Opening lineups and formations
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deployed his side in a 4-4-1-1 sort of shape. In defense, captain Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were the center-back pairing while Patrice Evra lined up at left-back and Phil Jones at right-back. No. 1 David De Gea was in goal. In midfield, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick were in the center of the park and they were flanked by Ji-Sung Park on the left and Nani on the right. Up front, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was the lead striker and Wayne Rooney played withdrawn from him.
Swansea City manager Brendan Rodgers played his side in their usual 4-3-3 shape. The in-form Michel Vorm was between the posts at the Liberty Stadium and the center-back duo was Ashley Williams and Garry Monk. The marauding Angel Rangel was the right-back and opposite of him was Neil Taylor at left-back. In central midfield, little Leon Britton protected his back four in a holding role while Mark Gower and Wayne Routeldge played more advanced. Danny Graham led the line in attack and he was flanked by Scott Sinclair on the left and Nathan Dyer on the right.
The midfield battle -- Carrick is United's heartbeat and engine
Carrick is a lightning rod for debate and in the spirit of not having a redundantly boring one, let's just discuss this particular match. It was one in which he was the clear standout player -- Fergie shared the same sentiment. Coming into Saturday, Swansea had a higher rate of possession than any other Premier League side while playing at home. With United being one of the top sides in Europe -- important to note that possession does not define quality but good sides do tend to keep the ball better than poor sides -- the battle in midfield was always going to be a key one in this particular match.
In United's 4-4-1-1ish shape -- one that is similar to last season's first-choice lineup for the run-in, with the exception of Nani in for Antonio Valencia -- Carrick did not play in a strict holding role but he played generally deeper than Giggs. From here, he pulled the strings and orchestrated the match for United. His 92 passes completed at a 96% success rate is obviously exceptional (Paul Scholes and Xavi like actually) but it is how he intelligently set the pattern and tempo of United's possession that is arguably more impressive. As Carrick typically does, he swung the ball well from side-to-side but he often exhibited exceptional vision and passing range when he would catch Swansea defending too heavily on one side and then would quickly swing the ball to the other flank with one-touch passing. Poor wing play from Nani often caused promising opportunities to go wasted (more on this later). He also did well to ignite the attack through the middle by continually supplying Rooney in the space between the lines.
Carrick was also tremendous defensively, particularly with his positioning. It is often the crunching tackles that are applauded but the subtle interceptions -- which results in instant possession -- are more effective because it can catch the side that just lost possession out of position versus a counter attack. His four tackles and four interceptions display his defensive disruption versus a Swansea midfield that is accustomed passing around their opponents. In addition, he contributed with two brave blocks in the box.
Tactically, the most influential part of Carrick's defensive performance was that he continually came up the pitch to close down his counterpart. This was especially important in the 1st half against Gower. The Swansea midfielder impressively leads the Premier League in 'key passes' (defense-splitting) with 3.1 per game and it was Carrick that often prevented him time from being be able to turn after receiving. Thus, it was more difficult for Gower to turn and face the attack. In contrast, Swansea generally sat deep and only pressed when United had obvious situations when they might be vulnerable to being dispossessed. Rather than this being an indictment on Gower, it was likely a tactical plan for him to be cautious with his positioning and as a result, he conceded room for Carrick to orchestrate as the midfield maestro.
Giggs did this well too. It was the him pressing high up the pitch that led to Rangel's mistake in the back when United capitalized by scoring the lone goal in the match. Giggs and Park seem to have a very good understanding when they are deployed near each other on the pitch. Giggs was left of center in the central-midfield while Park played a narrow left-midfield role. The former has somewhat of a free-role and helps to provide driving runs forward in attack -- mostly on the left side. He able to do this with minimal risk because he has the industrious and tactically aware Park to cover for him inside. Giggs was also given time and space on the ball in the 1st half because Routledge was often too high up the pitch to effectively mark his counterpart. As just mentioned, Park's awareness allowed him to mark Routledge if Giggs was high up the pitch.
The other match-up in midfield was Rooney's with Britton. Rooney's work-rate allows him to be an auxiliary midfielder when he is deployed alongside Chicharito in United's 4-4-1-1 shape. Against Swansea, he constantly dropped deep in search of the ball when United were in attack and he sought out Britton when United were out of possession. The Swansea holding-midfielder should be given credit for having an exceptional match. Not a single pass of his went astray until the 87th minute. He does well to compliment Swansea's system of working the ball out the back in a patient passing game. In addition, Britton did well to break up numerous United attacks by winning all four tackles that he got involved in and by intercepting five passes. Little Leon Britton may have been Swansea's biggest contributor.
Nani was poor
United was somewhat criticized for a perceived poor performance against a recently promoted side. It may not have been a vintage performance but quite honestly, it was a solid one versus a Swansea side that does well to keep the ball, that had only conceded a single goal at home prior to United's visit, and that often just struggles to create enough chances in their own attack (more on this later). For this particular away fixture (remember United's poor away form last season), the result was a desired one.
