WEST BROMWICH ALBION vs MANCHESTER UNITED
17.12.2016

After a second successive mid-week league win United travelled to the Hawthorns for a second successive away game. At kick off West Bromwich Albion were just behind United in the league making this a potentially tricky fixture. In the build up to the game journalist enjoyed making the point that West Brom had scored more league goals to date than United; could they score more that United in this ninety minutes though?

PERSONNEL

In: Valencia, Darmian and Lingard.
Out: Bailly, Blind and Mata.

KEY POINTS

  • Another solid controlled performance courtesy of another controlling display from Michael Carrick.
  • The intelligent running of Lingard; always willing to run behind West Brom or to stretch their defence with his diagonal movement website United created chances even when the home side was set in their defensive shape.
  • Ibrahimovic was perhaps a shade lucky on his second goal, but he had another excellent game. His game is about more than goals, he leads the line, often links play and gives United a central attacking presence which keeps opponents on their toes.
  • United’s midfield now looks far better balanced than at any time in recent years and id developing a good understanding with the defence. The relationship between midfield and attack needs more work but is improving.
  • United are also developing into a more robust proposition. West Brom are a big physical side who are very good at set pieces and United did well to meet fire with fire. For a few years now it has felt as if United had a bit of a soft centre; perhaps not anymore.

FIRST HALF

United made three changes from the side that played in mid-week, the full backs and Lingard for Mata on the right side of the attacking line. As against Spurs and Crystal Palace team shape remained 4-3-3. West Bromwich Albion set up as a 4-2-3-1 which left the inform Rondon as their main battering ram of a target man as the lone front runner. Philips played to the left with the more defence minded Brunt on the right.

West Brom started brightly and were the side asking the questions in the first five minutes. They passed and moved well. Perhaps a little too well and perhaps they pushed a little too high. This left the door open for United who managed an early goal.

abmulydann  zlatan-and-lingard

United’s first half shape and provider Lingard and Ibrahimovic who scored the early goal

This goal came after 5 minutes as West Brom attempted to press United the Reds switched the ball with a long pass across their defensive line deep in their own half from left to right fullback positions. Valencia on receiving the ball played an early instant long pass down the line for Lingard to chase behind West Brom fullback pushing on. Lingard got there first and delivery a first time cross towards the far post where Ibrahimovic was arriving. He headed home inside that far post. Boom! 1-0. United were now in control.

Uniteds average player positions with the midfield shape picked out

Uniteds average player positions with the midfield shape picked out

They then remained in control for much of the first half but for a few moment on set pieces or where dangerous balls towards Rondon troubled United. What followed in the first half then and into the second half therefore was a Mourinho masterclass in control. Much of this came courtesy of the excellence of the midfield three. As described in our previous report on the game at Palace Carrick screened and prompted from the deep, Pogba and Herrera were more mobile. Pogba tended to stay higher and look for the more expansive gesture, (a pass or a run), Herrera was his usual busy self shuttling up and down, tenacious when the wall is loose, neat and tidy when United are in possession but always full of energy. Add to this Rooney coming inside from the left, (Pogba often over lapping him outside), and Ibrahimovic dropping deeper to link play and this was the general pattern. Two other issues stood out along with an incident worth describing.

pogba-2  carrick

Pogba and Carrick who with Herrera give United midfield balance

The first issue was the running of Lingard. Lingard often lacks composure on the ball, but his movement off the ball to offer a passing option or stretch a defence to create space for others is now at an international class level. This was often a counter-balance to the movement of Ibrahimovic and Rooney. Pogba, stationed to the left constantly sought him out with long diagonal passes into the his area or behind the West Brom left back. This gave United the extra threat behind that they lacked for much of the game at Palace.

