With several of the teams above United in the league playing each other throughout January it was important that United stretched their winning run further. An away game at West Ham is always a tricky fixture however.


In: Jones, Rojo, Darmian, Carrick and Lingard.
Out: Bailly, Smalling, Blind, Fellaini and Martial.


  • The sending-off came so early in this game that it is difficult to say exactly how it changed things, but it had a significant impact on the game for sure. In the first half United did not make the most of their numerical advantage, adjustments at and after the break ensured that they did.
  • In the first half United were far too narrow and passed at too slow a tempo. Their play was certainly far slower than of late and this took the edge of United’s game. West Ham reverted to a 4-4-1 shape after the break with the midfield four defending on a narrow front. United then without width made things easy for the home side.
  • Mourinho boldly switched Carrick to central defence and introduced Mata at the break. This worked with United passing the ball forward earlier from the deep and with added creativity here and further forward via Mata they moved the ball far more quickly and with greater attacking purpose.
  • The real difference though came from the introduction of Rashford who provided attacking width. United constantly looked to fed the ball to Rashford early and if they had continued to do this after the second goal they could have scored more.
  • United were perhaps fortunate to be playing against 10 men for 75 minutes and in that Ibrahimovic goal was clearly offside, but so what? There have been plenty of occasions where United haven’t got the luck this year so it is nice to see things evening themselves out.


Jose Mourinho made three defensive changes, reintroduced Michael Carrick and swapped Martial for Lingard but the shape remained the 4-3-3 with which United had faced Middlesborough two days earlier. West Ham started in a 4-3-3 as well although that of course had to change after the early sending-off.

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United’s shape at the start and Michael Carrick returning to the team after illness

Initially United sat deep in a low block and seemed to be surrendering the initiative to West ham; another way of looking at this would be that West Ham seized the initiative. West Ham certainly had the larger share of possession in the early stages although with United sitting deep with a relatively flat central three in midfield all this possession was in front of United. West Ham didn’t create that much.

Then in the fifteenth minute came the talking point which has dominated post-match discourse. West Ham’s Feghouli was sent-off after a 50-50 challenge with Phil Jones. This website is interested in tactics and so the rights and wrongs of refereeing decisions is tangential to our focus but nevertheless decisions change matches and so are relevant for us. We however will stick to the facts here. Feghouli over ran the ball making the tackle a 50-50, he lunged in airborne having no chance of then controlling what would have been at best a loose ball post challenge. Jones arrived marginally ahead of Feghouli and won the ball cleanly. Feghouli therefore lunged into Jones. The referee sent Feghouli off.

Feghuoli foul on Jones

Feghuoli foul on Jones

After this incident West Ham re-organised into a 4-4-1 shape with the midfield four occupying a fairly narrow front ahead of their defence. United took control now dominating possession. Prior to the sending-off West Ham had the larger share of possession so this is essentially how the incident changed the game.

The only other tactical point to make about the first half is that United did not use their tactical superiority well. Why was this? There are two reasons. Firstly the tempo of United’s passing was far slower here than in recent weeks and certainly far too slow to make a significant impact upon West Ham. West Ham simply had too much time to regain their shape and adjust to any threat as United passed the ball around in the centre of the park. Secondly United did not use the width of the pitch well. They were far too narrow with Lingard and Mkhitaryan tucking inside closer to Ibrahimovic than to their fullbacks. This allowed West Ham to defend the width of their goal with some comfort.

From about 10 minutes after the sending-off, so about the 25th minute it just felt inevitable that the score would be 0-0 at half time.


Jose Mourinho made quite a radical half-time substitution and re-organisation in order to ensure United made the most of their numerical advantage. He removed left back Darmian and moved Rojo across to this position. He then moved Carrick back to centre-back and introduced Mata from the bench as the right-sided attacking player. Mkhitaryan then moved inside to the right midfield berth. Mourinho explained his thinking in doing this post-match. His view was that after the sending-off United had Jones, Rojo and Michael Carrick deep with only a single West Ham attacking player in their area. They were therefore still outnumbered by West Ham further up the field in the areas where United were trying to make the breakthrough. There is nothing for www.manutdtactics to analyse here, this makes perfect sense.

