Opening Lineups and Formations
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson fielded his side in a 4-4-1-1 shape. David De Gea was the goalkeeper while captain Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were the center-back tandem. They were flanked in defense by Patrice Evra on the left and Fabio on the right. In central midfield, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick formed a partnership -- the former had more freedom to get forward while the latter was more conservatively positioned. Nani was the wide attacking player on the right while Ashley Young was the wide attacking player on the left. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was the lead striker and Wayne Rooney played withdrawn from him.
Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew deployed his side in a similar 4-4-1-1 shape. Tim Krul was between the posts at Old Trafford while the center-back pairing was captain Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor. United academy product Danny Simpson started at right-back for Newcastle while Ryan Taylor was the left-back. Danny Guthrie and Yohan Cabaye were the duo in the center of the park and they were flanked by old United boy Gabriel Obertan on the right and Jonas Gutierrez on the left. Demba Ba was the lead striker and Hatem Ben Arfa played as a secondary striker underneath.
Newcastle's high line creates an open affair
United were off to a bright start and much of this was due to the space in behind Newcastle's defense. Pardew had his side playing a high line and Chicharito was constantly making runs into the available space after long balls over the top or through balls between the channels were played to him. The Mexican striker was a constant threat with his electric pace and intelligent movement but his final product was inconsistent -- particularly his distribution near or in the box. This chalkboard does decently well to illustrate the dichotomy between the location of his successful passes and unsuccessful passes -- he did well to lay off passes in deeper areas but his technique let him down near or in the box. That is twice in a week's time that he has missed Rooney for a likely goal and perhaps this is an area of his game that needs most work:
Coloccini, Newcastle's left-sided center-back, struggled to deal with Chicharito's pace. The Mexican did well to play off of Coloccini's inside shoulder and outpace him to balls played over the top (aside from being offsides 4 times) while also exploiting the channel between Coloccini and R.Taylor when the latter would get forward into attack and get caught out after Newcastle lost possession. Observers of the match are fully aware that United had the better of possession in this match and spent more time attacking Newcastle rather than vice versa. The numbers back this up as well -- 33% and 41% of the match was spent in the United attacking third or middle of the pitch, respectively. This coincides with United having 60% of the possession. The chalkboard below does well to highlight two points in regards to Coloccini: (1) The positioning of the failed tackles and interceptions further provides evidence of Newcastle's high line and (2) it does well to point out Coloccini's difficulties in playing this tactic against United -- he failed to win a single tackle and more interceptions could be anticipated with so many attempted passes being played in this area of the pitch. The Newcastle captain did defend better closer to goal as he led his side with 8 clearances.
Coloccini's difficulties with Chicharito's pace and R.Taylor's poor positioning at times have now been discussed in regards to Newcastle's high line being exploited. The other big reason for this was Newcastle's lack of pressing higher up the pitch. When a side plays with a high line, it typically needs to be matched with active pressing higher up the pitch so that the opposing defenders and midfielders do not have time on the ball to seek out and play accurate passes behind the defense.
Newcastle were quite selective when choosing to press and even when they did, they did not seem to do it with complete cohesion. Guthrie and Cabaye -- while both active -- would often find themselves positioned 10 yards away from Giggs and Carrick when the United midfielders would receive the ball. This is too much time to offer to quality distributors such as this United duo. Carrick and Giggs were both aggressive -- and quickly aware -- of the space in behind Newcastle's defense and each continually sent long balls for United's attackers to run onto.
The other issue that Newcastle faced was Rooney dropping deep and in search of the ball. Nani often drifted inward as well in this space between the lines. Guthrie and Cabaye were decently compact with their back four and perhaps their reluctance to close down Giggs and Rooney was because of the threat between the lines posed by both Rooney and Nani. When Jonas would tuck in to help his side from being overrun in the middle, Carrick would often combine with a deep-dropping Rooney while Giggs would slip into a more advanced left-central space as this occurred. From here, United's fluid attack allowed quick interchanges like this to occur and it was Giggs that often provided the driving runs forward and incisive passing in the attacking third. Rooney continually came deeper and deeper for the ball and this was creating space in behind him for both Giggs and Nani to run into when Guthrie would pick up Rooney. The Welshman finished the match with 5 key passes (defined as defense-splitting), 5 accurate crosses, and 4 accurate long balls played.
