Opening Lineups and Formations
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deployed his side in a 4-4-2ish shape. No.1 David De Gea was rested and backup Anders Lindegaard was given the start in goal. Rio Ferdinand and captain Nemanja Vidic were the center-back pairing and they were flanked in defense by Patrice Evra on the left and Chris Smalling on the right. In midfield, Michael Carrick and Phil Jones were the duo in the center while Ashley Young was the left winger and Nani began on the right flank. Up top, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) and Wayne Rooney were the striker tandem. However, Chicharito was injured just minutes into the match and Antonio Valencia was substituted on. The Ecuadorian moved to the right flank and Nani moved into the middle near Rooney.
Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish fielded his side in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 sort of shape -- perhaps a 4-1-2-3 to be slightly more specific. Usual No.1 Shay Given started in goal and the central-defense partnership was Richard Dunne and James Collins. Stephen Warnock was the left-back and Alan Hutton was the right-back. Chris Herd was in a holding role and farther advanced from him in the center of the park was Barry Bannan and Jermaine Jenas. Darren Bent led the line in attack and he was flanked by Marc Albrighton on the right and Gabriel Agbonlahor on the left.
United's attacking routes
The Reds started brightly in this match and it would have been deserving had they had a larger lead at half-time. The only surprise selection was the use of Jones in central-midfield. However, things changed quickly when Chicharito went down just a few minutes into the match with an ankle injury. Nani's move into the center brought about some unfamiliarity.
Down the left side of the attack, things were fairly fluid. It was common to see either Jones or Carrick swing the ball to the left side and then allow Evra, Young, Nani, and Rooney to play quick passes and immediately move to create and move into available space. United's opening goal is a decent example of this --albeit the ball was swung from right to left by the center-backs rather than the central-midfielders: (1) After Vidic swung the ball over to Ferdinand on the left, he then laid the ball off for Rooney who had come deep and to the left to receive. (2) Rooney then played a short pass for Evra who tucked inside slightly. (3) Evra then slid the ball out wide for Nani who had made a run into the open space near the left touchline. (4) A well-placed left-footed cross by Nani found a late-arriving Jones into the box for a clinical finish. Jones' energy and drive from his left-central-midfield position was a nice compliment to the others playing fast and fluid football on that side of the pitch. Here is a chalkboard of that goal-sequence:
Down the right side of attack, United played in a more direct fashion. Michael Cox, in his weekly Chalkboard Analysis column for the Guardian, discussed this week Vidic and Ferdinand switching sides from their usual center-back roles -- this began in the 1-0 victory over Sunderland last month in early November. A typical occurrence is for Ferdinand to slide the ball right and for Vidic to send balls long down the right flank for the deployed right-winger to run onto. Valencia, and to a lesser-extent Nani, both seem to prefer balls played into their feet rather than ahead of them for them to chase. This allows both wingers to control the ball so that they can use their dribbling abilities to beat their markers. Perhaps this somewhat explains Vidic's failure to find an attacker when he launched the ball long down the right flank. This chalkboard below compares his distribution this past Saturday (as a right-sided center-back) versus his distribution from this exact same fixture last season (as a left-sided center-back). Take notice of the shorter passes played while on the left and the more adventurous passes played while on the right -- the side of his preferred foot.
The other noteworthy thing from the right-ish side of the attack was the use of Carrick as a pivot. Although Jenas was generally near him throughout the match, the United midfielder did well to continually slip him near the right-side of the half-way line and then quickly service the ball to the feet of Valencia or into the space between the lines for either Rooney and Nani. Before Jenas was substituted off in the 64th minute after sustaining an injury, he recorded 0 tackles and 0 interceptions.
Rooney & Nani up top
The last avenue of attack for United to discuss is through the middle. When Chicharito was forced off due to injury, the usual dynamic between him and Rooney was lost -- where the Mexican striker stays high by playing off the shoulder of the last defender while creating space underneath for Wazza to roam between the lines. Nani, in his partnership with Rooney, was somewhat similar to the latter's partnership with Danny Welbeck in the season's early stages.
Nani was playing in an unfamiliar position up front as he usually is deployed as a winger. He continually came deep into the space between the lines -- often left-center. From here, he linked up and played quick-passing football as mentioned earlier. With Rooney also dropping deep, this was creating space in behind them for midfield runners. Both Young and Jones -- and later Ryan Giggs -- took advantage of this by making driving runs into the space vacated by Rooney and Nani. During United's goal, both Rooney and Nani were nowhere near the box when the latter sent in his cross for Jones' goal. The Villa defenders were vilified for their poor marking but perhaps United's "strikers" not being near the goal caused some confusion. It could be argued that United were playing in a 4-6-0 shape when they were in possession of the ball after Chicharito was substituted off.
