NORTHAMPTON TOWN vs MANCHESTER UNITED
Having lost three games on the bounce this could be seen one of two ways; a chance to get a much needed win against lower league opposition or a potential banana skin game. Given those defeats would Mourinho chose to play it safe and make minimal changes or rotate
In: Romero, Rojo, Blind, Fosu-Mensah, Schneiderlin, Carrick, Herrera, Young and Memphis.
Out: De Gea, Valencia, Bailly, Shaw, Fellaini, Pogba, Rashford, Ibrahimovic and Martial.
- This was a better performance by United; better by degrees. Everything was marginally better, slightly better defending, slightly better attacking, slightly better finishing, but still plenty of room for improvement.
- The most important area of improvement was to midfield balance and it was Carrick who helped achieved that balance. He provided the creativity missing of late, Herrera provided the energy and Schneiderlin the stability.
- For the first time in four games United started well, without penetration but with more control than in the previous games. Why did this drop off after they had scored.
- The introduction of Ibrahimovic and Rashford in the second half, especially the pace of Rashford provided the penetration missing in the first half. He provided an assist and a goal. Pace is everything.
- Bailly and Blind, (or Smalling and Blind for that matter), are a more viable balanced central defensive pairing that Smalling and Bailly. Blind brings structure and stability, helping to maintain defensive shape whilst also providing an alternative and high quality passing vision to that offered by the midfield.
United started this game playing at a better tempo than their last few games when they have usually allowed their opponents to take the initiative. Carrick, Schneiderlin and Herrera played as a midfield three whilst further forward Rooney led the line with Young to the left and Memphis to the right. The shape then could be read as a 4-2-3-1 when United defended but it was actually a fairly fluid 4-3-3. The principle positional features of the early play were that Rooney, perhaps now by habit as a consequence of his number 10 role dropped deep in the centre whilst the wide players pushed on. Herrera also tended to push on, or rather shuttled up and down from deep. Schneiderlin and Carrick were more cautious in their positioning with Schneiderlin perhaps surprisingly often higher than Carrick and often more involved in the build-up play than on previous occasions. The three then formed a staggered triangle.
United’s first half shape and the excellent Michael Carrick
The biggest differences in United’s play however were the quantity of early forward passes from deep and the higher tempo of their play in possession. Much of this forward passing came from Carrick playing diagonal balls towards the wingers although Daley Blind stepping out from the back and Herrera when in the deep also made a contribution to this pattern. This all meant that United controlled the game, looked bright and positive and took the game to Northampton. They looked to be carrying a threat.
That threat did not materialise in anything like a number of clear cut chances and this could be attributed to the lack of quality delivery from wide areas or passing in the final third. The approach play was good but it foundered on the Northampton defensive lines. They were set up in a rough 4-1-4-1 shape. The other factor in this was Rooney dropping deep of course which meant that United did not have a central attacking thrust.
Then on 16 minutes United scored. This goal came from a free kick after Taylor in the Northampton goal had inexplicably picked up a back pass. Rooney took a shot which rebounded off the Northampton wall to Michael Carrick on the edge of the box. He hit it first time crisply into the corner of the net through a crowded goalmouth, Boom! 1-0.
Those people expecting United to push on from here would have been disappointed. They actually seemed to step it down. This can’t have been deliberate but now their passing became more cautions. They still controlled possession but they were far slower in moving the ball forward. The edge went out of their play, Herrera stayed a little deeper and they didn’t really hurt Northampton. This lethargy allowed Northampton to steady themselves after conceding and gradually to gain a foothold themselves. Perhaps predictably they then scored.
This goal after 42 minutes came from the penalty spot after an amount of indecisiveness in the United defence. United had begun to look a little shaky at the back before the goal failing to deal with a number of crosses convincingly. This time a poor defensive header saw a low ball played in across the box from the left. Blind lunged in, made contact with Hoskins and Revell stepped up to take the penalty. He beat Romero in the United goal to ensure that the score was 1-1 at halftime.
