WATFORD vs MANCHESTER UNITED
18.09.2016

Two defeats in a week meant that United travelled to Watford needing to get things back on track. Mourinho made eight changes in midweek, would he change the team around to the same extent again?

PERSONNEL

In: Shaw, Valencia, Fellaini, Rooney and Ibrahimovic.
Out: Rojo, Darmian, Herrera, Schneiderlin and Mata.

KEY POINTS

  • Mourinho changed to a 4-3-3 shape for this game with Fellaini as the holding midfield player. For much of the first half however he was too deep however, often as deep as the centre backs leaving space in front of the defence.
  • Higher up Rooney joined Pogba in midfield, a position Mourinho had previously stated he did not intend to play him; very strange.
  • In the second half United changed to a 4-2-3-1 and the use of two holding midfield players seemed to give United a little more confidence. They were certainly more assertive and especially after the introduction of Mata constantly coming central had more passing guile. In the first half United had constantly given the ball away with Fellaini, Pogba and Rooney collectively failing to provide significant creativity.
  • Generally United failed to assert themselves; for the third game running they had a poor first half. The consequence of this was that it allowed Watford wingbacks to come forward. This was a collective fault rather than one that should be attributed to individual players.
  • Goals change games. United’s equaliser came out of the blue and their play did not improve until after they had scored. Similarly Watford’s second goal came against the run of play but took the wind out of United’s sails and then they inexplicably went to pieces. Is that a confidence issue?

FIRST HALF

Jose Mourinho changed shape for this game to the 4-3-3 many fans have been crying out for. Most who have called for this change have done so on the basis of giving Pogba a freer more advanced role and he got that here. The change however appears to have been motivated by Watford’s shape, at least if Mourinho post-match comments are anything to go by. We say this because Watford play with a back three and wingbacks and a 4-3-3 allows the wide attackers to limit the influence of the wing-backs coming forward; at least in theory.

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United’s first half shape and Fellaini who dropped too deep

This change then meant a single defensive midfield screen in Fellaini and two more advanced midfield players, Pogba on the left and Rooney on the right. Yes Rooney in midfield, something Mourinho said he would never envisage. Ibrahimovic lead the line centrally with Martial to the left and Rashford to the right.

As in the last three games this was a poor first half from United. Putting aside preferences about player selection in the various positions of the team the plan itself was sound enough. But any plan is only as good as its execution and if you keep giving the ball away you are always likely to undermine your strategy. Against Manchester City and Feyenoord United were hassled out of possession, admittedly against Feyenoord when we had the ball we were guilty of giving the ball away too frequently, but here United took it to a whole new level. Unlike Van Gaal Mourinho does not fetishize possession; he does not want it for its own sake but rather for what the team can do with it, but you do need to keep the ball to be able to use it. There are two points to be made about this.

In the opening four games United did loose possession rather a lot. If you look at the possession statistics for those games and compare them to the same games played last season this is very telling, but compare the results. The point is that United played the ball forward far better in the opening three games than in the last three. This allowed United to hurt the opposition. They did not dominate the opposition, other than ironically in the game at Hull where they only scored once, but their use of the ball was better.

The other point to make is that Van Gaal’s love of possession is all about control, if we have the ball it is hard for you to attack us. That is a useful strategy, (as is a double midfield screen), if you do not have the most able defence. Mourinho is trying to change this but against better sides, (Manchester City and Dutch league leaders Feyenoord), if you don’t have the ball, or keep giving it away this gives the opposition more opportunity to test you. A change of midfield shape in front of that screen might also expose your defence, which is what happened here.

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Smalling and Bailly’s first half action areas (left) and Fellaini’s (right). Fellaini was often as deep as the central defenders

Here the midfield balance was not right. Fellaini was too deep and as a single defensive midfield player lacks the range of passing to help build from deep. As a consequence Pogba, who is generally trying to do too little and Rooney tended to drop to deep at times looking for the ball.

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Pogba action areas (left), and Rooney action areas (right), both across the full ninety minutes. Rooney seemed less involved and drifted more. Pogba was often too deep.

