OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson played his side in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape. Despite rumors prior to the match that Anders Lindegaard may start, it was David De Gea that started in goal. Rio Ferdinand returned to the starting lineup and his center-back partner was Jonny Evans. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband while playing left-back and Phil Jones slid out wide to make his first start as a right-back. Tom Cleverley started the match in the center of the park but he was forced to leave the match in just the 8th minute after suffering an injury. Michael Carrick came in and played a conservative role in the center. Anderson joined Carrick but he was a bit more adventurous in a box-to-box role with late arriving runs when United attacked. Nani was the wide right player while Ashley Young roamed the opposite flank on the left. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez made his first start this season up front and Wayne Rooney partnered him in a withdrawn role.
Bolton played in a pretty standard 4-4-2 shape. Jussi Jaaskelainen was between the posts and the center-back tandem was Gary Cahill and Zat Knight. Paul Robinson started at left-back and recently acquired Dedryck Boyata got the start at right-back. Nigel Reo-Coker and Mark Davies were the central midfield duo, with the latter having more freedom to get forward to join the attack. Martin Petrov hugged the touchline on the left flank while former United player Chris Eagles played a narrow right-sided role in midfield. Kevin Davies was the center-forward and Ivan Klasnic played just off of him.
The dynamic duo of Wayne Rooney & Chicharito
The first three matches of this season saw Rooney partner with Danny Welbeck up front. In United's fast and fluid 4-4-2 thus far, both Rooney and Welbeck took turns playing a role that resembled a false nine -- each often came deep for the ball and in turn, this dragged a center-back too high up the pitch and space was created in behind them for midfield runners. This was a big reason why the United attack has appeared so fluid and interchangeable.
For last season's run-in, Fergie's first-choice lineup was a 4-4-1-1 shape. Chicharito played off the shoulder of the last defender and both his pace and intelligent movement allowed him to stretch defenses. As a result, Rooney would drop deep into the space between the lines -- space that was expanded by Chicharito forcing the opposition defense to play a bit deeper. From this space, Rooney acted almost as a classic number ten and it was he that created goalscoring chances in the attacking third of the pitch -- both for his teammates and himself.
During Saturday's match at the Reebok, Chicharito and Rooney once again partnered up to offer up the same dynamic play. Chicharito's intelligent movement and pace allows him to continually slip defenders and poach goals -- this was evident during both of his goals versus Bolton. This threat once again created acres of space for Rooney to operate in between the lines. Wazza not only pulled the strings in the attacking third, but he also scored his third goal of the match when he dropped deep between Bolton's defenders and midfielders for a wide open scoring opportunity from 20 yards out -- which he clinically buried to the far-post.
This chalkboard below compares Rooney's distribution from Saturday's match versus Bolton and his distribution in the season opener versus West Bromwich Albion -- the former involved his partnership with Chicharito while the latter involves his partnership with Welbeck. He clearly plays a deeper and more of a playmaker's role with Chicharito.
Anderson dictates play in the center of the park
After Anderson's first few games this season, I examined his play and wondered if he could seize his opportunity by continuing his stellar play. Since then, Ando has stayed in fine form and on Saturday, he dictated play in the center of the park. The Brazilian midfielder had more touches on the ball than anyone in the game (101) and he was once again solid with his distribution -- he completed 66 passes out of an attempted 81 (81%).
United did well to work the ball from defense to attack. Ando often came deep for the ball to receive from either De Gea or a defender. Because his counterparts, Reo-Coker and Davies were hesitant to come forward and apply pressure, Ando had plenty of time on the ball in deep positions and he took advantage with numerous forward passes. After he distributed, he worked hard to move forward, find space, and make himself available to receive again. He was linking play all over the pitch because of his work-rate and intelligent movement -- this allowed him to boss the match from the center of the park. He even provided the added bonus of joining the attack with late arriving runs. Another fine performance by the central midfielder.
David De Gea's distribution
Much has been made of the Spaniard's few errors in the young season, particularly the few soft goals he's allowed and his questionable command in the box. It should be noted though that De Gea has been very good in all phases of the game in his last two matches, with the exception of a possible soft goal given up to Theo Walcott in the 8-2 Arsenal match. One part of his skillset that De Gea has been praised for though thus far is his distribution. Last season, Fergie expressed concern when Chris Smalling went on U-21 England duty because the youngsters were simply hoofing the ball out of the back when pressured. Fergie wanted Smalling to play in a way that was more typical of United -- starting the attack from the back with calm distribution. This starts with the goalkeeper.
