Opening Lineups and Formations
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson fielded his side in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1ish shape. David de Gea was the goalkeeper while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were the center-back pairing. Patrice Evra was the automatic choice again at left-back and it was Chris Smalling chosen to play right-back. In midfield, Phil Jones was picked to partner Michael Carrick in the center of the park and they were flanked by Nani on the left and Antonio Valencia on the right. Up front, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney were the tandem, with the latter playing in a withdrawn role.
Wolverhampton Wanderers' manager Mick McCarthy started his side in a 4-4-2 shape. Wayne Hennessey was between the pipes at Old Trafford while Christophe Berra and Roger Johnson were the center-back duo. Ronald Zubar was chosen at right-back and opposite of him was Stephen Ward at left-back. In central midfield, Jamie O'Hara and Karl Henry formed a partnership with the latter more conservatively postioned. Out wide, it was Matthew Jarvis on the left flank and David Edwards on the right flank. Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher were the striker pairing.
The partnership of Carrick and Jones
It was a bright start for United and the genesis of it was their ability to win the battle in the center of the pitch. For the second successive league match, Carrick and Jones were partnered together and the early returns suggest the two compliment each other well. There is concern about United's central midfield -- and it's certainly valid -- but sometimes finding a solution can come from finding the right partnerships rather than just relying on an individual to spark improvement. This is not to declare that United do not need reinforcements -- they certainly do -- but rather to use last season's unexpected and successful partnership of Carrick and Ryan Giggs as an example on how two players can liberate each other.
Carrick dictated the match with his distribution (66/73 passing -- 90% | 2 key passes | 8/8 long balls) and this was complimented well by Jones' industry and drive. However, both also put in well-rounded performances. Carrick contributed 4 tackles and 5 interceptions and it was an interception high up pitch the during the 16th minute that allowed him to create a dangerous chance for Rooney when he immediately split the defense with a through ball. Jones had a driving run in the 56th minute and this resulted in him laying off skillfully for Valencia on the right -- what resulted was United's third goal after Nani finished a pass slid across by Valencia. Both sequences do well to exhibit the influence and the all-around quality the duo had versus Wolves.
Both also had license to get forward and this contributed to an open game. Jones and O'Hara were tight on each other for the first half-hour of the match while Henry was positioned a bit deeper, thus, he was allowing Carrick time on the ball. The reason for this was Wolves' confusion on how to deal with both Welbeck and Rooney when they dropped deep to receive. Henry was often hesitant on who he should mark -- Rooney when he dropped into the space between the lines or Carrick when he received in midfield? In turn, Carrick was doing well to close down Henry and this is evident by three of his interceptions being in United's attacking half of the pitch. Wolves were overrun though the center.
A vintage approach by United
When United transitioned into their attack, both Rooney and Welbeck continually dropped deep to link-up. The former dropped deeper and often into the midfield zone to receive. From here, Rooney either combined with Evra and Nani on the left for some quick one-touch passing sequences or he simply swung the ball wide to the feet of Valencia near the right flank. It is Wazza that is often the creative source through the middle for United when they enter their attacking third of the pitch.
The other source of chances created for United generally comes from their wingers. On the left, Nani was difficult to deal with for Wolves as he was a threat to either beat his marker down the touchline to whip in crosses or he was able to cut in onto his right foot for an attempt on goal. On United's opening goal, Nani received near the edge of the box and he simply cut in to beat his marker -- Wolves' holding-midfielder Henry -- to fire near-post while beating Hennessey.
Valencia simply got the best of his counterpart -- Ward -- on Saturday evening. The Ecuadorian winger has struggled to find his form as of late but he was able to continually beat his marker and send in accurate crosses -- his three assists can certainly attest to this. In addition, Ward was often caught out too high and Valencia did well to find dangerous positions near the touchline to receive in. From here, he often surged into the box and from this relatively close positioning to goal, he was able to pick out attackers and create chances. Below is a chalkboard of both Valencia's successful and failed cross attempts. Take note of how those crosses weren't coming in from the touchline, but rather from a position much closer to goal because he was able to consistently to get in behind Ward.
