MANCHESTER UNITED vs WEST HAM UNITED
After defeat in the UEFA Super Cup United started their Premier League Programme with a home game against West Ham United. This fixture was one of those frustrating home draws last year, so representing an opportunity to improve.
In: Bailly, Jones, Blind, Rashford and Mata.
Out: Lindelof, Smalling, Darmian, Herrera and Lingard.
- A great start and a solid all round performance. United played with confidence and dominated. Scoring after 33 minutes changed the game from the pattern seen last year. Thereafter United looked at ease and ran away with the game as West Ham tired.
- United started with 4-2-3-1 with Pogba partnering Matic as the pivots. This worked really well with Matic as the slightly more defensive of the pair. Their movement was carefully co-ordinated so they were never far from each other. Matic’s passing as well as his covering, tackling and interceptions was a real plus.
- Having the big physical presence and pace of Lukaku up front was a real bonus here as it occupied the West Ham defence providing time and space for those behind, including Pogba pushing on. This required the West Ham midfield to sit deep and ensured United were always on top.
- In the last fifteen minutes United reverted to a 4-3-3 shape with Matic in a more static role as United sat deeper. This seemed to invite West Ham on. They of course needed to chase the game with a two goal deficit but this also left them vulnerable with United picking them off with two breakaway goals.
- Lukaku will get the headlines for his double strike but Pogba, Matic, Mkhitaryan and Mat all had really excellent games. It was also pleasing to see Pogba and Martial on the score sheet given that United need more goals from that area of the team and Rashford was unlucky in hitting the post.
Perhaps suggesting that a pre-season emphasis on a three at the back strategy was actually in preparation for the Super Cup game United reverted to a four at the back strategy here. We may see that three at the back shape again later but United started with a 4-2-3-1 here with Pogba to the right and Matic to the left in midfield as the pivots. Ahead of this pair was Mata to the right, Mkhitraryan centrally behind Lukaku and Rashford to the left. In the attacking phase the three behind Lukaku were quite fluid whilst in the defensive phase United reverted to a 4-4-2 shape with Mkhitaryan staying high close to Lukaku whilst Rashford and Mata dropped deeper into the central midfield line. West Ham were in a 4-3-3 shape, but with United dominating their three in midfield were often quite flat and preoccupied with the fluid United three.
United’s first half shape and Matic making his United Premier League debut
Several features of United’s first half play are worth picking out. Firstly the relationship in central midfield between Pogba and Matic. For players who have not played together for very long they seem to already have already developed a very good understanding. Pogba tended to push forward with Matic sitting slightly deeper but Matic role was not a passive one. He tended to move in relation to Pogba maintaining a good connection with him and closing any gap which would otherwise have been created by Pogba’s movement. This meant that if United lost possession there were no large spaces between players in United’s formation and ensured that United could intercept or press to win the ball back quickly.
Secondly in the line behind Lukaku Mkhitaryan as the central player tended to stay close to Lukaku especially when United lost the ball. This pair seemed to co-ordinate their actions, so if one moved to close down the player on possession the other would cover this space and both worked to prevent West Ham easily inter-passing at the back. Thirdly this contrasted significantly with the passing and movement relationships when United had the ball. Then Mkhitrayan’s movement was far more fluid; he often dovetailed with Mata on the United right, far less so with Rashford on the left who tended to hold a left-sided position in the first half. Mata’s usually movement was inside, either square or diagonally which created spaces on the right into which Mkhitrayan or Valencia would advance. When United had the ball Lukaku tended to stay central. This meant that the West Ham central defenders were occupied and that their midfield three had to drop deep to cope with the movement of the United midfield. In turn this meant that West Ham had few passing options when they won possession and so couldn’t get out. Pogba and Matic intercepted and nicked the ball away from players receiving the ball and this lead to United’s breakthrough goal.
This though didn’t come until the 33rd minute and after a period where the pattern of last season was repeated. United were dominating but weren’t creating significant clear cut chances. United had a couple of chances one through the running of Mata in behind, played in by Mkhitaryan and another when Pogba chipped the ball in behind for Mata; on both occasions United failed to capitalise but Mata general fluidity and the coordination of his movement with that of Mkhitaryan was a real threat.