De Gea did well to simply play the ball to his defenders if they had time and space to receive. In addition, it has been quite evident that his teammates trust him with the ball at his feet as they are not afraid to put him under slight pressure if he provides an outlet. Where De Gea has done exceptionally well is finding a midfielder, particularly on the flanks, when the opposition attackers close down United's defenders or deepest-lying central midfielder. The Spaniard has been surgical in picking out a full-back when they move up the pitch or one of the wide attackers. This is something most goalkeepers are not able to do. Only at the last resort has De Gea hoofed the ball up to the strikers for low percentage duels. This chalkboard below compares the distribution of De Gea and Jaaskelainen in this match. The former attempted to play short and ignite the attack from the back while the latter punted the ball high up the pitch for center-forward Davies.
Bolton's physicality and direct play
It was quite clear that the Trotters were looking to be physical in this match with the intent to disrupt United's passing rhythm. This is evident with Bolton's 15 fouls to United's 1. Kevin Davies even commented prior to the match that they would look to test De Gea's command in the box -- this hardly occurred though because Bolton couldn't generate a consistent attack. Davies may have even been fortunate to not have been sent off for numerous dangerous challenges, most notably on the one that sent Cleverley off with ligament damage.
Bolton manager Owen Coyle has spoke of his desire to play more attractive football by keeping the ball on the deck more. Perhaps this has occurred to an extent but in this match, his side played very direct. They struggled mightily to work the ball out of the back and because of this, Bolton often resorted to simply hoofing the ball up front to Davies and as a result, the midfield was completely bypassed. Davies worked hard during his constant aerial duels and Klasnic was often found near him because he was searching for the knock-downs. United defended this very well, both in their aerial duels and also in their awareness to win the knock-downs. From here, the Reds would ignite their attack from the back.
The marauding Phil Jones
The 19-year-old Jones has appeared in all of United's matches thus far and prior to Saturday, it was only at center-back. From the center, the youngster has displayed an adventurous side with many surging runs forward. Against Bolton, he made his first start at right-back for United and he put in a very solid performance. Once again, Jones marauded forward and continually got into the attack -- he was even the key man on each of Rooney's first two goals. He not only completed an outstanding 50 passes in this match, one of which was an assist, but he also displayed an incredible work rate by making 7 tackles and 2 interceptions. This chalkboard below shows his tackling was done all over the right side of the pitch.
Smalling has received plaudits for his smooth transition to right-back from center-back. Perhaps though, it is Jones that might be more naturally suited to play full-back. He possibly offers more pace and he certainly offers more of an appetite to get forward into attack -- a must for the modern day full-back. However, Smalling has been exceptional in defending out wide, including when he kept Gareth Bale quiet during United's encounter with Spurs. Jones was solid in defense again when he was directly challenged, however, he was caught out of position on a few occasions. Bolton's Petrov did well to get in behind Jones in order to exploit his marauding runs. All in all though, it was a very good United debut at right-back for Jones.
The return of the old-guard
Neither Carrick nor Ferdinand have featured much in the early portion of the season, whether that be due to fitness or injury. However, each played a prominent role in Saturday's game and both once again showed their subtle class. Carrick came on for the injured Cleverley in the 8th minute and he provided both tidy distribution (46/51 passing | 90%) from a somewhat deep-lying role while also providing cover against the counter-attack. It was another quiet but solid performance from a player who was in exceptional form last season during the run-in.
Although not much was made of Ferdinand's return from injury, especially when considering the fantastic play from those that deputised for him during his absence, it should be recognized that the former United skipper played exceptionally well versus Bolton. He was the center-back that was mostly tasked with clashing with Davies in the air -- Ferdinand won 7 of 10 aerial duels during the match. In addition, he contributed with a tremendous 5 tackles and 4 interceptions. Furthermore, his 54 passes completed out of an attempted 56 (96%), many of which were high up the pitch for a center-back, was a key factor in United igniting the attack from the back. The youngsters are challenging for first-choice selection, but Ferdinand once again displayed his class on Saturday.
Tactically, this was simply a dynamic 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 versus a direct 4-4-2. United were better technically, better with their movement, and provided more tenacity. The result is a 5-0 away victory for the champ19ns. The return of Chicharito likely results in the same partnership dynamic with Rooney as during last season's run-in. This deep role in combination with his current form could realistically result in a 30 goal and 20 assist season for our talisman. A fine away performance for a club that struggled away from Old Trafford last season.