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United’s shape at the start if the second half with Michael Carrick moving to a centre-back role

After this substitution Carrick as a centre-back was still able to direct play with forward passes from similar areas as he had been doing in a deep midfield role. What changed of course was that his forward movements off the ball were a little more conservative. As a consequence Herrera and at times Pogba moved a little deeper. Further forward Mkhitaryan and Mata regularly interchanged positions. United also moved the ball far quicker, both from the deep, (with Carrick playing early passes forward from the back) and in short exchanges higher up the pitch.

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Herrera action areas in the first and then second half; much deeper after the break

This strategy was not without some risk however and West Ham’s Antonio had a couple of good chances to punish United, one from a header and one from a thrust down the centre of the pitch after a sloppy pass left Herrera stranded. De Gea rescued United from this second moment of danger.

De Gea denies Antonio

De Gea denies Antonio

The aspect of United’s first half play which the half-time change did not satisfactorily address was a lack of width. Jose therefore made another change in the 58th minute replacing Lingard with Rashford. Lingard is quick but Rashford is quicker and positioned on the left, (Mkhitaryan and Lingard had regularly swapped sides in the second half), he stayed wide. Again post-match Rashford gave confirmation that this was a deliberate tactic to provide width. This was a masterstroke because it gave Carrick a mobile, astute and fast target for his early balls out from the back. It was noticeable that Carrick always looked for the early pass to Rashford as the first option after this substitution. Rashford looked a real handful and created a couple of dangerous moments in advance of United’s breakthrough goal.

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United’s shape after the introduction of Rashford

This goal came in the 63rd minute direct from this tactical adjustment. Carrick played a long ball out to Rashford who ran directly at West Ham’s right side towards the touchline leaving everyone dead for pace. He beat the fullback and then took another covering player out of the game as he doubled back to play a direct pass, (not really a cross) into the feet of Mata just inside the penalty area. He hit this across goal into the opposite corner first time. Boom! 1-0. Rashford made this goal with a delicious piece of football. There is a tendency to see Rashford as a great finisher and a player blessed with great pace. What this goal demonstrated is his awareness, his football intelligence and his ability to see things quickly as well as to do them quickly.

Mata - Boom!

Mata – Boom!

Rashford continued to threaten after this goal and created a number of other dangerous situations, but immediately after the goal Mourinho made another change. This time he removed Mkhitaryan in the 65th minute and introduced Smalling. Smalling now partnered Jones in central defence with Carrick moving back to the holding midfield role and Herrera moving further forward to an advanced midfield role. Mata now moved wider to an attacking right position but continued to track inside. After the game Mourinho admitted he made this change as he anticipated West Ham bringing Andy Carroll and that Smalling would be more able to cope with this physical challenge. This again is very logical and is an example of Mourinho being one step ahead of the opposition. Carroll came on in the 69th minute.

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United’s shape after the breakthrough goal and Smalling (obscured) brough on to cope with Carroll

United remained on top and obtained the security of a second goal in the 78th minute. This was a fortunate goal with an interception by Herrera rebounding to Ibrahimovic in the West Ham box. He was clearly offside but dispatched the ball and the goal was allowed to stand. Boom! 2-0. United have had their share of bad luck this season so we shouldn’t feel bad about this goal, in fact as a point of principle we should never feel bad about a United goal.

Ibrahimovic - Boom!

Ibrahimovic – Boom!

This goal effectively killed the contest and United easily played out time.


So United record a sixth win in a row although with a degree of good fortune. The sending-off was harsh and United’s second goal was offside but we are owed a little good fortune.

Lingard and Mkhitaryan first halfaction areas - note the lack of action in the red boxes; the high wide areas

Lingard and Mkhitaryan first halfaction areas – note the lack of action in the red boxes; the high wide areas

This game demonstrates a number of things beyond this however. Firstly tempo and width matter, whatever else is going on in the game. United triumphed not because of decisions but because they improved on their first half performance. After the break they passed the ball forward quicker and after the introduction of Rashford they had pace and width. This hurt West Ham. Rashford is a gem and will only improve. He is so much more that a quick finisher.

Rashford action areas - note the activity in the red box high and wide on the left

Rashford action areas – note the activity in the red box high and wide on the left

The game also demonstrates the value of Mourinho. Those who said earlier in the season that he had lost it were proved wrong by this game. He made the right changes, at the right time and the changes had a direct impact. He also demonstrated that he is often one step ahead of everyone else with his final substitution. What’s not to like.

Match statistics

Match statistics