SWANSEA CITY vs MANCHESTER UNITED
Following on from their opening weekend win against West Ham United travelled to South Wales looking to repeat that success against a team who had lost their player of the year and usual start performer Gylfi Sigurdsson in midweek to Everton.
- Another solid 4-0 win and this time on the road. United didn’t play as well as in their previous game; their passing wasn’t as sharp and their movement as fluid, but they got the job done in much the same way.
- To an extent you would expect United’s movement to not be as fluid in an away game but it is a misreading to suggest that this game and tactical battle was a carbon copy of last weeks. Then United faced a back four, here it was a three becoming five in the defensive phase.
- Having taken the lead the performance was then similar to last weeks in that United then asked their opponent the same question, who will blink first. Again it was the opponent with United then changing shape and striking with late counter-attacking goals, three this time.
- You can’t complain about back to back 4-0 wins but from this game there were a couple of points to pick out. Firstly United tended to attack the Swansea centre when they were defending fairly narrow. That meant trying to play through the congested middle and this didn’t work. With Mata and Rashford tucking in this needed United’s full backs to push on which they didn’t really do.
- Secondly the individual form of Rashford. With Rashford for long periods he looked like our best attacker, but with no end product.
A rarity Jose chose an unchanged side to start this game, both in terms of personnel and formation. So for United that was a 4-2-3-1 which contrasted with Swansea who adopted a 3-5-2 formation. In principle their shape was a three at the back with two wingbacks but before long it became clear that their strategy was to sit deep in a low block so their wingbacks dropped back to make a five and in front of them they stationed three midfield players in a fairly flat and narrow line.
United’s first half shape and Rashford, United’s brightest attacking force in the first half, but without a clinical edge
It looked like United were to establish a stranglehold on possession but before they did Swansea had a golden chance to take the lead in the first five minutes. United were circulating the ball on the right side of their midfield with Swansea dropping deep but they were able to close United’s passing options down and Pogba played a loose pass which allowed Jordon Ayew to get a foot in and win the ball. He raced away down the Swansea left after a quick one-two with Valencia caught in an advanced position and then cut inside and caught De Gea out with a shot which was basically disguised as a cross. It hit the cross bar and rebounded to safety.
Thereafter United took control and enjoyed significant period of possession throughout the first half. They didn’t make a breakthrough however until the 45th minute and so we have to ask why this is the case?
There were a number of factors in this. Firstly and most simply United’s passing was not as good as it had been against West Ham in their first league game. Players tended to take three or four touches on the ball rather than one or two which meant that the ball was circulated at a far slower pace. You could argue that this is because movement off the ball was not as good with the player in possession not then having as many obvious options. This is almost certainly the case but it isn’t the only reason.
Secondly United’s attacking endeavours were too narrow. Rashford and Mata tended to tuck inside and United tended to try and play through the middle of Swansea. As described above however Swansea’s shape was quite narrow so United were effectively trying to play through a congested zone. They couldn’t do this and whilst they were able to circulate the ball for long periods it was mostly all in front of Swansea’s low block. Credit to Swansea for they defended well.
The way around these two issues was to move the ball more quickly to fluid players and to attack with width. If the strategy was to avoid overloads in the central spine by getting Mata and Rashford to tuck inside, then what was needed was fullbacks moving forward to stretch play but for whatever reason Valencia and Blind did not do this. You could make a case that this was a deliberate ploy on Jose Mourinho’s part to keep the game tight, an alternative approach in an away rather than the more fluid expansive approach in the previous home game. But what we saw was that United struggled to breakdown an organised defence.
As a consequence of this United’s more threatening moments in the first half came from two differing scenarios. The first was the running in transition of Rashford as United broke exploiting those situations when Swansea occasionally came forward. He looked by far United’s most dangerous player, but missed a great chance when clean through trying to chip Fabianski. The problem was that most of the time he tended to run into cul-de-sac’s and failed to look up and combine with team mates. This is an aspect of his game on which he needs to work.