Perhaps the United attacker that could be most criticized for more chances not being created is Nani. Last season during the run-in, Valencia did well to provide width and direct play down United's right-flank in a 4-4-1-1 shape. This complimented the interchangng and narrow-link play on United's left side between Park, Giggs, and Rooney as it helped stretch the opposition's defense. Nani failed to provide this. While often receiving the ball near the touchline, he rarely took the ball down it to whip in crosses. When he did, he failed to find a United attacker on each of his attempted five crosses in the match. More often than not, Nani made diagonal runs towards goal and this made United both cluttered and predictable in attack. Swansea's discipline defense dealt with this well. Perhaps Valencia is a better fit for this 4-4-1-1 system when it is Chicharito, Rooney, Park, Giggs, and Carrick in midfield and attack. Perhaps it was just an off night for Nani. Nonetheless, he needed to provide more effective width on the right flank.
Swansea predictable in attack
The Swans' brand of possession based football is easy on the eye but it has failed to be incisive enough so far this season. The build-up is patient and it begins in the back -- Britton, Williams, Monk, and Britton are all amongst the league leaders in passes completed this season. When Swansea's central players are pressured, the out ball is often to the marauding right-back Rangel. It is either through him, or the two more advanced central-midfielders -- Gower and typically Joe Allen -- that attempt to play passes through the channels for the likes of Dyer, Sinclair, or Graham to run onto. If those incisive passes are unavailable, the ball is played to the feet of Dyer and Sinclair and the two pacy wide attackers have a go at their markers.
In this particular match, Dyer terrorized Evra down Swansea's right-flank but he often lacked a final product. Dyer successfully dribbled past a defender an impressive six times in this match and he also did well to win three fouls. However, he was also dispossessed eight times because he appeared to lack the awareness of what to do with the ball when he beat his marker. Therefore, he failed to provide the incisiveness in attack with his direct play down the touchline -- his 0 key passes attests to this.
In addition to Dyer, Sinclair provided width on the opposite flank and also provided direct play. While Dyer often looked to beat his marker down the touchline and on the outside shoulder of his marker, Sinclair in contrast looked to hit the space between the right-center-back and right-back -- whether that be with an off-the-ball run or while dribbling at his defender. Swansea were highly dependent on their wide players for creativity in the attacking third and while their direct play often proved a threat, it failed to break down the United defense.
Because this proved troublesome in moments for United, and because it became quite obvious that this was 'Plan A' for Swansea to create chances, this avenue of attack became predictable and United adjusted. Jones was quite disciplined with his positioning at right-back and rarely ventured forward for the first hour of the match while he dealt with Sinclair. Evra began to get tight on Dyer prior to coming off for Fabio -- the latter did this effectively when he came on.
Swansea do not -- or did not at least versus United -- have a player that roams between the lines. Graham worked hard up front but he often became isolated. When United's midfielders came up high to close down their counterparts, perhaps one of Swansea's three attackers could have exploited the space between the lines behind Carrick and in front of Ferdinand and Vidic. They could have gone about a possible 'Plan B' in two ways: (1) Either Sinclair or Dyer -- or another player who was not used -- could have drifted inward into this space and acted as 'interiores' -- just as David Silva and James Milner did in the recent Manchester derby. Or (2) Graham or another striker could have played as a 'false 9' and come deep for the ball in the same zone -- just as Lionel Messi did last May during the Champions League final. The latter could potentially have dragged out a center-back and created space in behind for Sinclair and Dyer to run into. This is not to say that the Swansea attackers are of the same quality to the players that they were compared to, but it is to say that they potentially try something that is tactically similar.
2nd half adjustments
Swansea brought on Allen for the ineffective Routledge and probably not coincidentally, Swansea improved. Routledge played closer to Dyer and Graham in attack but he failed to link play between the midfield and attack. His poor defensive positioning made him a liability. Allen played left of center in central-midfield and he provided more drive. Gower switched to right of center in central-midfield and he played slightly deeper to where Routledge was playing. The result was Swansea seeing more of the ball in the 2nd half. However, as just mentioned, Swansea was predictable in attack still and failed to create many chances.
Darren Fletcher came on for a tiring Giggs in the 76th minute and with United holding a one goal lead, the substitute played deeper and helped keep it compact between the lines. Fergie switched United's shape to 4-2-3-1ish one. Soon after that, and in the 79th minute, Stephen Dobbie was brought on for Gower and Swansea showed more intent to chase a goal in the resulting 4-4-1-1 shape. In the 84th minute, Valencia was brought on for Chicharito while Park moved into the central midfield. The late changes by Swansea had little effect in changing the match and United did well to close out the match for a 1-0 victory.
The key battleground was in the midfield and Rooney's willingness to drop deep prevented his side from being overrun by Swansea's passing game. The biggest difference between the two midfields was that United came forward to close down their counterparts while Swansea was content to sit back and keep their shape. It was a mistake in the back from Giggs' pressing that resulted in the match's lone goal. With Nani failed to provide incisiveness from United's right flank, just as Swansea's direct play from the flanks failed to create enough chances, it was Rooney that provided another attacking option by dropping deep and looking to create in the space between the lines. In contrast, Swansea had no player that naturally occupied this zone. These were the main two tactical differences between the sides. United's three away points were deserved.