West Ham United 2-4 Manchester United FC: MATCH REVIEW

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrates his hat trick during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Manchester United at the Boleyn Ground on April 2, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

 

In a lunch-time tie at Upton Park, Manchester United FC defeated West Ham United 2-4. After some shocking defending by United in the first half, in which the Hammers were able to convert two penalties, the Red Devils mounted a stirring comeback in the second half after Wayne Rooney found the back of the net thrice. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez added to his impressive goal-scoring rate by killing off the match for United's fourth goal. After Arsenal FC's draw today with Blackburn Rovers, United top the table with a seven point lead over their North London rivals, who also have a game in hand. Today was very pivotal in the balance of the title race.

OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS:
United came out in a '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid shape. Tomasz Kuszczak deputized in goal for Edwin van der Sar. The match saw the return of captain Nemanja Vidic at center-back and he was paired with Chris Smalling. Patrice Evra was at left-back and Fabio deputized at right-back. Michael Carrick played deep in the central midfield in a deep-lying play-maker's role while Darron Gibson was deployed in more of a box-to-box role. Park Ji-Sung returned to United for the first time since December and he was deployed higher up the pitch in the central midfield; the South Korean was essentially a 'defensive attacker.' Antonio Valencia was the wide player on the right in the attack and Ryan Giggs was wide left. Wayne Rooney led the attacking line as the fulcrum and he played a "false nine" role. 

West Ham's shape is difficult to describe with simple formation nomenclature. They played in a very asymmetrical shape; it could be described as '4-1-4-1', '4-3-3', or maybe more accurately as '4-1-3-1-1'. Robert Green was in between the posts and their center-back tandem was Manuel da Costa and captain Matthew Upson. Wayne Bridge, who is on loan to West Ham from Manchester City, was the left-back while Lars Jacobsen was the right-back. Scott Parker shielded the defense in a holding role, Mark Noble played an energetic box-to-box type of role, and Thomas Hitzlsperger ("Der Hammer") got forward more into the attack in the central midfield. Gary O'Neil played a very narrow and conservative right-midfield role. Demba Ba was high up the pitch on the left side and he interchanged quite a bit with striker Carlton Cole


1ST HALF:

* Despite the scoreline, United controlled the run of play this half. They dominated possession, had more scoring chances, and had more corners. However, their defending was shocking at times as was the communication between Vidic, Smalling, and Evra. West Ham capitalized on United's mistakes and the away side were wasteful, if not unlucky as well at times. Despite United being the better side, West Ham did decently well to absorb the pressure because United's attack this half was too one-dimensional. As Ian Darke put it on my feed, "all roads lead to Valencia." As this Guardian chalkboard indicates, United's attack was concentrated on the right side in the first half:

 by Guardian Chalkboards

* Park's inclusion was an interesting one tactically. There may not be a better "defensive-attacker" in the world than our South Korean. There are certainly some who appreciate his value (this writer), but I get the impression that the tactical flexibility that Park provides Sir Alex Ferguson goes unnoticed by many. Often Park is deployed in wide areas to track tricky wingers or attacking full-backs. However, just as he was versus AC Milan's Andrea Pirlo in last season's Champions League tie, Park can be deployed high up the center of the pitch to harass and pressure an opponent's central midfielder. It appeared that Park's main purpose today was to track West Ham's Parker and essentially man-mark him out of the game. Parker isn't quite the deep-lying playmaker that Pirlo is, but he is West Ham's best player and Park worked extremely hard to limit the influence of the Hammers' midfielder. Park also did well to link play with the simple pass as he converted 38 out of an attempted 43 passes (88%) today. A solid return from injury for the South Korean.

* I had anticipated that West Ham would spend a good portion of the match pressing United high up the pitch, especially considering United's difficulty in dealing with the tactic at times this season away from Old Trafford. However, the home side essentially played deep, absorbed pressure, and looked to attack on the counter. A combination of poor defense by United and the pace of Cole and Ba made this tactic a threat. A great long-ball by 'Der Hammer' sprung Cole on the counter and the striker was able to earn a penalty with his pace. Atrocious communication between Vidic, Smalling, and Evra also played a vital part on that occurrence. 

* Hitzsperger was a threat in this half and the German midfielder was springing forward into the attack in support of Ba and Cole. West Ham's attack was centered around the trio of 'Der Hammer', Ba, and Cole on their left side. Cole was creating space with his movement for Ba's inward runs from West Ham's left side of attack. Hitzsperger made late runs into this space as well. 

* In what has been typical this season, Giggs was tucking in centrally from his wide left position and Evra was getting forward to support the attack with overlapping runs. Evra was the main source of width from the left side in this half. This also resulted in O'Neil being pinned back on that side of the pitch.