The other dangerous scenario was set pieces. This was seen as early as the 7th minute when Jones hit the bar with a header from a corner and from a similar set piece situation they eventually scored to make the breakthrough at the end of the half. Simply described Pogba provided a bullet header from a corner which hit the bar and bounced down onto the line. As a defender hesitated Bailly reacted quickly to prod home from close range for his first United goal. Boom! 1-0 on the half time whistle.
Neither side made any half time substitutions and the second half started in a similar pattern to that seen across the first half. Of course United had a lead now so eventually Swansea were going to have to change something if they failed to find an equaliser. They actually waited until the 67th minute to make substitutions replacing Bartley, one of their three central defenders with Routledge and Mesa with Narsingh. Basically they switched to a flat back four and adopted a more expansive approach.
What followed was very similar to the second half of United’s first game with United making substitutions, changing shape themselves and scoring further goals after transitions and quick counter attacks. The United changes were also identical to those seen in the West Ham game and came in the 75th minute. So Martial replaced Rashford and Fellaini replaced Mata. The shape change saw United go to a 4-3-3 with Martial playing wide in attack on the left and Mkhitaryan moving to the right. Matic anchored the midfield with Fellaini and Pogba further forward. Again Pogba switched sides from right to left. When United defended Martial and Mkhitarayan came narrow and dropped deep. In fact, they came narrow in attack mesning that the shape often resembled a 4-3-2-1.
United’s shape after substitutions and Anthony Martial who made an impact
United’s second goal followed un the 80th minute when Fellaini directed an early pass up field onto the chest of Lukaku. He cushioned the ball back to Mkhitaryan who fed Martial. He had come narrow from the left and nearly lost the ball but managed to push it on to Mkhitrayan who fed a carefully weighted pass through the middle of the retreating Swansea defence for Lukaku to run onto. Boom! 2-0.
Within two minutes United had scored again. Pogba intercepted a pass in his own half on the right and ran purposefully forward before slipping the ball to Mkhitaryan. He ran on further before returning a short pass to Pogba moving at pace. He simply ran on and clipped the ball over the keeper as he came out to close down, a sublime finish. Boom! 3-0.
Only a further Swansea substitution came before United’s last goal which was scored by Martial in the 85th minute. Again an early ball from the back was held up by Lukaku, this time in his own half but it was taken off his toes by Martial who ran past him into the Swansea half. He fed Pogba who returned a pass as the Swansea defence raced to get back. Martial cut inside and shot low into the opposite corner beyond the dive of Fabianski. Boom! 4-0.
Herrera then replaced Mkhitaryan for the last five minutes to make his first league appearance of the season.
Another good win with United now having taken six points from six with eight goals scored without reply. This wasn’t as good a performance as last week but it was still too strong for Swansea. After the opening ten minutes United looked solid at the back and whilst in the first half they did not overwhelm the home side in a tight contest they always looked like the most likely to score. Once ahead you felt like they would not relinquish their lead.
In the opening half United played quite well, retaining possession and probing but they struggled to overcome Swansea’s massed defence of a line of five and line of three. They needed to stretch Swansea across the width of the pitch rather than try to play through the middle. As a consequence of this United struggled to make an impression on the home side when they were set in their defensive formation; where were the fullbacks? United’s most dangerous moments in the first half came in transition via Rashford on the break or by set pieces, (Jones hitting the bar early on before United’s goal from a corner).
The second half was a different situation with United picking the home side off as they chased the game. It’s ironic that United’s three late goals all came via attacking moves through the centre of the pitch given that United had spent the first 75 minutes trying to play through that area with little success. Swansea were well organised and stuck to their defensive task. United did not do enough to break them down or even stretch them in this period but having scored Swansea had to chase the game and when they did they weakened their middle. Jose responded setting his team up to hit quickly, early and at speed through that now weakened middle.
What was pleasing to see was the pace, directness and understanding with Lukaku playing a pivotal role in two of those late goals, receiving an early pass and bringing others into play. The understanding was key. All players involved are quick but they couldn’t use their pace if they did not have an understanding which enabled them to anticipate each other’s movement.