OPENING LINEUPS AND FORMATION
Manchester United played in a 4-4-2 sort of shape in their in their 1-2 victory over West Bromwich Albion to open Premier League season. Newcomer David de Gea was in goal and the first-choice tandem of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were the center-back pairing. With Patrice Evra out due to a knock on his knee, Fabio deputised at left-back. With Rafael out due to a shoulder seperation, and his twin brother Fabio at left-back, it was Chris Smalling filling in at right-back. In the central midfield, Anderson and Tom Cleverley were the duo - the former generally held slightly deeper while the latter was more likely to get forward and join the attack. Ashley Young was the wide left player while Nani was on the opposite flank. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were the tandem up top with last season's co-Golden Boot winner Dimitar Berbatov on the bench.
West Brom manager Roy Hodgson had his side play in a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 sort of shape. Former United keeper Ben Foster was between the posts for the Baggies. The center-back partnership was Gabriel Tamas and Jonas Olsson. Steven Reid was the right-back while Nicky Shorey was the left-back. Youssuf Mulumbu was the holding midfielder while Paul Scharner played a more advanced role in the center as he got forward with delayed runs into the box. Chris Brunt played a narrow role on the right while James Morrison did similarly on the left. Shane Long and Somen Tchoyi were pairing up front.
Fast & Fluid for 37 minutes
During the 2010-11 season, United boss Sir Alex Ferguson continued his pattern of varying tactics and shapes. However, for the run-in, the Reds played in a 4-4-1-1 shape for nearly all of their important matches. The basics of this included the following: Javier 'Chicharito' stretching the defense by playing off the last defender's shoulder, Rooney dropping deep and creating in the space between the lines, Antonio Valencia providing width down the right touchline with his direct play, Park Ji-sung playing a narrow role on the left, Ryan Giggs roaming free in the center of the park, and Michael Carrick providing cover and dictating tempo in a holding role.
In the Premier League opener versus West Brom, and even in last week's FA Community Shield versus Manchester City, United deviated from those tactics. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Dimitar Berbatov has (once again) been dropped in favor of another striker - this time the youngster Danny Welbeck. The U-21 England international, while quiet at the Hawthorns, continually came deep and looked to link play with his fellow attackers.
Welbeck's partner Rooney, in a false nine role, played higher up the pitch but his movements were varied and he fluidity linked up in the attack as well - particularly with Young. During this past Spring, Rooney played a role that strongly resembled that of a classic number ten - for United, this meant dropping deep into the midfield to receive the ball and often spraying long diagonal balls out to the flanks. Against West Brom, Rooney still came somewhat deep in his false nine role, but he played much shorter passes, often quick one-twos with Young on the left side. In fact, Rooney's opening goal in the 13th minute resulted from him dropping deep and dragging out a center-back, a one-touch flick that played Young into space down the left side, Young then played Rooney at the top of the box when the striker lost his marker (Tamas) by finding space between lines, and Wazza then clinically finished. This chalkboard below exemplifies Rooney's role last season (vs Chelsea FC in the title-decider in May) compared to his role today:
Despite the tremendous quality and depth that United already have on the flanks, Fergie still felt the need to go out and acquire Young from Aston Villa. While at Villa, the pacy England international showed value in his versatility by being able to play out wide on either flank or in support behind a lead striker. For the time being, Fergie's new acquisition appears tasked with an attacking role down the left flank. Perhaps Young's role in the hole last season improved his link up play because he appears comfortable, and more than capable, to come inside and fluidly link play - his understanding with Rooney bodes well for United (and perhaps England). When he receives the ball out wide on the left, he shows a propensity to take angled runs at his marker - he's able to either cut inside onto his stronger right foot where he can link play or he can cut back towards his left and dribble past his marker with his electric pace - the latter he did on United's winner today. This is greatly aided when he has an attacking full-back that is capable of marauding forward with overlapping runs, which Fabio provided today.
On the opposite side of the pitch, Nani plays somewhat similarly. When the Portuguese winger is at his best, he is able to terrorize defenses with his genuine two-footed threat - he is capable of beating a defender down the touchline and whipping in dangerous crosses or he can cut in onto his left foot and fire on goal. Nani was a bit quiet in today's match and perhaps that is because right-back Smalling, who is naturally a center-back, failed to provide much of an attacking threat. Both wide players in United's attack did pin back West Brom's full-backs, thus preventing them from getting forward themselves.