United wasteful (and unlucky) with their chances
Quite simply, it was an onslaught of chances in the final half hour or so for United and it's quite shocking that a winner was not found. However, United's wastefulness with their chances and Newcastle's brave defending in the box (more on this later) should certainly be pointed out.
Chicharito was bright at times but it has been discussed on how he was also wasteful. Perhaps the United attacker that had the poorest match was Young. The winger had two golden opportunities in the 2nd half to add to United's goal tally and he failed both times. In the 56th minute, Evra did well to slide a ball across to Young but he misfired an open shot from about 17 yards away. He also hit the nearpost in the 86th from a chance that was about 11 yards out. In addition, his distribution left much to be desired. He failed to accurately cross in a single one of his attempted 9 in this match (chalkboard below). The former Aston Villa has recently returned from injury but he has yet to find his fine early season form. Perhaps a return to Villa Park next weekend can rejuvenate him.
I'll make a brief mention of the Newcastle attack, although there was not much of one. Pardew's high line showed intent but United's wastefulness masked a possible tactical error. The away side simply did not apply enough pressure high up the pitch and this perhaps was the genesis of their problems both in defense and attack. The defensive side of it has now been discussed but higher up the pitch, Pardew may have been seeking more pressure -- along with his high line -- and hoping to win the ball in a dangerous position. From here, perhaps Newcastle could have caught United out of position near their own goal or a player like Ben Arfa could have exposed the space between the lines of United's 4-4-1-1 shape. Neither really occurred. Only a dubious penalty and a Coloccini chance near goal that forced a great save from de Gea after a set-piece threatened United.
Obertan was bright in moments with his pace and with Evra's suspect positioning. The latter either overestimated his own pace or underestimated his former teammate's. However, as United fans are accustomed to seeing, Obertan lacked a final product. He failed to find anyone with his distribution in the box (0/6 on crosses) and he failed to put a shot on goal.
TBB discussed Newcastle's wing play as a tactical key to this match but it failed to materialize for the Magpies. R.Taylor got forward early but after being caught out a few times -- either by Chicharito running into the channel between him and Coloccini or Nani blowing by him -- he adjusted and began to play much more conservatively in regards to his positioning. Simpson played conservatively for the entirety of the match.
Late-match tactics -- Newcastle's deep and brave defending
After Newcastle equalised in the 64th minute through Ba's penalty, the away side began to play deeper. For over an hour, their high line had been exposed at times and with the score being 1-1 at Old Trafford, Pardew seemed quite content to keep the scoreline the same for the remainder of the match. This deeper positioning, along with United's desperation to score a winner, was the biggest reason for the home side's onslaught late.
None of the substitutions made much of an impact. Sammy Ameobi came on for Obertan soon after the goal but it was more a like-for-like substitution. Perhaps Ameobi provided a bit more defense than the man he replaced. James Perch provided fresh legs in the center of the park for the industrious Guthrie in the 74th minute. After Jonas' was sent off in the 79th minute, Pardew simply switched his side to a 4-4-1 with Ba as the lone outlet. Peter Lovenkrands came on for Ben Arfa and provided fresh legs for defending down the flanks.
With Newcastle sitting deep, Fergie brought on two players who could potentially finish through an aerial route -- Federico Macheda and Chris Smalling. The former missed a good opportunity when he rose high and failed to convert a Giggs' cross. The changes simply changed United to a 4-4-2 with Giggs moving to left-back, Rooney to the central midfield, and Macheda up front with Chicharito.
Newcastle rode their luck to earn a point but credit should certainly be given to them for their valiant defending in the box. Krul was tremendous, despite being somewhat lucky on Vidic's late header. The visitors were compact and narrow and United continually swung the ball out wide and looked to break Newcastle down from these positions -- which they did well. United amazingly attempted 29 shots while 5 were on target (71% of these attempts came from in the box!) but a big reason why so many never reached the target was because of Newcastle's brave defending. They blocked 11 shots in this match -- 5 from S.Taylor -- and 10 of these occurred in the 2nd half. This is impressive and committed.
It could be argued that United played well in this match -- and more impressively than their recent league matches -- but they were unfortunate not to come away with all three points. They were clearly the better side but they were clearly wasteful as well. The Reds dominated the run of play but because of their wastefulness and Newcastle's brave defending late, they likely never deserved more than a one-goal victory -- a result that every United supporter would gladly have taken.