The breakthrough came when Matic nicked the ball away from Obiang in the middle of the pitch in the United half. His interception saw the ball run free to Rashford who ran through the inside left channel. He played a delightful reverse pass through the West Ham back line for Lukaku to run diagonally onto. He timed his run in behind perfectly before shooting across Hart and onto the opposite post with ball rebounding across and into the goal. Boom! 1-0
At the start of the second half a couple of features were clear. Firstly West Ham were set up higher up the pitch and seemed prepared to commit more men forward when they had opportunity to attack. Of course they were chasing the game now. Their shape stayed as a 4-3-3 at this stage. The other feature that sprung out was that Rashford, who was generally staying wide, was seeing more of the ball. His running created problems for Zableta who just about coped with the United man’s pace. This was a struggle though with Pogba and Matic looking to find Rashford with an early ball to exploit West Ham’s higher position. This led directly to United’s second goal in the 53rd minute. Zableta fouled Rashford running through the inside left channel. Mkhitaryan delivered an inch perfect free kick onto the head of Lukaku who nodded home his second goal of the afternoon. Boom! 2-0.
Before too long West Ham made a double substitution removing Noble and Fernandes and introducing Sakho, a striker and Rice a young midfield player. They now adjusted shape going to something close to a 4-4-2 with two central strikers. Arnautovic dropped to the left and both wide players tended to drop deep and wide into a midfield four when they lost the ball. When West Ham came forward then they often attacked with a four and their fullbacks push up into the wide midfield areas leaving the two central defenders deeper. This was illustrated in the 61st minute when they had six players forward in the United box; a high risk strategy that would leave them vulnerable to the break. The inevitable break via Rashford saw Lukaku’s shot blocked with Pogba taking a follow up shot. This strategy was either going to see West Ham get back into the game or United score again before very long.
Jose Mourinho now decided to make some changes himself presumably with the West Ham changes in mind because when West Ham attacked the movement of their wide players left only two players at the back if as was often the case both full backs pressed on at the same time. This was something he could clearly exploit with quick ball forward.
Jose made his first change on 76 minutes replacing Mata with Fellaini. This also resulted in a change of team shape with United reverting to a 4-3-3, so in transition three against West Ham’s two central defenders. Pogba switched sides from the right side of midfield to the left with Fellaini slotting in on the right. Both players were ahead of Matic who was now much more inclined to sit as a more static defensive midfield screen. His movement was now more lateral from side to side. United’s midfield also now tended to sit a little deeper. United remained in this shape for the rest of the game, even after further substitutions although the shape tended towards a 4-5-1 in the defensive phase with the wider attacking players Mkhitaryan on the right and Rashford on the left dropping deep into midfield.
United’s shape after the introduction of Fellaini and Martial
On 80 minutes Rashford was replaced on the left by Martial. Rashford is a great talent with hugh potential but he has a tendency to run into cul-de-sac’s rather than get his head up a and link with others. Martial is more aware of teammates and this yielded dividends late in the game.
In the 87th minute United scored their third in a second phase attack after West Ham had part cleared the ball. Pogba picked the ball up, feed Mkhitaryan slightly to the left of centre just outside the West Ham box. He slid a cleaver pass through to Martial who was one on one with the keeper and slotted home. Boom! 3-0; great awareness and combination play by all involved exploiting the space provided by West Ham’s more adventurous approach.
Lingard now came on for Mkhitaryan in the 88th minute before United scored again. His goal came from another breakaway move. The ball was moved from left to right via Martial, Lingard, Fellaini to Valencia and then recycled back across to Martial who fed the ball into the feet of Pogba who was moving at pace as he received the ball. He shot early from outside the box low past Hart. Boom! 4-0. The noticeable thing was that there was no West Ham challenge to the ball at any point during this move suggesting that West Ham were now so tired they could not resist. Job done.
This was a great way to start the season and whilst West Ham are not the best team United will face this season this was a solid well organised performance which bodes well. Goals change games and scoring when they did helped United; had the score stayed at 0-0 for much longer West Ham might have taken confidence and United lost some with a frustrating game pattern as seen last season repeating itself.
It didn’t though and this wasn’t just down to luck or one piece of clinical finishing for whilst United only had a couple of chances before their goal their play was much better, more focused and more purposeful that last season. A big part of this was the midfield play of Pogba and Matic, especially Matic who maintained team shape and ensured United won the ball back early to keep the pressure on. The combination play in the final third was also better here, particularly between Mata and Mkhitaryan with Lukaku providing a physical presence to occupy and distract defenders. Of course United had Ibrahimovic for that last year but the added threat of Lukaku’s pace is important.
The second half was really about who would blink first with West Ham being that team after United’s second goal. The change of shape set United up to counter-attack quickly in transition with the opportunity to numerically overload. This worked well with United looking like they might score every time they attacked as the game wore on. They scored two more goals after the introduction of Martial in place of Rashford with the Frenchman’s increased awareness and more clinical edge making a difference. Those are things Rashford has to work on, but he has time.