The sum of these four attackers and their movement is fast and fluid play - the best display of this occurred during the opening 37 minutes of the match. Unfortunately, United failed to be more clinical with their finishing and the wind seemed to be taken out of their attacking sail when Long equalised for the Baggies while against the run of play in the 37th minute. Welbeck and Rooney coming deep not only allowed them to link play well, but it also created space in behind them for Young and Nani to get into. This is why, particularly against City last weekend, Nani and Young were often seen on the opposite side of the pitch from their initial positions - their deep penetrating runs into available space took them there. Also, when Young and Nani come inside, that is four possible attackers to potentially exploit the dangerous space between the lines.
Anderson & Cleverley - a dynamic duo
As previously mentioned, the Giggs-Carrick partnership was one with specific roles - the former roamed free and was a creator through the middle while the latter shielded the defense and provided the Welshman's freedom with his cover. Anderson and Cleverley appear to share these responsibilities by interchanging. While Ando played slightly deeper and received the ball more often from United's defenders - and Cleverley was more likely to get forward and join the attack with delayed runs forward - each did well to cover for the other when one got forward. Each was also incredibly impressive with their distribution: Ando completed 55 passes out of an attempted 59 (93%), many of which were incisive balls out to the left for Young, while Cleverley completed 58 passes out of an attempted 64 (91%) -- 85% is considered to be very good.
The duo were also sound in defense, particularly Ando. The industrious Brazilian was 5/7 in tackle with an interceptions while Cleverley was 2/2 in tackle with an interception. While the two youngsters did have a good understanding with another, one area of the pitch where the Baggies' attack was continually generated from was in behind the duo and and in front of United's defenders. This is not really a criticism of the duo because this is a natural tactical weakness of playing in only three bands, in this case 4-4-2. However, Carrick does well to read the game and he is very aware of this dangerous space between the lines when he plays. For West Brom, it was often Long, who would drop deep into this space to receive, or the narrow play of Brunt and Morrison that exploited that space. In attempts to recover, the United defenders would respond by coming narrow and this often opened up space for Tchoyi to receive out wide - the strong Baggies' attacker smartly found time and space out wide, particularly on the left side.
Defense and Goalkeeping
Both Long and Tchoyi were a handful and each did well in holding the ball up. Brunt smartly got behind Fabio at times, who was surging forward into attack in support of Young, and provided the main creative outlet in West Brom's attack. For the most part though, especially when considering that both Vidic and Ferdinand were forced to leave the match due to injury, United's back four defended competently. As just mentioned, the main issue was dealing with Brunt, Morrison, and Long finding space between the lines. Jonny Evans, who had a shockingly low 46% aerial dual success rate last season, did well when he came on for Vidic - he even won 4/6 aerial duals.
A big talking point during the match, and afterwards as well, has been the uninspired performance of de Gea in goal. The 20-year-old Spaniard poorly read Long's strike for the equaliser and even Fergie admitted after the match that his goalkeeper should have done better with it - it is also worth noting that de Gea poorly read Edin Dzeko's shot from distance last weekend as well.
Perhaps the bigger concern from this match was the youngster's lack of command in the box. He flailed at a few unthreatening crosses in the early going and during the 2nd half, West Brom smartly got physical with de Gea for high balls. There was one incident, perhaps not too important but perhaps telling of his confidence (or possible lack of), where Ferdinand erratically cleared but de Gea should have come out and gathered. Instead, he awkwardly put Fabio into a difficult position in his own box and the Brazilian defender cleared away for an unnecessary West Brom corner. Most United supporters are willing to be somewhat patient and if one is reasonable, de Gea has not been written off. However, this is an ambitious club with a very good squad currently - he quickly needs to do much better.
All in all, United earned three points away from Old Trafford - this is always a positive thing. In addition, despite the lack of clinical finishing, the opening 37 provided optimism as United's attack looked incredibly fluid, penetrative, and unpredictable. The understanding between our talisman Rooney and newly acquired winger Young provides excitement for the coming season - a 20 goal and 20 assist season is not out of the question for the former. Perhaps though, Berbatov can come on next week and get the chance to partner Rooney up top when United face Totteham Hotspur. The United attack received a boost late in the match when the Bulgarian came on - he provided good hold up play, linked well, and his higher positioning allowed Rooney to come deep for the ball.
The concerns from this match are obvious. Is the talented de Gea up to the task of being United's No 1? Also, the injuries to Vidic and Ferdinand, who are arguably the best center-back tandem in the world, is a concern because of the front-loaded fixture list - over the next fortnight, tough tests versus Spurs and Arsenal await United and their young defense. Just weeks after that, ties versus City, Liverpool, and Chelsea also await the club. Promising youngsters Evans, Smalling, Fabio, and Phil Jones will surely get opportunities over the next two months - are they up to the title-defending task?