MANCHESTER UNITED vs READING
The third round of thee FA Cup is always a special occasion and no more so when you are the defending cup winners. Having won the previous eight games United went into this tie full of confidence; a home tie against lower league opposition albeit one against a side, managed by old boy Jaap Stam, flying high in the championship.
In: Romero, Young, Smalling, Blind, Fellaini, Martial, Rooney, Mata and Rashford.
Out: De Gea, Valencia, Jones, Darmian, Herrera, Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Lingard and Rashford.
- Despite multiple changing personnel and a change to team shape United were as effective as in recent games recording a similarly high number of shots on goal; 27 in total.
- The team are consistently playing to a higher standard than in recent years now, but the area of their game still requiring improvement is also consistent. That is the final pass before the shot.
- Martial had another excellent game here. Positive, direct, pacey and aggressive. Rested at West Ham, he picked up here where he left off in his last performance in the league game against Middlesbrough.
- Marcus Rashford also had a strong game, but he needs to relax. His shooting radar seemed to be faulty in this game and in the first half especially he seemed to be trying to make sure, taking that extra touch which made the chance that little bit harder. Relax.
- A midfield of Carrick, Fellaini and Rooney as a number 10 would not have been many people’s suggestion for a successful side at the start of the year, but with Mata tucking in from the right it worked fairly well. This suggests that lessons absorbed on the training field can be as important as personnel. The midfield balance now looks good whoever is selected.
Jose Mourinho made 9 changes for this game from the side which won at West Ham earlier in the week. He also changed team shape from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. Reading who are riding high in the Championship and have a very good chance of gaining promotion to the Premiership this year set up as a 4-1-4-1, which of course is almost a 4-3-3 when the team attacks. They are renowned as a good passing side who play attractive progressive football under Jaap Stam. This was of course likely to be a test against a team in the higher division and one in form. The change to a 4-2-3-1 for United is interesting as it coincides with the return to the side of Rooney, here in the number 10 role. Is a pattern emerging where United use 4-2-3-1 when Rooney plays and 4-3-3 when Pogba plays?
United’s first half shape and Rashford who had chances aplenty throughout the game
United scored in the 5th minute and when such an early goal is scored it is often the case that this comes about even before the match has an established pattern. Not so here, United were right on top from the start and had two excellent chances before the goal. Both of these came from movements down the United left where Martial seemed intent on repeating his excellent form from the Middlesborough game. United fed him the ball early throughout the first half and he invariably ran at pace directly a Reading. This is how the goal came. After a run he fed his pass inside to Mata just outside the penalty area narrow on the left. The ball was slightly inaccurate being slightly behind Mata. He adjusted however and scooped the ball into the centre where it reached Rooney awkwardly. He managed to adjust and tried to flick it towards goal. The ball hit his thigh and looped over the keeper. Boom! 1-0 after 5 minutes.
This was Rooney’s 249th United goal, equalling Bobby Charlton’s all-time United record. Not always the most popular United player amongst fans, but whatever you think of him this is a remarkable achievement to be applauded.
United continued to press again after the goal and particularly on the left. They had other chances and then scored again on 15 minutes. This was a solo effort by Martial who ran down the inside left half space before curling a shot around the keeper into the right side of the goal. Boom! 2-0.
The critical features of the first half were in fact the critical features of the whole match. Firstly Reading enjoyed plenty of possession but did not create anything. Across the whole match Reading had 55% possession to United’s 45%. United’s defence with Carrick and Fellaini in front of them controlled space and denied Reading any significant opportunities to score, (bar one around the mid-point of the half). United contented themselves sitting deep and looking to use the pace of Rashford at centre-forward and Martial on the left to break. 4-2-3-1 is considered by many to be more of a counter-attacking system. Is this why United sat deep, or was it the case that with an early two goal lead United could afford to sit back and wait to pick the opponent off? Or would it be fair to say that actually Reading are quite a good side? It was probably because playing a 4-1-4-1 they often outnumbered the United two of Carrick and Fellaini. This was perhaps then the reason why to compensate Rooney and Mata dropped deep and United looked to play on the counter-attack.
