Manchester United have recently encountered a number of Premier League sides -- Fulham, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and West Bromwich Albion -- that defended deep with nine players behind the ball, kept their lines compact and their defensive shape narrow, and then attempted to use a centre-forward to hold the ball up while trying to get the ball to a tricky attacker on the break. Blackburn Rovers pretty much replicated this approach. Because of this, in an attempt to avoid writing boredom, I'm going to take a different approach in my tactical analysis for United's 2-0 defeat of Rovers. I'll briefly touch on Blackburn's approach but I'm going to focus most of my attention on United's 4-3-3 system in this match. This is a shape that manager Sir Alex Ferguson often deployed his side in during 'big matches' -- particularly in Europe -- in the latter half of the noughties but he's tended to use it less so in the past two seasons -- particularly in England. In fact, according to whoscored.com, this is a shape that United started with only thrice in league this season in 31 matches and only twice in 6 UEFA Champions League matches.
OPENING LINEUPS AND SHAPES
Kean deployed his side in a 4-2-3-1ish shape. Paul Robinson was the goalkeeper while the back four consisted of Bradley Orr, Scott Dann, Grant Hanley, and Martin Olsson. Jason Lowe and Steven Nzonzi sat deep and shielded their defense in 'double-pivot' sort of roles while Marcus Olsson, Junior Hoilett, and Morten Gamst Pedersen made up Blackburn's attacking-midfield line. Yakubu was the fulcrum in attack.
I pretty much summed up Blackburn's approach in the opening paragraph during a stretched out sentence, but here are some more specifics. The back six were very tight but the biggest gap tended to be in United's right-channel. Martin Olsson was primarily focused on tracking Antonio Valencia so sometimes the gap between the Swede and Hanley was exploited by Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) shooting through it -- both Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick played terrific long balls into this space in the early-going. Lowe is typically a right-back, and sometimes a right-winger, so his selection as a holding-midfielder was a slight surprise. Kean likely wanted mobility and more defensive bite alongside the physically imposing Nzonzi and it was Lowe that often picked up Rooney when he came inside. This freed up Pedersen to be deployed higher than he usually is and this allowed him to do what he does best -- create chances. The Norwegian interchanged at times in the attacking-midfield line with Hoilett while Marcus Olsson provided a bit more width as a natural winger on the left. The beefy Yakubu had the thankless task of being isolated as a centre-forward that was supposed to hold the ball up and bring others into attack when Blackburn used him as an outlet.
* In the diagram above, the solid arrows indicate common movements by each player from their positional base in this match. The dotted arrows are specific to the three central-midfielders -- Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, and Phil Jones (more explanation on this later).
When United's teamsheet was announced an hour prior to kick-off, none of the names on it were a surprise. However, it was clear that the combination of names on it meant Fergie sprung a surprise in regards to his side's shape -- 4-3-3/4-5-1 was the only reasonable possibility. This shape -- if used at all as of late -- tends to be deployed against talented sides where Fergie is concerned about being overrun in the center of the park. Blackburn certainly doesn't present that threat. Kean used a 4-4-1-1 system in their past three matches and even if he decided to use a more defensive shape such as 4-1-4-1, there was little concern that United would struggle to compete in midfield in their typical 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1.
I recently suggested that United's domestic and European conquerors of 2007/08 should be the European tactical template for next season. The key to that double-winning side was the structural stability of the back seven players along with the fluidity of the front three in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system. United have versatile players in Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young, Park Ji-sung, and Nani that can fluidity interchange in attack so it was a slight surprise that only Rooney, from this group of players, was selected as part of a front three versus Blackburn. The variety of attack that results from an interchanging front three typically provides United enough incisiveness in attack and thus, this offers a perfect balance with the sound defensive structure. Having a front three that is rigid in their roles may result in an attack that doesn't create enough chances due to the predictability of a one-dimensional approach. Seeing Chicharito and Valencia deployed in the front three made me a bit nervous.
* Rooney - The United talisman was moved away from the center and instead, he was utilized in a left-sided role. Rooney's typical role these days is to drop deep and into the space between the lines. From this central position, he tends to receive with his back to goal and he'll turn if he can in order to create. From the left, he drifted inside into the space between the lines while receiving the ball in a deeper position than he normally does -- perhaps 5-10 yards or so -- while facing the goal. He combined well with Evra when the left-back motored forward and also with Scholes when the maestro received in his slightly-left central-midfield role. However, because Rooney was picking up the ball from deeper positions, he struggled to provide his usual incisiveness in attack. In the 6th minute of the match, Wazza received near the left touchline just inside his own half. From here, he brilliantly launched an inch-perfect 50 yard pass for Chicharito to run onto near goal but the the striker disappointed on his chance. Few in this world could confidently drill that pass like Rooney did from that distance but this exemplified just how far he was from goal at times.
* Chicharito - After Welbeck's relatively poor performance last weekend, it wasn't surprising to see Chicharito get a run in his place for this match. However, the Mexican international hasn't fared well in his two seasons at United when he's been deployed as a lone striker. His general movement is rather predictable -- he does have the ability though to slip his marker in the box for a split second and this is enough to get himself chances -- but since he's such a lethal finisher, he's a vital squad member. In this match though, Chicha failed to convert some early chances and since he didn't do what he does best -- bag goals -- this only highlighted his limitations. His hold-up play was unspectacular as he often held the ball too long or he gave the ball away when his passing range was tested. He did well to work the right-channel in between Hanley and Olsson but he failed to drift into other areas of the pitch and interchange with other attackers. This could also have gotten Rooney more involved higher up the pitch. This made the attack rigid and predictable and it's likely that either Welbeck or Rooney could have provided much more variety from this central role as a 'false-nine'. Chicharito is obviously a very good player but he's more suited for a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 sort of system when he has another central player near him fulfilling the roles that he fails to provide (Rooney or Dimitar Berbatov).
