OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS
Manchester United played in a 4-4-2 shape. Third-choice Ben Amos was the choice in goal for this third round Carling Cup clash. At center-back, Ezekiel Fryers made his first-team debut and he was paired with Michael Carrick, who typically plays as a holding midfielder. Antonio Valencia, who is most often a right winger, played right-back -- a position that he played on Sunday in United's 3-0 victory over Chelsea FC. Fabio was the only non-surprise choice in defense as he was deployed at left-back. Ryan Giggs wore the captain's armband in the center of the park and he was partnered with Park Ji-sung. Federico Macheda was the wide left player and Mame Biram Diouf was the wide player on the right. The experienced Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen started up front.
Leeds United played in a matching 4-4-2 shape. Andy Lonergan was between the posts and his center-back pairing was Leigh Bromby and Darren O'Dea. Tom Lees played at right-back while Aidan White was the left-back. Jonathan Howson and Adam Clayton were the center-midfield tandem and they were flanked by Robert Snodgrass on the right and Andrew Keogh on the left. Up front, Ross McCormack and Luciano Becchio were the strikers.
Quite honestly, this match was a bore from a tactical perspective. It was simply a 4-4-2 vs 4-4-2 and one side was clearly superior to the other. The matters of interest in this tie was the renewal of an old rivalry, the vociferous crowd, and the debuts of three United youngsters. Rather than get into in-depth tactics below, I'll discuss some of the tactical highlights (United-centric) and discuss the performances of the United players.
Buiding the attack from the back
It was an impressive debut for Zeki Fryers. The young center-back not only defended ably the few times United were troubled, but he was composed on the ball and distributed well out of the back as well. Just as anticipated, the Reds dominated possession (65%-35%) and a typical build-up was this --- (1) Carrick and/or Fryers swing the ball around and link play with Giggs or Park in the middle. (2a) Berbatov drops deep and links play between the midfield and attack. (2b) Giggs or Park swing the ball wide to either Macheda or Diouf. (3a). Berba either plays the ball through the channels for Owen, Macheda, or Diouf. (3b) Macheda cuts in onto his right foot or Diouf goes down the touchline.
The lineup that United manager Sir Alex Ferguson selected raised some eyebrows prior to the match -- most notable was the choice of Carrick and Fryers as the center-back tandem and Valencia at right-back. In hindsight, the choice was probably wise because the boss likely expected to dominate possession. Thus, having strong players on the ball such as Carrick and Fryers was an asset as each could ignite the attack from the back. In addition, debuting Fryers in a match where he most likely was not going to be tested defensively may have been a calculated move -- despite the hostile environment. Furthermore, having two attacking full-backs in Valencia and Fabio helped supplement the attack as well.
Berbatov and Owen pairing
This was a pairing of two experienced players who are finding difficulties in finding regular playing time. Fortunately for United, and unfortunately for Berba and Owen, there is a plethora of quality strikers -- each find themselves behind Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito), and Danny Welbeck in the pecking order. This Carling Cup match not only provided the opportunity for some youngsters to make their debuts (more on this later), but it allowed both Berba and Owen to full play a full 90 minutes. Both took full advantage.
Owen obviously received much praise from the match after he bagged a brace. His movement was fantastic and he continually slipped his marker near the box to find himself space for dangerous goal-scoring opportunities. In addition, he did well to link play when he was on the ball. Berba acted as false nine as he continually dropped deep between the lines -- from here, he did well to link the midfield and attack. He even sent some piercing through balls that dangerously fed the United attackers.
The partnership was a good one as each complimented the other quite well. Their movement was good and neither crowded the space of the other. Each also showed that if injury strikes to the younger strikers, Fergie has some quality options with these two experienced players. Both would likely walk into most Premier League sides and instantly be first-choice but each selflessly has yet to complain publicly about their limited roles.
Not enough from the wide areas
Both Macheda and Diouf had mixed results from their appearances on the flanks -- perhaps some would argue that I am being kind in that description. Macheda continually looked to cut in towards his stronger right foot but when the defender forced him to go left, he struggled to effectively cross or shoot with his weaker foot. Diouf looked a bit lost at times -- both with his decision-making and his positioning. He hugged the touchline more than Macheda did as he generally stayed wide.
Both United full-backs were getting forward. Fabio marauded up the left-side but he often angled his runs inward. Valencia stayed closer to the touchline and made a number of overlapping runs on the right side. Andrew Keogh did poorly in tracking Valencia's runs and it was often he who had the most time and space on the ball from the wide areas. In matches where Fergie anticipates his side to dominate possession, he could do worse than selecting Valencia at right-back -- the winger is a nice option to have for overlapping runs in the attack and he is capable of providing adequate defense in these situations. He was the only threat from the flanks in this match for United.
The three debutants
Fergie has made the Carling Cup a training ground in recent years for United's youth. In this match, Fryers, Paul Pogba, and Larnell Cole all made their senior debuts. I've already discussed Fryers as he was the one to start so let's discuss Pogba and Cole now. Prior to the match, much had been made of Pogba's expected debut as he is one of the brighter prospects to come out of United's youth system in recent years. In this match, he came on at half-time for Giggs. The results were a mixed bag. Right away, the physically mature 18-year-old was called for numerous fouls. However, he did display his technical ability when he beautifully played a long diagonal ball down the right flank for Valencia to run onto. He may have been nervous for his debut but he put in a decent enough performance. Hopefully Fergie finds a way to get him another first-team run sometime soon.
Cole made a late appearance in the 77th minute. He played on the flank but not much could be determined by his brief appearance. The youngster was a member of last season's FA Youth Cup winning side and he is one of the more highly-regarded U-18 members at United. Perhaps the ideal situation would be another non-Premier League club to be drawn for the next round in the Carling Cup so that Cole and other youngsters can further have opportunities to integrate themselves in the senior squad.
How sublime was Giggsy's goal? What an absolute pleasure it was to watch the ageless legend skin a 19-year-old defender like that. In addition to his superb goal, Giggs dictated the match from the center of the park. Both Jonathan Howson and Adam Clayton are solid central-midfielders in the Championship but both were clearly outclassed by Giggs and Park. Giggs did well to distribute the ball and he made some surging runs forward down the left side. As the season progresses, he will once again have a big role to play in United's pursuit of the league title, the Champions League trophy, and domestic cups.
The crowd at Elland Road was in full voice (this includes the away supporters) but their players failed to inspire. It was quite a lackluster performance from the Championship side -- a team that forced Arsenal FC into a replay last season in the FA Cup. Robert Snodgrass is a decent enough player and likely Premier League caliber, however, he failed to do much in this match. Luciano Becchio is considered an aerial threat but he failed to do much against Fryers or Carrick. McCormack has six goals in seven league matches but he rarely looked a threat as well. To be fair, the strikers were starved of service because Leeds was losing the match in other parts of the park. The Yorkshire club looked every bit of their current mid-table placing in the Championship.
A fine result for United over their old rivals. The match nicely blended the debuts of three youngsters and also allowed for some experienced players, who haven't played much as of late, to get a run. As mentioned previously, perhaps the ideal Round 4 draw would be a Championship or League One side. Therefore, we could continually integrate youngsters into the senior squad with a relative soft landing. Or perhaps a tough Premier League side is best. Either way, this competition means relatively little at this point unless we can make a deep run. But it is a fine training ground for our youngsters and from that perspective, it is quite enjoyable.