On 19 minutes Rojo was replaced by Jones with Smalling moving across to left centre-back and Jones playing to the right. Prior to the substitution Jones had received a knock. He struggled on for a few minutes before being replaced.
Despite sitting deep United continued to generate chances, often via sharp breaks and often via early long passes towards Rashford or Martial. By half time United had had 18 shots at goal.
In respect of movement Carrick tended to sit deep, Fellaini shuttled up and down and Mata came in square from the wide right midfield area. When United attacked this left space for Ashley Young to surge forward from the back whilst on the opposite left side Blind stayed deeper behind Martial who did the surging. This is all usual United movement but they did it here with more pace than in recent seasons and this caused problems for Reading.
It also caused problems for United however as the quality of the final pass in the final third often compromised their ability to get a good clean clear shot away. Plenty of shots but not enough quality shots. There are a number of issues here and this is a clear feature of United’s play, not just in this game or in this team shape. To some extent this is down to a lack of understanding between players, players making the wrong choice or delaying a pass or shot or due to a little inaccuracy in the final pass.
The player guiltiest of delaying his shot in the first half was Rashford. We should state clearly that he was having an excellent game here. His movement, energy and the timing of his runs was superb and this created several good chances, but he delayed his shot on a couple of occasions which allowed players to close him down or left him with a tighter angle from which to shoot. Rashford hasn’t played as the central striker on many occasions this season, was this a sign that now playing here he was a little too anxious to make his mark? Perhaps especially after others had scored the two early goals?
Half time 2-0.
There were no half-time changes and very little difference in the pattern of the game in the second half until we reached the 75th minute. At that point Carrick launched a delightful early forward pass out from the back. With slide rule accuracy this reached Rashford who had timed his run through the inside left channel to find himself one-on-one with Al-Habsi in the Reading goal. He now coolly slotted the ball around the advancing keeper into the far corner. Boom! 3-0.
Immediately after the goal Mourinho made a double substitution replacing Carrick and Mata with Schweinsteiger and Fosu-Mensah. Before anyone had enjoyed an opportunity to compute what this would mean tactically United scored again. This was a gift of a goal. Reading were passing the ball between defenders and goalkeeper when as Rashford looked to press Al-Habsi miss-controlled with the ball hitting his standing foot as he looked to kick it away with his other foot. He struggled to recover, fell over and left Rashford with an open goal from close range. He couldn’t miss. Boom! 4-0 and game over in the 79th minute.
United now simply played out time to secure an easy win. For the record however the double substitution saw United change to a 4-3-3 shape with Schweinsteiger playing as a single defensive midfield player and Fosu-Mensah partnering Fellaini in the more advanced midfield positions. At the front Rashford moved across to the left and Rooney moved to the lone striker position. In this shape United looked more than comfortable suggesting that these players could all fill these respective roles if required due to the need to rotate or injury in the future.
United’s late shape with the introduction of Schweinsteiger
This was another strong performance and a convincing 4-0 score line. But it should have been a more convincing score line. United had 27 shots on goal, 12 of which were on target. So why is the goals to shots ratio comparatively high? This isn’t just a feature of this game but has been a feature of many recent performances; this was perhaps the key reason why just over a month ago United were struggling to record wins.
Our view is that this is because United’s play in the final third is still not quite at the level of the rest of their play. The balance between possession, defence and attack is better now than it has been in the last three years. The key factor though seems to be the final pass to set up the shooting chance.
All too often United players aren’t selecting the right option, or the accuracy of the pass isn’t good enough, or the alertness and anticipation from player receiving pass isn’t up to scratch. All this is an issue when playing in tight spaces and one of the defining characteristics of the final third is that attacking space is at a premium.