Manchester United were able to come away with 3 points away from Old Trafford for only the second time this season in the Barclay's Premier League. However, most who watched the match would rightfully argue that West Bromwich Albion were the better side at The Hawthorns. Aside from the wonder strike from James Morrison, West Brom couldn't find enough creative force, nor fortune to capitalize on their superior play. Much of the focus will undoubtedly be on the poor play of Gary Neville, and how referee Chris Foy inexplicably didn't award a penalty and send off Neville after his cynical challenge to Graham Dorrans in the penalty area. However, the poor overall play by United, most specifically in their midfield, is the concern United supporters should have after this match. The one positive is that finding a way to grind out 3 points after such a lastluster performance is the type of result that goes a long way in a title chase. After Wayne Rooney scored his first goal in open play since March 2010 and another late in the match strike from Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, United still find themselves atop the table.
Opening formation and tactics: With 37 year old Ryan Giggs having already played two matches earlier in the week, injuries to Nani and Antonio Valencia, and Park Ji-Sung away at the Asian Cup for South Korea, Manchester United were lacking options out wide. In addition, Rafael was rested as well after having played in two matches earlier in the week, and his ability to bomb forward from the right-back position was missing as well. Gary Neville, in for Rafael, stayed deep and mostly kept to his defensive responsibilities. Despite all of this, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to begin with a 4-4-2 with Gabriel Obertan out wide to the left and Darren Fletcher out wide to the right. Michael Carrick played his typical holding role just in front of our back four and Anderson played slightly more advanced. However, Anderson positioned himself slightly deeper than he does when Fergie elects to go with 3 central midfielders. Rooney played deeper when United was in possesion and played in between West Brom's center backs and their two holding midfielers, a position that constantly made West Brom's defenders decide who was responsible for marking him.
Obertan - Anderson - Fletcher
West Brom manager, Roberto Di Matteo unveiled a 4-2-3-1 lineup with Peter Odemwingie as the lone striker. James Morrison and Chris Brunt were interchangeable in the center and right of the attacking midfield band. Youssuf Malumbu played a more strict holding role than Graham Dorrans as Dorrans made a few surging runs forward.
-- Thomas - Brunt - Morrison -
----- Mulumbu---- Dorrans------
- Cech - Scharner - Ibanez - Reed
1st Half: Just a few minutes in, Obertan was able to draw a couple of defenders out on the left, drop the ball back to Patrice Evra who sent in a left footed cross, and Rooney was able to put it away on a perfectly placed header. There is nobody on United that needed a goal from open play more than Wazza. Right from the start, Obertan was causing West Brom slight trouble with his pace on the left flank, especially as Brunt and Morrison weren't always recovering quickly enough to provide support in defending. However, as the half went on, it was evident that Obertan wasn't able to provide the quality to match that pace and he became extremely ineffective, and gave the ball away numerous times.
A few things became evident after Rooney's opening goal. West Brom was clearly winning the battle in the midfield, as they overran United with a constant 3 v 2 advantage in the central midfield. Rooney was only dropping deep when United was in possesion, and thus wasn't able to offer much in defensive support on Mulumbu or Dorrans. Fletcher, who typically plays centrally, kept drifting to the center from his position out wide on the right. This was likely due to his instincts and comfort in the center, and also realizing that more support was needed as Carrick and Anderson were not able to be effective vs three central West Brom players. Carrick did his best to simply not give the ball away. Chalkboards | Published chalkboard Chalkboards saved - nY4YEL87M84l24XINn6Q | Football | guardian.co.uk . However, United were still very poor in possession the first 40 minutes of the game.
West Brom's equaliser was an absolutely stunning strike from Morrison. Maybe that it could be argued that Nemanja Vidic's clearance was poor on the long ball sent in, but Morrison's volley was an early goal of the year candidate.
At about 40 minutes, Fergie switched formations as he realized the 3 vs 2 disadvantage in the midfield was a main cause of trouble. United switched to a 4-3-3 with Carrick holding, and Fletcher and Anderson slightly more advanced. Obertan switched sides to the right and Rooney played advanced and to the left. The midfield and forward line looked like this.
- Rooney - Berba- Obertan -
------ Anderson- Fletcher----
------------- Carrick --------------
2nd Half: Fergie began the 2nd half with the same 4-3-3 formation and West Brom never varied much from their 4-2-3-1. Not much of interest really happened until the subs came on at about the 60th minute mark. Berbatov was ineffective for much of the day, although much of this was due to the poor play of the midfield and he wasn't able to link up much. Obertan was clearly struggling as well. Both Berta and Obertan came off for Chicharito and Darron Gibson. This also coincided with a change in formation and a return to a 4-4-2. Only this time, Rooney was playing much deeper in the hole for the remaining 30 min of the game. Here's what the forwards and midfield looked like after about the 60 minute point.
Ando - Carrick - Fletch - Gibson
Anderson generally stayed wide left but Gibson kept tucking in centrally and didn't provide much width on the right side. When Fabio came on for the ineffective Neville, Fabio's runs forward provided the only width all day from the right side in the attack as he continued to overlap Gibson. With Rooney coming deep, he was drawing out defenders and creating space.
* The commentators, on my viewing, kept commenting on how could Chicharito be unmarked on winning goal. I have a feeling that's going to become normal as the little Mexican just finds way to slip defenders and tuck into dangerous goal scoring positions.
* My two cents on Gary Neville: Yes, he may be done and washed up, however, he hasn't played much and like anybody else in that scenario, its always difficult to accurately gauge someone. My gut feeling is that he indeed is washed up, but I don't think anyone really knows for sure yet. It was a sad sight to see him struggle so mightily, hopefully Fergie finds a way to handle this situation.
* My man of the match: Wazza - He was fantastic and one of the few bright spots on the day. Now let's just pray that the injury he picked up late in this match isn't a big setback.
* For all the complaining that Neville should have conceded a penalty and been sent off, United has legitimate complaints for a penalty as well on the clear handball by West Brom on Fabio's whipped in cross.. However, I do understand that Neville's foul was more significant when you consider United would have been down to ten men for the majority of the match.
* The United back four (Evra, Vida, Ferdinand, Rafael) and goalkeeping appear to very solid from here and out and I have no real concern. Up front, with Rooney, Berba, and Chicharito, I have little concern. And when Park, Nani, and Valencia return, I have no worries about the wide players if everyone's health holds up. However, I have real concerns about our central midfield play and their consistency. If United don't win league or make a deep Champions League run, I feel as though that might be the area of the pitch that will be our undoing. When healthy and in form... Ando, Fletcher, Carrick, and Scholes can hold their own with anyone but its not a collective group that inspires confidence in me at the moment.
* Obviously, an ugly match and I'm thrilled to pick up 3 points. I'm ready to put this in the rearview and get ready for Stoke.