Wolves make adjustments
As previously mentioned, Wolves struggled to compete in midfield for the reasons explained. As a result, they often bypassed the midfield by simply punting the ball high up the pitch in order to relieve pressure. Not surprisingly, this cycle of events helped United to gain control of possession (United 60% - Wolves 40% after the initial 30 minutes). When Edwards was substituted off for Nenad Milijas in the 32nd minute due to injury, Wolves dropped a striker for an extra midfielder. Fletcher, with his impressive aerial abilities, remained up top as the lone striker while Doyle moved out wide to the right. Milijas came on to provide an extra body in the center of the pitch. While Wolves played with an extra man in the center of the pitch from minutes 32 to 71, possession between the two sides was relatively even. The visitors enjoyed a decent spell near the end of the first half and during the first ten minutes of the second half and much of this was due to their improved approach.
From minutes 0-32 when Wolves played with two in the center, they were completing 4.13 passes per minute at a 72.9% success rate. When Milijas came on and provided Wolves an extra man in the center from minutes 32-71, they completed an improved 4.79 passes per minute at a 79.2% success rate. The chalkboard below shows Wolves' passing during these two periods -- notice how many more long balls Wolves were sending forward in that opening span and then notice how many more short passes they played during this second described span of play. This is indicative of their improved approach:
Smalling struggles to contain Jarvis
One player was undoubtedly brightest for Wolves and that was left-winger Jarvis. His approach was fairly simple: receive the ball and use his advantage of pace over Smalling to beat him down the touchline and send in crosses. He did this impressively. Jarvis sent in 14 crosses and 5 of them found a teammate -- many of the so-called 'unsuccessful' crosses were still dangerous and were often dealt well with by the United defense. Jarvis was a terror down the left flank and it was from him where the genesis of a goal was always likely to come from: it was his cross at the far-post that found Fletcher for Wolves' lone goal. Notice in the chalkboard below on how many of Jarvis' attempted crosses came from near the touchline, as opposed to Valencia's for United.
Ferdinand deal well with Wolves' aerial threat
Because of Wolves' propensity to hoof the ball long, and because of the bombardment of crosses that United were facing from Jarvis' crossing, it was always going to important that United's center-backs deal with this aerial threat. With captain Nemanja Vidic out for the season, a center-back who is arguably the best box defender in the world, this was a possible concern. Often when the ball is sent long, it is Vidic that is sent into aerial duels while Ferdinand sweeps in behind for the knock-downs. Against Wolves, and with Vidic unavailable, it was Ferdinand that often found himself as United's chief aerial defender. He impressively won 12 aerial duels out an attempted 15 and did well to nullify this threat from Wolves (this chalkboard below doesn't account for an aerial duel won by Ferdinand that was classified as a 'tackle').
Evans also did well by winning 8 of his 12 aerial duels. However, Fletcher was able to get the best of Evra on Wolves' goal when the center-forward used his sheer physical advantage to out-leap the United full-back. With Doyle moved out to the right, Wolves' clear approach was to get Jarvis the ball and have him cross for the Fletcher and Doyle -- the latter often made far-post runs when he was deployed as the wide right player from minutes 32-71 in this match.
The match certainly does not compensate for the extreme disappointment suffered when the club failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. In addition, there is the obvious concern about Vidic's unavailability for the remainder of this season. However, if we were to look for positives, this match is a good place to start. United came into the match having only scored a single goal for seven successive league matches. The four goals were therapeutic. In addition, the Reds showed vintage form and provided hope that their future form will improve. United face a relatively favorable fixture list list for the remainder of December and with Manchester City dropping points last night versus Chelsea, they have an opportunity now to work out their problems and position themselves nicely for the title race. Creativity and goals from Wazza, wing wizardry from Nani and Valencia, drive and class from Jones and Carrick in the center of the park, and assured defending from Rio is a fine approach to finding needed form.