Burnley. When DJ Campbell put Blackpool up 2-0, the thought of last year's Burnley nightmare, a match that hugely contributed to Manchester United losing the title to Chelsea flashed into my head. After a half of being out-played, out-hustled, and out-gutted by manager Ian Holloway's inspired side, United showed fortitude and found a way to claw themselves to 3 points at Bloomfield Road. The match played out like a drama, full of brilliant moments, cunning managing, and remarkable mental toughness. Vintage performances by legends Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, alongside the late-goal genius from Dimitar Berbatov and Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez showed United's true grit- a display worthy of champions.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS:
Blackpool presented themselves in their usual '4-3-3' formation and with their first team lineup. The only change was Alex Baptiste at left full-back in place of Stephen Crainey, due to injury. Sir Alex Ferguson unveiled his '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid, a lineup he often goes to for 'big matches' or tough away opponents. In this particular case, I believe Fergie was concerned with Blackpool's 3 central midfielders, and he likely was worried about being overrun in that portion of the pitch. Also, Blackpool has shown themselves to be vulnerable to teams that crowd the center of the pitch, which results in less time on the ball for playmaker Charlie Adam and the accurate passing of David Vaughan. With Park Ji-sung away due to national team duty, and Antonio Valencia still out due to injury, Fergie may also have been concerned with depth with his wide players as 37 year old Ryan Giggs has been called upon often as of late. If things weren't going United's way, he would have the option of bringing on Giggs as a substitute to change things tactically.
* 1st impressions: Blackpool pressed high up the pitch and with atypical intensity. The other thing I initially noticed, left-back Baptiste was clearly outclassed by Nani. Crainey being out was a potentially huge deal.
* More often than not when teams decide to press high up the pitch, they typically only go full out on midfielders when they receive the ball facing their own goal. When a midfielder receives and is able to turn quickly and face towards the attack, the defender will preserve energy and keep his defensive position. In this half, there was no preserving energy. United were clearly stunned and coped poorly.
* Cental midfield:
-Only Scholes stayed composed on the ball and kept possession going, but even he was limited in his creative abilities because he had less time and space on the ball. Scholesy has typically played deep these past few years anyway, and has yielded his influence as a deep lying playmaker in front of the defense. However, he kept dropping deeper and wider looking for space to operate early in the game. This also dragged him out of position on defense when United lost the ball. This is more detrimental your opponent pressures you deep in your own half and forces you to lose possession, as Blackpool did in the opening half.
- It appeared that Darren Fletcher was tasked with shadowing Adam. This isn't an unusual role for Fletcher, and he's often excelled at it. However, Adam dropped deeper and moved wider left than he typically does, in search of space. This dragged Fletcher out of position at times, and it put quite a bit of pressure on Darron Gibson to cover more ground. Gibson's responsibility was magnified because both Scholes and Fletcher were getting stretched, and it proved to be too much for him. Fletcher struggled to close down Adam, and the Seaside skipper had his way in the first half. Adam played creative long balls, diagonal passes, and subtle flicks that continually broke down United's defense. On the first goal for Blackpool, Adam played a brilliant ball down the right flank that earned the corner that resulted in Craig Cathcart's goal. It was at a time when Patrice Evra had to step off the pitch for a moment due to bleeding.
- David Vaughan is a solid footballer. He typically plays as the deepest of 3 central midfielders. He often is the main ball-winner and is an accurate short passer. However, with Adam dropping deep and with Fletcher getting pulled out of position at times, Vaughan moved forward into vacant space and effectively played higher up the pitch in the center.
- Elliot Grandin also played higher up the pitch, because the space was there. Grandin's positioning essentially turned Blackpool's '4-3-3' into a '4-2-3-1.' He was almost supporting the striker at times.
More after the jump...
- Rafael initially was bombing up the right flank in support of Nani. It was evident early that Baptiste could have trouble. However, he withstood the initial storm and Nani had an inconsistent match. Rafael began to stay deeper in his battle with Luke Varney, who was playing high and wide up the pitch, which pinned the Brazilian back at times. Baptiste played deep and somewhat narrow, and he didn't provide much in the attack. The space a left-back might typically move into when in possession, was often occupied by Adam who came in search of space.
- On the opposite flank, Blackpool's Neal Eardley was bombing up the flank providing support in the attack. Wayne Rooney was flying up and down the touchline, in order to help on Eardley and also to join in the attack.
- A tricky thing was occurring on Evra/Rooney's side. Gary Taylor-Fletcher and DJ Campbell were confusing United as they kept interchanging. They would take turns being the lone striker and being the right attacking-mid. Here's why it worked... Campbell already moves well off the ball, and covers quite a bit of space in his movement. Chris Smalling at times got dragged out of position because he wasn't aware that when Campbell moved to the flank, that Taylor-Fletcher was cutting in centrally. Because of the central drifting from whoever was on that side, Eardley had acres of space to bomb forward into.
