OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS
Manchester United played in a 4-4-1-1 shape. Usual No 1 David De Gea was rested and Anders Lindegaard was given his first Premier League start in goal. Jonny Evans returned from injury to start at center-back and he was partnered by Phil Jones. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back and Antonio Valencia once again started at right-back. Anderson and Darren Fletcher were the central-midfield pairing and they were flanked by Park Ji-sung on the left and Nani on the right. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was the striker and Wayne Rooney played in a withdrawn role.
Norwich City played in a 4-5-1 shape -- more specifically, it resembled a 4-2-3-1. John Ruddy was the goalkeeper and the center-back pairing was Russell Martin and Leon Barnett. Marc Tierney was the left-back and Kyle Naughton was the right-back -- both were positioned quite narrowly. Bradley Johnson played in a holding role and David Fox played alongside him in the center. Wesley Hoolahan played higher up in the center and he was flanked by Anthony Pilkington on the left and Elliott Bennett on the right. Steve Morrison had the thankless task of being the lone man up front.
1. United dominate possession but struggle to breakdown narrow Norwich: As expected, the Reds dominated possession (68%-33% -- yes, I realize that doesn't add up to 100% but thats what Opta's brilliant math provided) but they failed to breakdown a well organized and narrow Norwich defense. Only 22% of play occurred in United's own third of the pitch while 39% of play occurred in the middle third and 39% in Norwich's third. Hence, the main pattern of play was United in possession and trying to find a way to pierce the Norwich defense.
Norwich's full-backs -- Tierney and Naughton -- positioned themselves quite narrowly when their side was out of possession. This made the channels between them and the center-backs extremely difficult to split with an incisive pass targeting a diagonal run by an attacker -- channels that Chicharito and Park often receive through with their off-the-ball runs. In addition, Nani enjoys cutting inside to also exploit this space with either a slalom dribble through the defense or a shot on goal. The visitors did well to stay disciplined and organized with a narrow defensive bank of four whenever United attempted to break them down.
Norwich's central-midfielders -- Fox and Johnson -- also sat quite deep for most of the match and helped keep things compact when United were in possession. They were helped out by both wide midfielders -- Bennett and Pilkington -- as each did reasonably well in tracking back and also staying narrow. Hoolahan was theoretically a central-attacking-midfielder that was tasked to play higher than the midfield bank of four so that he could link the defense/midfield with Morrison when Norwich tried to counter. However, Hoolahan was essentially a third central-midfielder that was often deep and defending.
2. United's engine room: Both Fletcher (92/107 passing -- 86%) and Anderson (76/88 passing -- 86%) were tidy in distribution but neither were able to consistently provide a killer final pass. In fact, Anderson was credited by Opta with two defense splitting passes in attack while Fletcher had just one. This isn't an indictment on either because as previously mentioned, the space was simply not there for them to exploit with forward passes in the attacking third. For Fletcher, his job is generally to provide energy and stability in positioning while also not giving the ball away. Here is a chalkboard of their distribution versus Norwich:
Rather than force passes through, each was patient and generally distributed the ball out wide to the wingers and full-backs. A closer examination of this chalkboard displays something interesting but probably not surprising. Fletcher's passes generally occur in two predictable areas on the pitch: deep in the midfield near the middle or slightly to the right when closer to the attack -- this hints that he is careful not to lose shape.
Ando's passing grid is a bit more staggered. He's done well this season to receive the ball from both the goalkeeper and center-backs and ignite the attack from the back. From there, his energy allows to him to advance the ball and then follow that pass by quickly making himself available gain to receive higher up the pitch. This continues until he links the midfield with the attack. Ando's ability to collect the ball from deep and quickly move it forward has allowed him to dictate matches this season from United's engine room. This staggered passing grid exemplifies this.
3. Rooney's right-sidedness: United successfully completed 600 passes in this match and it is somewhat surprising that only 46 of those were by their talisman. Generally when Rooney is partnered with Chicharito up top, he plays withdrawn and between the lines as United's incisive playmaker through the middle. Even when opposing sides deploy a holding-midfielder that naturally occupies the same space, Wazza's intelligent movement typically allows him to slip his marker and find space to operate in. In this match, he found it a bit more difficult with Norwich using two deep-lying central midfielders that compacted the space between the midfield and defense. The narrowness of their full-backs and wide-midfielders even made it difficult for Rooney to find space in the wide areas.
Because of this, it is somewhat surprising that Rooney didn't begin to come deeper for the ball -- something he often does when he is starved of the ball for long stretches of play. When he did receive the ball, he generally played square passes or swung the ball out wide.
This likely occurred because like the rest of the United players, the narrowness of Norwich made it difficult to break them down through the middle. Thus, he simply swung the ball out to where he likely saw an outlet -- on the right flank. Two things generally occurred: (1) The ball was played to Nani and he often tried to cut in from the right while Valencia surged forward with overlapping runs. (2) He also played the ball to the feet of Valencia on the right when space was created by a diagonal off-the-ball run by Nani. The available space for United was on flanks because of Norwich's narrowness. Thus, United often tried to play through the dangerous attacking combination of Nani and Valencia on the right.
4. Norwich exploits United's CB-FB channels on quick counters: When Norwich would regain possession, they quickly tried to counter into the vast space behind United's midfield and full-backs -- this often failed because Morrison had the thankless task of being an isolated outlet most of the time. However, there were a number of chances in this game for Norwich when enough players were able to get forward and break at speed. In recent matches, United's full-backs have had the space behind them exploited when they were caught out -- a lack of a true holding player to cover on counter-attacks has magnified this problem. Morrison, as the lone man up front, did well to exploit the right-central channel while Pilkington did well to exploit the left-central channel. The latter was able to fire five shots during the game and at the very least, he should have bagged one goal. This was representative of Norwich's wastefulness on quality chances.
5. Phil Jones and Jonny Evans solid again: Perhaps it is by default, but both Jones and Evans have arguably been United's two best defenders this season. Much of this is due to the injuries of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Rafael, and Chris Smalling but credit shouldn't be taken away for their fine play thus far. While both Valencia and Evra were caught out against the counter-attack, both Jones and Evans did reasonably well to deal with Norwich when they were able to break at speed with numbers. Evans was assured with his positioning while Jones provided the spectacular at times with smart defending and goal-preventing (perhaps) tackles. Both displayed enough pace to provide a wide range in defending against the counter. Each deserve praise for ably deputising for an injury-depleted defense.
Conclusion: For the fourth consecutive match, United were lackluster and the international break may have come at a good time considering recent form and injury concerns. Credit should be given to Norwich manager Paul Lambert for an astute tactical plan in this match as he put his side in position for a brave performance. His side was simply wasteful in their chances and United used some grit on a corner to finally breakthrough for an opening goal. The second came when Norwich was opened up due to their desire for an equaliser. United face two derby matches in the upcoming weeks, along with an important UEFA Champions League group-stage tie in Bucharest -- manager Sir Alex Ferguson needs to find a way to improve his defense as soon as possible.