Manchester United return from the international break on Saturday when they travel to South Wales to face Swansea City at Liberty Stadium. The Swans became the first Welsh side to play in the Premier League after winning promotion last season via a play-off in the Championship. 28 years ago was the last encounter between these two clubs when Swansea defeated United 2-1 at Old Trafford. When considering Swansea have only traveled away thus far to the other 'big 6' sides in the current season, this opportunity to host the 19-time champions of England is perhaps one of the biggest matches in their 99-year history.
United come into the tie 2nd in the table and five points shy of rival Manchester City. In Europe, the Reds are level on points with Benfica in Group C of the UEFA Champions League but top the group on goal differential. A midweek clash between the top two sides in Group C awaits just three days after United's visit to Swansea. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson's side has also reached the quarter-final of the Carling Cup and will clash with Crystal Palace on November 30 at Old Trafford. After United's 1-6 derby disaster to City, they have gone on to win four straight matches in all competitions -- which includes four clean sheets as well.
* Updated team news after Sir Alex Ferguson's press conference (1:20pm GMT)
The injuries have piled up for United and it is not certain how well each of the players have recovered during the international break. More should be known during Fergie's pre-match press conference later today (which we will cover). Striker Michael Owen is out with a thigh injury that will keep him out for six weeks. Defender Chris Smalling is still unexpected to be available due to a foot injury. The status of the likes of Ryan Giggs, Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley, and Danny Welbeck is unknown. The latter suffered a muscle strain in England's 1-0 defeat of Spain at Wembley and he was thus sent back to Carrington prior England's following match versus Sweden. Rafael played the full 90 minutes for United's Reserves on Thursday while continuing his comeback from shoulder surgery.
The Swans have shown well during their initial adventure into the Premier League. The Welsh side currently sit 10th in the table and have been lauded for their possession-based football. Their average of 56% ball possession is tied for 3rd in the league and their 84.9% passing accuracy is 4th. For comparison's sake, United are 6th in possession with a 54.8% average and are 5th in passing accuracy with a 84% success rate. Liberty Stadium has been a fortress for Swansea as they are unbeaten in five matches there. 11 of their 13 points earned in league have come from those matches at home. In addition, they have only conceded a single goal in those five matches.
Swansea have a relatively clean bill of health. Alan Tate is out with a broken leg while both Steven Caulker and Stephen Dobbie appear unlikely to feature because of knee and foot injuries, respectively.
Historically, Ferguson has liberally rotated his squad after his players have traveled the globe and returned from international duty (round-up of recent participation). However, injuries and questionable form from some of his players may narrow his selection choice options. It is important to keep in mind that the manager will be making his selections with a midweek Champions League tie versus Benfica and next weekend's clash with Newcastle United in mind -- these upcoming three matches will occur during an eight day span.
In goal, No. 1 David De Gea is likely in goal while Rio Ferdinand and captain Nemanja Vidic are the expected center-back pairing. The latter is suspended for upcoming Benfica match due to his sending-off in Bucharest versus Otelul Galati. Patrice Evra is an automatic selection at left-back and either Fabio or Phil Jones is probable at right-back. Jones has logged heavy minutes as of late -- including playing nearly the entirety of two matches for England in a span of four days -- so he may be rested on Saturday. Because this is an away tie, and because of the challenge Swansea present with their passing game, it is possible that Ferguson uses three players in the center of the park. Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Anderson, Ji-Sung Park, and Wayne Rooney are all candidates here. Out wide on the right, Nani is likely but Antonio Valencia is possible. Out wide on the left, Park's industry and ball-winning ability may be desired but Nani is possible as well. Up front, Welbeck may be the best choice to lead the line as a lone striker. In addition, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) just returned from a long-trip to Mexico while on national team duty so Ferguson may desire to rest him. However, if Welbeck's thigh injury makes him unavailable, expect the Mexican up top. If United play in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 sort of shape, Rooney likely plays in a withdrawn role from the lead striker.