Lingard whose running and positioning were excellent

Lingard whose running and positioning were excellent

The second issue is Michael Carrick. We mean that in a good way. It has become fashionable to praise Carrick of late. We have been fans for years, but it is worth highlighting what he does well as he gave a master class here. Carrick screens the defence; he doesn’t tackle very often instead carefully positioning himself and moving to force the opposition to pass the ball or run with the ball into the position where they can do least damage. As a consequence he doesn’t need to tackle. He controls the opposition when they have the ball. When he has the ball his first instinct is to move or pass forward; if he can’t do this he passes sideways or back but only as a second option. He rarely loses the ball. When his teammates have the ball he moves to plug a gap and retain control of the centre of the pitch as they move or he moves to create a passing option. The other thing he does is to control the tempo of the game, slowing or quickening the pace of the passing as appropriate. It’s all very simple and easy to overlook but it is a big part of why United currently have midfield balance and why they are able to control a game like this.

This is rubbing off on others. For example an incident from the first half; Herrera was passed the ball deep in his own half with two West Brom players in close attendance. He was favourite to loose possession in a dangerous area. Two seasons ago he found himself in a similar situation against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and lost the ball. Chelsea scored. Van Gaal’s United were static and so passive with the defence preferring to be cautious and stand-off. Two years on Phil Jones, seeing the danger did not stand-off in an attempt to cover but instead moved forward five yards to create a passing option between the two West Brom players. He moved deliberately into the line of sight of Herrera. As with so many of Carrick’s actions this was a simple option but it allowed Herrera to move the ball on easily and the danger had gone.

With a lead United didn’t over exert themselves through the rest of the first half and the score at half-time remained 1-0.

SECOND HALF

There were no half time substitutions and the pattern of play at the start of the half remained virtually the same. Then in the 55th minute United scored again.

The goal came from the left. The ball was fed out to Rooney close to the touchline in the West Brom half. He ran inside and passed into the channel in front of Ibrahimovic. He ran on and shot through a crowd of players from the edge of the box. The shot took a wicked deflection and ended up in the opposite corner. Boom! 2-0. The goal illustrated that taking a chance can yield dividends as there was a lot of luck in this goal, but that in itself illustrates how United’s luck has changed in recent weeks. Typically a few weeks ago this deflected shot would probably have gone wide.

Zlatan - Boom!

Zlatan – Boom!

After this goal the game became a little bit over physical. Perhaps West Brom’s aim was to disturb United and see if they could be knocked out of their stride. West Brom are a big physical side who are good at set pieces and play on the edge. That is not a criticism but rather a complement. Ove the last few years United have felt like a side that could be knocked out of their stride by a bigger more physical opponent but a feature of this game was that they refused to be intimidated and instead fought fire with fire. As a consequence the game in the middle of the second half was punctuated by a number of stoppages associated with foul play, player on player confrontations and bookings. This broke up the rhythm of the game but it didn’t help West Brom as with a 2 goal lead why should United care.

Then the usual late substitutions started. Tony Pulis went first in the 73rd minute removing Dawson and replacing him with James Morrsion, a player who usually does well against United. West Brom now had two forwards.

On 75 minutes Mourinho replaced a very tired looking Lingard, who had run all day with Rashford. Effectively Rashford fulfilled the same function in the side as Lingard being the player to use his pace and movement to run behind and stretch the opposition.

Then on 80 minutes Pulis made a double substitution introducing Robson-Kanu and the teenage Leko for Philips and Chadli, United then introduced Fellaini for Rooney on 83 minutes and Smalling for Herrera in injury time. All these changes actually did was brealk up the play and so played into United’s hands.

United remained in control.

CONCLUSION

This could have been a tricky away fixture when United really needed to make it a momentum builder. That is what it became because United produced a solid controlled display. Unspectacular perhaps but they looked comfortable and having taken an early lead they always did enough.

Most of United’s recent goals have come from break-away transitions so it was good to see United create a few chances and score a goal after West Brom, (who were fairly defensive and cautious at times), had set themselves in a defensive shape. This is a part of United’s game they do need to work on, but here the intelligent running of Lingard, on and off the ball and his coordination with Ibrahimovic was excellent and occasionally too much for West Brom.

Match statistics

Match statistics

A clean sheet too, and it is good to see the partnership of Jones and Rojo developing further. West Brom are strong at set pieces with Rondon usually proving a significant threat. The United pair coped with this well and were a big part of United’s resilience against a big physical side.