* Valencia - The Ecuadorian is probably United's biggest attacking threat right now as he's essentially been unplayable since the new year. Fergie has shied away from choosing Valencia though in the past in a front three because the winger is only effective when he's deployed on the right side. The drawback of this is that he can't switch positions if he -- or if one of the other two attackers -- is struggling with a specific match-up. Fergie revealed as much when he selected Park and Nani over Valencia two seasons ago for an important European tie with Bayern Munich. The United boss wanted the tactical flexibility to switch the sides of his wide players if one ran into an unfavorable match-up. Valencia was obviously stellar versus Blackburn but his constant bombardment of crosses (an astonishing 21 attempted in this match) made United's attack predictable. Had Chicharito provided more variety and perhaps been interchangeable with Rooney, then Valencia may have complimented that side of attack well by stretching play. However, his directness combined with Chicharito's one-dimensional ways made United's attack predictable -- this is the main reason they lacked incisiveness despite their obvious control of the match.
The roles of Scholes and Carrick essentially remained the same as it would in a midfield duo as both remained relatively deep and dictated play from the center of the park. The addition of Jones provided energy there and this only added to the control that United's midfield had in this game. In the first-half, United had a 70%-30% possession advantage and they completed 309 passes in comparison to Blackburn's 89. This chalkboard below shows how United patiently worked the ball from back to attack while swinging the ball side-to-side in search of a gap to probe against a deep-defending and organized Blackburn side. In comparison, the high number of long and vertical passes from the home side shows how contrasting their direct approach was.
The base structure of United's midfield was Carrick central with Scholes slightly left of him while Jones was right of him. This shape mostly held during the moments when United were out of possession but when they won the ball back, the midfield triangle tilted slightly in a counter-clockwise direction (see 'United's 4-3-3' diagram -- the dotted arrows). Scholes and Carrick were fluid in their moments and both did well to make themselves available all over the pitch. The former tended to drop deep and receive from the defenders while the latter would advance slightly and shift to the right. 'Sat-Nav' did well to link with the left-side of attack and he was also exceptional in spraying long-diagonal balls to the right flank for Valencia and Rafael (see Scholes' passes received and distribution chalkboard below). Jones had more freedom to break forward and his runs typically took him into positions to combine with Valencia and Rafael on the right. The former Blackburn player was simple and tidy in deep positions as he generally left it to Scholes/Carrick to dictate the genesis of attacking moves. However, as the most advanced midfielder, Jones failed to provide much in the attacking third. This contributed to United lack of incisiveness in attack for the first hour of this match, despite their clear control.
UNITED'S 4-3-3 FOR THE FINAL 10-15 MINUTES
Welbeck came on for Chicharito in the 61st minute and this change was essentially like-for-like. Ryan Giggs then came on two minutes later for Jones and this eventually led to United playing in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1ish shape -- Giggs shifted to the left while Rooney tucked in played near Welbeck. In the 80th minute, Ashley Young came on for Scholes and the diagram below was the resultant -- and switched back to -- 4-3-3 shape for the remainder of the match. Soon after, United bagged the only two goals in this match.
In midfield, Carrick sat in front of the back four while Giggs and Rooney were more advanced. Giggs roamed behind the front three while Rooney ran all over the place in order to receive the ball from deep so that he could advance it. In attack, Welbeck was dropping deep to link play while Young -- who was positioning himself 5-10 yards higher than where Rooney was earlier -- was drifting central and looking to surge into the space that Welbeck was vacating. Valencia stretched play by staying near the touchline. United now had better movement, technical ability, and variety in attack.
For the first goal, Young, Welbeck, and Giggs all quickly exchanged one-touch passes outside the box and this drew Blackburn's narrow defense towards them. Rafael was free to receive in an inside-right position and the ball was then swung out to him. From here, the Brazilian slid the ball out wide for Valencia -- the Ecuadorian then scored his cracking goal.
For the second goal, United strung together an astonishing 37 successive passes prior to Young's superb finish. This sequence highlighted the United's incredible movement, balance, and incisiveness at this stage of the match: the back four and Carrick patiently swung the ball around and switched the point of attacks, Rooney was all over the pitch connecting play, Welbeck dropped deep and pulled a defender out of position, Young darted inside to receive in the space that Welbeck partially created, Valencia -- who Blackburn was often looking to double-up by now -- found Young just outside the box, and the left-winner smashed a shot home a shot to seal three points for the leaders. The chalkboard below shows United's passing in the minute or so during the build-up to Young's goal.
United probably didn't need a third central-midfielder for this match. Nonetheless, they completely controlled the match but United's predictability -- along with Blackburn's solid defending in this match -- resulted in a lack of punch in the attacking third. The introduction of Welbeck and Young into the attacking third provided better movement and in turn, this resulted in an improvement in building attacking moves. Rooney in midfield also provided more creativity in comparison to Jones. A few subtle changes compounded into an attack that was much more dangerous and it also was one that had much more variety. United's identity in this shape is fluid movement and interchangeability -- getting this from a trident in attack provides a beautiful tactical balance with a structured back seven. Going forward, Fergie should look to select versatile players in attack for this system rather than functional ones.