For Swansea, the choices for manager Brendan Rodgers are more straightforward for his 4-3-3 shape. Michel Vorm will be between the posts and the predicted center-back pairing is Ashley Williams and Gary Monk. The full-backs are expected to be (the rhyming) Angel Rangel and Neil Taylor -- the former on the right and the latter on the left. In the center of the park, Leon Britton shields the back four as the holding player while Joe Allen plays slightly left of center and Mark Gower plays slightly right of center. Up front, Danny Graham leads the line in attack and expect Scott Sinclair to flank him on the left and Nathan Dyer to flank him on the right.
* Can United achieve balance between attack and defense?: United started the season in stunning, goalscoring fashion and perhaps this was best epitomized in their 8-2 demolishing of Arsenal. However, in this fast and fluid 4-4-2, the Reds were alarmingly allowing a lot of shots on their goal. They then conceded three goals at home versus FC Basel in Champions League action. And after being exposed by City and conceding six goals, Ferguson drastically changed his tactics. The result of this has been four straight clean sheets but the attack has sputtered.
United's free-flowing and quick attack overwhelmed opponents but they failed to keep it tight at the back. After opponents won the ball, they often would break quickly and find acres of space to attack into -- either behind United's midfielders and in front of their defense or if a high-line was played, balls were played in behind the defense. Ferguson then began to use a holding player to occupy the space between the lines and there certainly appeared to be a more conscious effort to get more players goalside of their opponents when possession was lost. However, this resulted in an attack that lacked any sort of free-flow and rhythm. Can the Reds begin to find a balance between a free-flowing attack while keeping it tight in the back?
* Swansea's passing-game is built from the back: Despite United having the obvious talent advantage, it would not be surprising to see the Swans win the possession battle while at home. Swansea have played four matches thus far versus the 'big six' sides in England -- all away. In those four matches, Swansea had 48% of the possession at Anfield, 50% at Stamford Bridge, 43% at the Emirates, and an impressive 58% at Eastlands. At a vociferous Liberty Stadium, the home side may be able to improve on those numbers.
Swansea's passing game typically is built up from the back. Right-back Angel Rangel averages a team-leading 69.2 passes per game (at 85.3% success rate), center-back Ashley Williams 65.1 (83%), center-back Gary Monk 56.4 (92.7%), and holding-midfielder Leon Britton 54.9 (93.6%). Only the most advanced central-midfielder Mark Gower (60.3 at 83.9%) cracks the top Swansea's top-five in passes per game. It is quite obvious that their passing game is a patient one and the ball is only advanced when space exists to play into or when their free-flowing movement results in an overload.
With this being an away tie -- despite Swansea being a recently promoted side -- will United sit back, defend deep, and look to break quickly against Swansea's free-flowing system? Or will they press high up the pitch with the industry of Park Ji-sung, Wayne Rooney, Darren Fletcher, and Anderson and look to gain possession in dangerous positions? If it is the former, perhaps hitting in the space behind marauding Rangel will provide goalscoring chances. If it is the latter, perhaps closing down Williams -- whose unimpressive 83% passing rate for a center-back may be the reason teams are allowing him so many touches -- may be the player to target for a mistake in the back.
* United must keep it tight in the back: No matter how successful (or poorly) the United attack is on Saturday, they must keep it tight in the back if they do not want to provide Swansea a famous victory. The blueprint for this is in their recent four consecutive clean sheets. Mark Gower is the most advanced central-midfielder and it is he that typically provides the incisive passing to break down a defense. He impressively averages 3.3 key passes (defense-splitting passes in attack) per game and he also provides 2.9 accurate passes per game. Joe Allen is a bit more tidy with his passing in the middle and a little less daring, but he too is capable of splitting open a defense with a perfectly weighted through ball.
How can United defend this? If Gower and Allen receive with their backs to goal, United's central midfielders must close down quickly and not allow their counterparts to turn and face the attack. If the duo receive and are able to face goal, then United must keep it tight between the channels so that balls can't be played through the defense for the likes of Danny Graham, Scott Sinclair, and Nathan Dyer to run onto.
In addition, whoever United's right-back is on Saturday, they must be positionally sound and aware of the threat that Sinclair possesses. The Swansea wide forward is very dangerous at taking on defenders and creating chances by dribbling past defenders. Sinclair is also very good in finding space behind full-backs that get caught out too high or too wide.
ODDS: Swansea City 6/1, Draw 10/3, Manchester United 4/9
PREDICTION: Swansea City 1-2 Manchester United