* Between minutes 10-30, Blackpool was dominating. Fergie didn't sit on his hands, he reacted quickly and astutely. He switched to a '4-4-2' and moved Rooney from the left flank to a withdrawn forward role in support of Berbatov. Gibson moved to the left flank in the midfield band of 4. Assistant manager Mike Phelan could be seen on the TV feed I had instructing the central midfielders to play more narrow... this was mainly focused at Fletcher. Here is what resulting tactics change looked like in the 31st minute.
* For the final 15 minutes of the 1st half, the change didn't work well but it laid the foundation for the 2nd half. Blackpool's high-pressure up the pitch was still overwhelming United, and it was clear that Gibson needed to be subbed. He then added to his struggles by assisting DJ Campbell on his goal with his flick on the corner kick. United were on the ropes...
* Masterful gameplan by Holloway... his subtle positioning shift of his 3 central midfielders and the interchanging of Campbell/Taylor-Fletcher thoroughly confused the Red Devils in the first half.
* In the live game thread, I was complaining that there was space behind the Blackpool defense and they played a high line, but we weren't structured to exploit it.
* Sub: Giggs on for Gibson on the left flank to start the half.
* Blackpool didn't step off the pedal, and nearly scored a 3rd goal just ten seconds into the 2nd half. Also, Rafael nearly conceded a penalty to Varney in the 50th minute.
* 3 major changes occurred in this half that were vital to this spectacular comeback.
- (1) Blackpool intense high pressure wasn't sustainable, even for the most fit football squads out there. This was mainly magnified because Blackpool had played just 3 days earlier, and had only made 2 switches to the side that faced off against Sunderland this past weekend. They began to tire and only applied pressure in opportune moments. Adam fatigued as well and didn't appear to be drifting as often when in possession, nor closing down United midfielders when the Scot's side was in defense. It's possible Holloway instructed his lads to press less because they were trying to hold onto the two goal lead. This would provide less risk of being caught out of position on defense.
- (2) Less pressure + high line = Giggsy and Scholesy eyes lighting up. Both had time on the ball, and both possess the genius and skill to exploit a side structured like this. With less pressure, United had more effective possession and more opportunities for their playmakers to create something. However, because of the high line, the center of the pitch was very crowded when United began to move further up the pitch while chasing goals. Grandin began to drop deeper as well. Scholes played slightly higher There was consistently only 25-30 yards between United's backline and Blackpool's backline in this half, it was clustered. Rooney did his usual in coming deep for the ball, but was ineffective because there was no space in the area he came to. Scholes in his deep-lying position, and Giggs out wide on the left had space to provide service. Rooney should have been making runs behind the defense. Nani turned quiet at this point too and should have done the same.
- (3) Chicharito: This substitution was a game-changer. Chicharito was making the runs behind the defense that Rooney needed to in the 2nd half. Scholes and Giggs were spraying fantastic balls behind the defense and this led to goals. Berbatov also was coming deeper, slightly pulling a center-back at times, and Chicharito made intelligent runs into that space.
* Other big factor in this game: HEART... Fergie and the other trophy-laden champions on this team willed this team to victory... Manchester United have the heart of lions like Rio said on his Twitter page right after the match.
* Here's a diagram that summarizes the important stretch of the 2nd half. Anderson came on later for the concussed Rafael and took Fletcher's spot... Fletcher moved to right-back. The 'broken-lined arrow' on Scholes is to show the balls behind the defense the 'Ginger Maestro' provided.
* Man of the match: Its unusual to give it to somebody that played 45 min (actually 55), but Giggs was a game-changer. Everything changed when he came in... so Giggsy is my man. Its an absolute treat to watch these vintage performances.
* Blackpool... very rarely do I feel any empathy towards an opponent... but I felt for the Seasiders after the match. Tremendous spirit, tremendous manager, tremendous supporters... every plaudit they received since their promotion is well deserved. I hope they finish higher up the table than Liverpool.
* I really hope Adam does not go to Anfield
* Fantastic managing in this match. Holloway as I mentioned previously, brilliant... in both tactical and psychological preparation. Fergie... brilliant as well. Great tactical adjustments, even if you argue that he got it wrong to start. And he made the adjustments quickly, not like Roberto Mancini making an 80th tactical change when it should have been done in the 30th minute.
* I'm a Smalling fan, as many of you regular readers are aware. He's fantastic on the ball and he's solid in the tackle. This chalkboard displays that he won every challenge he was in tonight. However, he still gets drawn out of position and it might be the only thing that could prevent him from becoming a top center-back. He's young though, so I'm not concerned, as long as Rio Ferdinand stays healthy.
* Nani never capitalized on his match-up with Baptiste. Two subpar performances in a row for the talented Portuguese.
* 3 points away from Old Trafford, 5 point lead on Arsenal, and still unbeaten.... CHEERS!