Things seemed to change again at the start of the second half; United didn’t make any half time substitutions but they were far busier in their general play than they had been after their first half goal. Perhaps this was what prompted Northampton to make a substitution after 53 minutes, they replaced the noticeably more physical O’Toole in place of Beautyman. At extactly the same point United made a double substitution, removing Memphis and Fosu-Mensah and introducing Rashford and Ibrahimovic. This required a reorganisation. Young dropped back to right back with Rooney moving wide on the left, (although he generally occupied a narrow position leaving space for Young to overlap when the opportunity arose). Ibrahimovic moved to centre-forward although as Rooney had done he repeatedly dropped deeper; perhaps this was a deliberate ploy to pull the Northampton central defenders up the pitch?
United’s shape after early second half substitutions and the introduction of Marcus Rashford
On the left Rashford positioned himself in a narrow position and looked to run at the space between the full back and centre back forcing the centre back to make a decision, should he come wide in response or leave it to the full back to track Rashford inside. Rooney was asking the same question on the other side but with less pace and mobility. After these changes it was very noticeable that both United full backs played higher up the pitch, Rojo on the left and Young on the right. Schneiderlin therefore dropped deeper. The consequence of this was that Carrick ahead of Schneiderlin could look to hit diagonal balls to the wide areas where United had potential overloads.
United’s bright start at the beginning of the half had resulted in Northampton dropping very deep. The introduction of O’Toole may have been a response to this. He is a very physical player and sat on top of Schneiderlin not giving the United man any time or space and whenever there was a loose ball in this area or whenever Northampton dropped a pass into Schneiderlins zone he would always be there with a robust physical challenge. Effectively this encouraged the other Northampton players to step forward; a case of if he gets in their faces we must too to look to pick up any bits and pieces and back him up. The problem was it didn’t really work as O’Toole usually ended up being penalised for his overly robust approach.
This might have had some effect however if United hadn’t spoiled it all by scoring again. As previously stated Northampton were now generally very deep. This allowed United to get plenty of bodies forward but it was Rashford who made the difference. He picked up the ball in the half-space on the left inside the penalty area and was able to find space here simply because Northampton were so deep. He feigned to run at the defence but then pulled the ball back to Herrera on the edge of the penalty area. He had time to hit a low hard shot into the corner of the net and United were now back in front. 2-1 Boom! 67 minutes played.
Almost immediately United made another substitution. This wasn’t really a “what we have we hold, shut up shop” change but rather a pre-emptive precaution to take Schneiderlin out of O’Toole’s sights. Schneiderlin was replaced by Fellaini whose physical presence meant that O’Toole never had the same menace again.
Northampton was effectively a beaten team now but United were able to score again in the 74th minute to seal the victory. This goal was as a consequence of a high hopeful clearance by Herrera. It was deliberately aimed in the direction of Rashford but more in hope than expectation. He chased it down and Taylor, the Northampton keeper came out but hesitated allowing Rashford to nick in, take the ball forward and score from close range. The pace of Rashford may have come as a surprise to Taylor who misjudged Rashford’s ability to beat him to the ball. It was now 3-1. Boom! And it now was game over.
No doubt United will be glad to get a win here after a disappointing run of defeats which seems to have taken the wind out many people’s sails. But don’t be fooled this was a better performance but not significantly better. United will still need to improve further to achieve against stronger opponents. Perhaps it was a good thing to play a lower league team at this point as it provided an opportunity to build confidence against a more modest foe.
Putting issues about pace and team shape aside the most pleasing aspect of the game was the performance of Michael Carrick and the balance this brought to United’s midfield play. From deep positions he and to a lesser extent Daley Blind when he stepped forward, provided the forward passing and general creative vision missing of late. Carrick speed of thought, that vision and calmness in front of the defence were vital ingredients.