OPENING LINEUPS AND FORMATIONS
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deployed his side in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1ish shape. No. 1 David de Gea was between the posts at Old Trafford while the current first-choice center-back pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were selected. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back while Phil Jones was chosen over Rafael at right-back. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were in the center of the park and they were flanked by Ashley Young on the left. Danny Welbeck was a surprise selection as the right-sided midfielder -- the youngster freely roamed in attack. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was the out-and-out striker while Wayne Rooney played a withdrawn role.
West Bromwich Albion manager Roy Hodgson lined up his side in a 4-1-4-1 shape. Former United goalkeeper Ben Foster was chosen while Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson were the center-back duo. Gabriel Tamas deputised at right-back for the injured Steven Reid and opposite of him at left-back was Liam Ridgewell. Youssouf Mulumbu shielded the back four as the holding-midfielder and just advanced from him were Keith Andrews and James Morrison. Peter Odemwingie was the wide right attacker and Chris Brunt was chosen over Nicky Shorey and Graham Dorrans as the wide attacker on the left. Marc-Antoine Fortune was the lone striker.
Tactically, this game was mostly a bore. The use of Welbeck was intriguing (which I'll discuss soon) but other than that, the away side kept an organized shape while the home side looked to patiently break them down -- which they eventually did. Rather than go into a detailed tactical breakdown -- because it seems unnecessary -- here are 5 things that I felt were worth discussing:
1. West Brom's approach - As expected, Hodgson's side was well organized. They consistently kept two narrow and compact lines of four, along with a holding-player in between, behind the ball when United were in possession -- which was a lot (65%-35% possession advantage). In the early stages of each half, Morrison and Andrews were selectively aggressive in closing down Scholes and Carrick but once the United duo got settled, the WBA duo did this less often. Most of this match was played in West Brom's end (32% in the away third, 45% in the middle third, and 23% in the home third). Hodgson seemed content with soaking up pressure, minimizing the space between the lines, and keeping the gaps narrow. Rather than man-mark Rooney, Mulumbu was generally defending space between the lines.
This is a fine defensive strategy but West Brom were not very threatening on the counter. Their biggest counterattacking threat -- Odemwingie through the right -- did not even attempt a single shot in this game and he was generally dealt with well by Evra and Ferdinand. Fortune worked hard while running around and chasing balls that were sent long for him but this was pretty much the extent of his contributions. He too did not attempt a single shot on goal nor was he able to bring others into the attack. The away side's most threatening moments were when Andrews and Morrison got forward with late-arriving runs into the box.
2. Welbeck's free role - Perhaps the most interesting tactical discussion point in this match was Fergie's use of Welbeck. The versatile 22-year-old was deployed on the right side of midfield but from this positional base, he appeared to have the freedom to roam wherever he wanted. He was popping up all over the place between the lines and he was even seen at times on the left when he would combine with Rooney, Young, and Evra to create overloads.
United were well structured in the back with Ferdinand and Evans smartly positioned and with Carrick and Scholes playing deep. This -- along with United's dominance in possession -- allowed for the freedom of the front four to attack fluidly. Welbeck was linking up all over the pitch in the attacking third by taking up intelligent positions. If Mulumbu was dragged out towards Rooney when the latter would drop deep or roam to the left, then Welbeck often moved into the open space between the lines. When Chicharito would move out wide and sometimes drag a defender with him, Welbeck surged into that vacated space. The youngster did well to get himself involved and his movement was key to United's attack.
Perhaps the only drawback to this freedom in movement was the open space that he offered his natural counterpart Ridgewell to get forward into. In the early stages of the match -- maybe when United were still trying to sort themselves out and find a rhythm -- Ridgewell did get forward when Welbeck wasn't in position to track him. The West Brom left-back did well to whip in a cross into the box that the late-arriving Andrews should have done better with.
3. United's left-side of attack - United's attack was fairly balanced but they did attack slightly more down the left side (left side 37%, middle 30%, right side 33%). Young was unplayable at times -- 3 successful dribbles and 2 fouls won helps exemplify this -- as he continually tore his counterpart Tamas apart. The West Brom right-back was pinned back in this match as he rarely got forward. Once again the United winger took up intelligent positions in this match and in the space that he created and found for himself, he did well to take advantage -- he had an impressive 5 key passes (chances created) and he successfully crossed the ball 3 times out of an attempted 10. The 10 attempts alone shows how often Young was in a position to attack the away side.
Evra had a tremendous match as well going forward as he did well to provide overlapping runs. The Frenchman linked play well and it felt like he was spending the majority of the match in the opponent's half of the pitch. The left-back's average positioning was actually higher than Scholes and Carrick's in this match and it was nearly as high as Welbeck's. Evra's natural counterpart -- Odemwingie -- was dealt with well and this was probably the best match we've seen from the United defender in quite some time. His understanding with Young seems to be very good. In a match where United were dominating possession but needing a different dynamic to break down West Brom, Evra's overlapping runs were helpful. The pattern of this match suited him well.
4. Scholes and Carrick - United were expected to dominate possession in this match and who better in the Premier League to pull the strings than the duo of Scholes and Carrick? It did take a few minutes for them to get settled but once they did, they completely controlled this match. 'Sat-Nav' was successfully spraying balls all over the pitch (10/10 long balls) and it was the long diagonal ball that he played out wide for Chicharito that was the genesis of the attacking move that led to Rooney's opening goal.
Scholes and Carrick dictated the tempo in this match as United patiently worked the ball from back to front against the organized shape of West Brom. Both maestros picked up the ball from deep and patiently worked the ball side-to-side when an obvious opening wasn't there in attack. They brought the full-backs into attack by doing this -- Jones also was an important part of United's attack (3/8 crosses) -- and this was important due to the narrow shape West Brom were in when defending. Scholes and Carrick were also doing well to spray the ball out wide higher up the pitch for fluid front four attackers. In addition, the midfield duo also were finding Rooney between the lines so that the attacker could link the midfield with the attack. The build-up was patient but it was a required approach in this particular match. Once overloads were created or once an attacker was in a favorable situation to take on his marker or go towards goal, then United stepped on the pedal.
5. United calmly closes out the match - United were in complete control of the match and perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the match was their inability to score more goals. When Olsson was sent off after picking up his second booking, Young soon took advantage of Andrews playing out of position at right-back when the winger earned a penalty. After Rooney coolly converted for his brace, Fergie brought on Paul Pogba and Tom Cleverley and United calmly circulated the ball against a ten-man West Brom side so that they could close out the match. The away side were chasing shadows for the final half-hour.
It's hard to imagine that Sunday could have gone any better for United. They were impressive during this comfortable 2-0 victory over an in-form West Brom side and they moved top of the table for the first time in 5 months after Manchester City's defeat by Swansea City. Neither manager really got the better of the other in tactical terms as each approach is justified. The away side simply could not get their attackers involved on the counterattack -- specifically Odemwingie -- while United's patient approach allowed for their quality to eventually shine through. The front four of Rooney, Chicharito, Young, and Welbeck was an interesting and impressive unit. Also, the full-backs were tremendous in getting forward -- even Evans stepped out of the back at times in order to contribute in midfield -- and it was nice to see Evra in particular play well -- an occurrence that is becoming less frequent these days. Glory Glory Man United!