* On the right side, Valencia was playing higher than Giggs and he generally stayed on his touchline. While Park, Carrick, Giggs, and Rooney attempted to link play, Valencia was the main source of creativity in attack as he continually bombarded West Ham with crosses from the right flank. Valencia's pace, although maybe not being quite back to what it was prior to his horrific injury, caused the Bridge trouble and the left-back was occupied for the entire match. United's attack in the first half was based on this side. Despite Valencia being terrific, United was too one-dimensional in attack and therefore too predictable. 

* Rooney played the same role he played for much of last season, that of a "false-nine." He often came deep for the ball and this can result in a center-back being dragged out of position, thus space is created for midfield runners. This wasn't really an effective tactic today and Upson and da Costa did well in dealing with Rooney's movement. 

* Carrick was very good today in his role as a deep-lying play-maker. He was the biggest reason why United dominated possession as Carrick did well to swing the ball around and keep it moving. Gibson had a little more freedom to get forward in the center of the pitch, and while putting in an industrious shift, the Irishman was a little sloppy at times with his passing. Here's a chalkboard of Carrick's distribution today (65/80). 

 by Guardian Chalkboards

 

2ND HALF:

* With the need to chase goals, Fergie in an unsurprising move brought on Chicharito. However, it was a bit suprising to see the Gaffer bring off Evra and move Giggs to left-back. For the first twenty minutes or so in the 2nd half, United played in their recent '4-2-3-1' shape. Chicharito was the striker with Rooney withdrawn in a play-making role. Park moved to the left flank. Carrick and Gibson were the double-pivots. 

 

 

* Despite the substitution and shift in formation, not much changed. United continued to have the run of play, but they were lacking in the final third of attack. West Ham continued to play deep while absorbing pressure and for United, "all roads (still) lead to Valencia." 

* With Park now on the left, Parker was no longer choked off of time and space. Rooney was his natural foil positionally, but Wazza was inconsistent on getting ball-side of Parker when United were out of possession. In contrast, Parker worked very hard to track Rooney when United were in possession and Parker was effective in limiting Rooney's influence in a play-making role. This was the time of Parker's best stretch of play in this match.

 

* About 20 minutes into the 2nd half, Fergie made another tactical change. This time he brought on Dimitar Berbatov for Park. The shape was now a '4-4-2/4-2-4' hybrid. Berbatov and Chicharito played high and stretched the defense while Rooney and Valencia joined them in attack. Rooney played wide left when West Ham were in possession, but he moved centrally when United were attacking. When this happened, Giggs was getting forward with overlapping runs and the Welshman was providing good service from a deeper role. Valencia continued to provide width on the right. Even Smalling was beginning to initiate attacks from his center-back position. This all changed the match: When Wazza's free-kick ripped into the net, it was as if the damn had busted and the goals poured in. When United went ahead, West Ham made a few positive substitutions but it had little effect. West Ham were completely over-run and outplayed this half. An absolute dominating performance by the away side this half, likely United's best half away from Old Trafford this season. 

 

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS:

* Man of the match: I'll go with the hat-trick hero, Rooney. He was quiet in the first hour, but he violently awoke and erupted on West Ham in the final half-hour. I'm almost tempted to give it to Valencia because the winger was superb for the full 90 today. 

* A very solid start for Fabio at right-back as the Brazilian may have had the best match out of the United defenders. Right-back was the biggest concern for United coming into the match because of all the injuries that limited Fergie's choices, but Fabio was assured, confident, and provided both solid defense and support for the attack. Fabio's flexibility as of late has been enormous for the club and we should all be singing his praises for his recent contributions. Terrific stuff. 

* Vidic was awful. That was painful to see. He's still my Player of the Year for the Premier League though. He had a shocker, but we were still victorious... I suggest that we forget about this performance and move on. 

* Berbatov didn't bag a goal, but the Bulgarian striker yielded his influence with his silky play. When Berba is playing well, he provides a certain class that isn't matched. It's obviously been difficult for him to see his playing time limited as of late, especially since he's the Premier League's leading goal-scorer, but it was encouraging to see such a solid and sharp performance. He will certainly be needed for the final run-in.

* As I mentioned earlier, it was great to see Park back. Now we need to hope that this virus effecting Darren Fletcher stops hindering the Scot so we can get our other tactical swiss-army knife back. These two industrious players provide such great tactical flexibility for Fergie... it's no surprise that they get called upon so often for the biggest matches. We got some big ones on the horizon.

* It was interesting to see such a wide range of tactics used today by Fergie. West ham generally stuck to the same tactics throughout the entire match, up until the point they needed to chase goals in the final minutes. This unpredictability, practicality, and flexibility by United is a tremendous strength for the club. Ask Arsenal what happens when you have a stubborn manager that has no "Plan B."  

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