Poor midfield play from Villa starves their attack
Quite simply, the trio of Herd, Jenas, and Bannan were poor as a unit -- although it could be argued that the latter had a decent match. More often than not, Villa typically play with two central-midfielders. As of late, that has been Herd partnering Stilian Petrov while the former plays a bit more conservatively, but not in a strict holding role. In this match, Herd played a bit high at times as the holding player in a midfield trio. He was quite close to both Bannan and Jenas and gaps were often left open behind him for United's attackers to exploit between the lines -- something that Rooney, Nani, and Young did.
In addition, Herd's distribution was extremely poor (13/28 passing -- 46%) and this alarming for a player playing a role that is this close to his own goal. A few of his giveaways led to quick transitions by United. Defensively, he recorded 0 tackles and 2 interceptions -- both below his season averages of 2.6 tackles and 2.4 interceptions per game.
Jenas was poor as well and even if he had not been injured in this match, he likely was a strong candidate to be substituted off anyway. His distribution was a bit more responsible that Herd's, but it certainly was not incisive (23/30 passing -- 77% | 0 key passes). Defensively, it has already been mentioned on how he failed to close down Carrick, who can be vulnerable when he is effectively closed down by his counterparts
Villa's counterparts in central-midfield -- Carrick and Jones -- were both very sound defensively. Positionally, each was disciplined as Carrick's 7 interceptions and Jones' 5 interceptions can attest to. When Rooney and Nani failed to quickly transition back when United lost possession, Villa failed to use their 3 v 2 advantage in the midfield to effectively build an attack. A quality deep-lying playmaker could have been incredibly beneficial for McLeish's conservative tactics. England striker Bent only had 24 touches for the entire match.
Vila's 2nd half adjustments -- increased pressing and hoof it for Heskey
United dictated the majority of this match and despite their inability to kill off this match with another goal, no tactical adjustments were seemingly needed. In addition, injury had forced Fergie's first two substitutions so his options were limited for his final substitution. The flexibility in numerous United players allowed him to make like-for-like substitutions while shifting the positions of players.
Villa were down a goal for the majority of this match and when Petrov was substituted on in the 59th minute, McLeish instructed to his side to press more aggressively. Villa had 14 interceptions in this match and 11 of them occurred in the 2nd half -- 8 of these occurred after Petrov was substituted on. This is further indicative of Villa's intent to press more later in the match.
Although Giggs was brought on for Ferdinand due to injury, it was prudent to have him come on into the central midfield for Jones, who is more experienced in defense. Jones simply slid into Ferdinand's role as the right-sided center-back for the final half-hour of the match.
When Emile Heskey came on, McLeish decided to essentially bypass his midfield entirely and hoof the ball up to his substitute striker. When out of possession, Heskey was actually positioned as a somewhat left-sided player while Bent and Agbonlahor played up top. When Villa retained the ball, they simply hoofed the ball forward and targeted Heskey nearly every time. The target-man had the freedom to roam into whatever space he felt suited him best in an aerial duel. This took him into the space away from Vidic and Jones and nearer to Carrick and Giggs -- the latter was especially targeted. The likes of Bent, Agbonlahor, Bannan, and Albrighton would try to get on the end of knock-downs. On set-pieces in United's defensive half, Villa simply tried to play aerial ping-pong between Heskey, Collins, and Dunne. Here is a chalkboard of Heskey's 'tackles' -- they are actually all aerial duels. Notice how he generally won his three successful duels in space away from Vidic while losing three in the space near our captain.
Villa were very poor for the entirety of the match while United played decently well in the 1st half. They failed to build on their on their lead and kill off the match. And perhaps harshly, they were quite poor in the 2nd half as well. The ugliness continued as McLeish instructed his side to bypass any sort of possession football and simply hoof the ball forward and hope for the best -- by way of a knockdown or an equaliser from a set-piece. Jones proved to be a good partner for Carrick in this match but it remains to be seen how they would fare together against better competition. United played poorly but they earned a vital 3 points and won away from Old Trafford for the 5th time this season in 7 league attempts. The champions only won 5 times away from Old Trafford last season in league during the entire season.