With Rashford and Martial dropping back to cover Watford’s wing backs Ibrahimovic was left isolated. All these problems came from the fact that United failed to retain possession and when they had the ball creating very little which inevitably invited Watford on. Perhaps it was inevitable then that Watford would take the lead. The goal came on 34 minutes. The goal was taken by Etienne Capoue after a cut back by Janmaat into the area that Fellaini should have been covering; he was too deep. In the build up to the goal there was a foul on Martial which whilst unpunished meant that United were forced to replace him with Young a few moments later.

At half-time the score was 0-1.

SECOND HALF

In the second half United reverted to a 4-2-3-1 shape with Rooney in the number 10 position and Pogba deeper much closer to Fellaini. Rashford and Young both played slightly deeper to the left and right of Rooney respectively. This meant that the front four were closer together and so United started to keep the ball better. Fellaini tended to be the deeper of the pivots with Pogba looking to get forward as a link whenever the opportunity arose.

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United’s shape at the start of the second half and Ashley Young who played a prominent role at the start of the second half

The main problem for United though at the start if the second half was that the tempo of their passing was far too slow and coupled with the fact that Watford chased and pressed incessantly they could not find the time or space to create anything meaningful. Perhaps as a consequence Mourinho chose to make his second substitution on 61 minutes replacing Valencia with Mata. This change saw Young drop back to left back and Mata take up position in the half space to Rooney’s right.

Then as if by magic and without really having done anything in the game United scored. This goal also came in the 61st minute but had nothing to do with the substitution. The goal came from nowhere but was created by a move at a higher tempo. This made all the difference. Ibrahimovic was fed by Pogba who turned and ran at pace through the left half space. Played a one-two with Rashford before crossing. The ball bounced of Behrami in the six yard box and fell to Rashford who smashed it home from close range. Boom! 1-1.

Rashford - Boom!

Rashford – Boom!

Now the game changed. Suddenly United had a spring in their step and looked livelier; they also kept the ball well. Watford seemed to be chasing red shirt and giving the ball away with the regularly United had done in the first half. Mata seemed to be the fulcrum. Unfortunately United’s final ball wasn’t good enough to make a difference. Through this period of the game up until Watford scored their second United played some good approach football, it was just their play in and around the Watford box which let them down.

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United’s shape in the middle of the second half after the introduction of Mata

Then out of the blue, (as United’ equalizer had been in fairness), Watford scored. This goal came in the 82nd minute and again came from a pull-back cross from the right for Zuniga who had only just come on to score with his first touch. United were never the same again after this goal, lost their way, lost their head’s to some extent and conceded a third goal from a late penalty. Just after the second Watford goal Memphis replaced Shaw.

CONCLUSION

This game threw up more questions than answers. Can Fellaini be relied upon as a single defensive midfield player? Does he have the range of passing and positional sense needed? Is Carrick an alternative? Where should Rooney play? Does he have the range of passing to be a creative midfield player. If he doesn’t where will the creativity come from? How do you get the best out of your best players? After three lacklustre displays can this United team be brave enough to take the game to the opposition? At the moment the balance isn’t right and United are suddenly struggling to adapt to Mourinho’s strategy, a strategy which itself is still evolving as the manager gets to know his players. There is no need to panic here, this is a period of adjustment and fans all need to show some patience.

Match statistics

Match statistics

The seeds of this defeat were sown not in the Manchester Derby, but in Holland. After the defeat to Manchester City a good performance and result would have headed off any talk of “crisis” at the pass. Even if you aren’t that interested in the Europa League putting out your strongest side might not have been such a bad idea. Instead United made eight changes and effectively signalled that they were less interested in that competition and surrendered the initiative to a side that had made a very good start to their own season. A second defeat made this fixture a pressure game and if Mourinho is correct that some players, as he mentioned post-match, are struggling to cope with the pressure perhaps he should have looked to field a side that would produce an assertive performance designed to get the derby defeat out of the system quickly.

This begs the question as to whether he will make a similar raft of changes for the trip to Northampton. It might only be the League Cup, but a wins a wins a win. United could do with a win right now.