the basis that he did not believe he had the speed of thought and deed to be a number 10 and that he did not do enough defensively so it was interesting that he deployed him in the number 10 role here. It is too early to draw conclusions but his play was a little ponderous at times in this game; he has competition from Mkhitaryan for the number 10 role, (as does Rooney on his return to the squad).
The use of Andreas Pereira in a deeper central midfield role is also of note. In the past he has tended to play higher. He had a great game as a deeper midfield player. His goal aside he was busy, dovetailed well with Pereira and showed good vision in his passing prompting those around him. Technically he is sound so can operate in tight areas in midfield. Not long after coming on he played a long left to right diagonal pass to Valencia who pulled the ball back to Young. Young took an extra touch when a first time shot would probably have seen a third goal.
The second half substitutions for the record were Varela for Herrera, (with Varela like Pereira then operating in an unfamiliar midfield role), and Blackett for Blind, both made in the 73rd minute. These were followed by Tuanzebe for Bailly and Johnstone in goal replaced by Joel Pereira in the 81st minute.
- It’s difficult to draw conclusions from a match like this where the manager chose to field virtually two different teams either side of half time and then made further changes in the second half. We can generally be positive though as there were some interesting and encouraging features even if much of the play was disjointed.
- United passed the ball quicker than was the norm under Van Gaal and with greater adventure. The absence of long passages on sideways passing was noticeable. United passed quicker and importantly moved the ball forward quicker with early vertical passes.
- Debutantes Bailly and Mkhitaryan had good games. With little attacking threat from Wigan Bailly didn’t have a lot to do but he looked composed and cool on the ball. Mkhitaryan was the stand out performer in the first half, quick, imaginative and providing vision and inventiveness in and around the box. Once he and his teammates are on the same wavelength you can easily imagine him as a force to be reckoned with.
- In the second half Andreas Pereira was the stand out performer. He played deeper here than in previous first team appearances but gave an accomplished midfield display crowned by a beautiful finish.
- It was good to see Luke Shaw back in action. He looked confident and crashed into a couple of tackles suggesting that his injury hasn’t affected his head.