OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deviated away from his 4-4-2 shape that he has used throughout this season and instead, he decided to use a lone front man along with three in the center of the park. Anders Lindegaard was a slightly surprise selection at goalkeeper over David De Gea. Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling were selected ahead of Phil Jones as the center-back pairing. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back while Fabio was the right-back. Michael Carrick played a holding role in the central midfield and he was joined by Darren Fletcher in a slightly more advanced role -- the tandem resembled a double pivot. Higher up the pitch, Ryan Giggs played a free role as the central attacking midfielder. Park Ji-sung played narrowly as the wide left player while Antonio Valencia stayed near the touchline as the right winger in his season debut. Wayne Rooney was the lone player up front in a false nine role The shape most resembled a 4-2-3-1.
Benfica manager Jorge Jesus deployed his side in a shape that resembled both 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1, but it could be more accurately described as 4-1-3-1-1. Artur was between the posts and Luisao and Ezequiel Garay were the center-back duo. Emerson played left-back and on the opposite side, Maxi Pereira played at right back. Javi Garcia shielded his defense as a holding midfielder while Alex Witsel played more a box-to-box role in the center. Ruben Amorim started as the wide right player while Nicolas Gaitan played a narrow role as the wide left player. Oscar Cardozo was the center-forward and Pablo Aimar played behind him in a free role.
Slow & Static start
Coming into this match, United had scored a cracking 18 goals in their opening four matches while playing a fast and fluid 4-4-2. This has been typified by quick passing, intelligent movement, and interchangeability. After this past Saturday's match versus Bolton Wanderers, I wrote this about Anderson's fine play that day:
"Ando often came deep for the ball to receive from either De Gea or a defender. Because his counterparts, Reo-Coker and Davies were hesitant to come forward and apply pressure, Ando had plenty of time on the ball in deep positions and he took advantage with numerous forward passes. After he distributed, he worked hard to move forward, find space, and make himself available to receive again. He was linking play all over the pitch because of his work-rate and intelligent movement -- this allowed him to boss the match from the center of the park. He even provided the added bonus of joining the attack with late arriving runs."
Against Benfica, United switched their shape by playing three in the center but formation had less to do with their slow and static play than did the performance of their personnel. Anderson is in fine form at the moment and he was rested on Wednesday night with an eye towards Sunday's league clash with Chelsea FC. Carrick and Fletcher were rotated in for this match and while each is a quality player, vital ones that have contributed to United's trophy haul in recent seasons, neither played to the level that Ando and Tom Cleverley have displayed this season. To be fair though, neither have also played very much in the past month -- thus, both form and fitness were going to be concerns for this match. Nonetheless, despite Fergie stating he was pleased with each after the match, both were mostly uninspiring.
Carrick and Fletcher sat relatively deep in the center in roles that resembled a double pivot. During the first half, both were given plenty of time and space on the ball because they both only had Aimar to contend with in United's half of the pitch -- and the Benfica playmaker was not very industrious in pressing the duo either. For Benfica in the center, Garcia was sitting extremely deep and Witsel was often playing at least 10-15 yards away from Carrick. With Witsel sitting deep and Gaitan tucking in towards the middle, this clogged things up going forward and Carrick and Fletcher were often forced to play conservative passes between themselves and the United defenders -- which is fine because a forward pass was often not available in the infant stages of United's possessions. This also accounted for much of the 62% possession that United had in the first half. If this suggested to some that United were dominating this match, then this control of possession was misleading.
There were two main problems for United in trying to go forward and igniting the attack: (1) Movement was static from both Carrick and Fletcher and perhaps one should have been a bit more adventurous going forward after their initial pass in a manner similar to Anderson at Bolton -- this could have allowed one to receive again in a slightly higher position up the pitch in order to link play with the attack. (2) Carrick's and Fletcher's inability to link play higher up also stemmed from United not playing compact enough -- Witsel sitting back with both Amorin and Gaitan tucked in, in combination with Giggs playing too high at times, made it difficult to build the attack from back to front. United had the ball, but they were slow and achieved very little with it in the first half.
Further evidence that United failed to get the attack involved, despite their possession, was Rooney continually coming deeper into the midfield as the half wore on in while search of the ball. Because there was no link to the talisman from our deep-lying midfielders and defenders, he was starved off service and he had an unusually low number of touches in the first half. Credit should also go to Benfica for good defensive structure when out of possession.
Not enough width for United
In the attacking third of the pitch, it is generally Rooney playing between the lines in the center or the wide players that provide the incisive passing to break down defenses. Even when Rooney is deployed as a lone striker, he still does this well in a false nine role. But just as Rooney was starved of service in the first half, so were Park and Valencia. United's wide players typically receive a high number touches on the ball, but the 45 and 54 touches that Valencia and Park had, respectively, is an extremely low number. The 95 and 78 touches that Evra and Fabio had, respectively, is very telling.
As discussed earlier, Carrick and Fletcher saw quite a bit of the ball but struggled to advance it. In United's system, the role of the central midfielders is often to simply swing the ball wide to the wingers or pass to an attacker that comes deep through the center like Rooney. Because United struggled to work the ball out of the back, they were not able to consistently supply their wingers in advanced positions. As an alternative, the full-backs, Evra and Fabio, were used instead as outlets to relieve pressure because they were the ones being given space. Although they did well to get forward, neither provided the same incisive threat from the flanks because they simply play too deep -- not because they're not adventurous, but because they're full-backs in a system that is designed to have them supplement the more advanced wide attackers.
Benfica seemed fine with conceding possession
Despite allowing United to have 62% of the possession in this match, Benfica seemed fine with it. They were United's equal in this match and some would argue they were the better side. They also appeared to use the counter-attack as a plan. Javi Garcia generally shields the Benfica defense as a holding midfielder, whether that be in an attacking 4-1-3-2, a 4-1-2-3, or a 4-2-3-1. However, in this match, he was even conservative for a holding midfielder and rarely ventured forward. In addition, left-back Emerson focused his attention on Valencia and he rarely ventured forward as well. As mentioned earlier, Wisel, Amorin, and Gaitan played narrow as when their side was out of possession -- the defensive shape for Benfica was sound and this was another reason that United struggled to break them down. The available space was out wide for United, but the full-backs exploited this space and not the attackers.
Cardozo offered an ideal outlet as a big, strong center-forward that could hold the ball up when Benfica sent the ball long in order to relieve pressure. Aimar had a free role so that he could link the defense and midfield with the attack -- the attack mainly being Cardozo. The Benfica number ten did well to drift from flank-to-flank in behind Carrick and Fletcher in search of space to operate in. Perhaps the Benfica strategy was to keep the score close until the late stages of the game and then bring on more attackers in search of an equaliser or winner. If so, this plan was executed beautifully as the attacking Nolito was brought on late for Amorin in the 57th minute when the game was stil level. United controlled the first 25 minutes of the 2nd half but after Nolito was brought on, Benfica forced some good saves from Lindegaard.
2nd Half adjustments for United
After Giggs' equaliser prior to the half, United enjoyed a brief spell of good football. Coming out of the half, they appeared to adjust by playing more compact by keeping a higher line in defense. In turn, both Carrick and Fletcher were higher up the pitch and closer to the attack. Thus, both Giggs and Rooney became more involved and United looked more of a threat. It was during minutes 45-70 in this match where United enjoyed their best stretch of play and one could be forgiven if they felt a goal was coming. While Cardozo did well to use his strength in holding the ball up, this was more effective the closer he could play to the United goal. The Reds defense appeared comfortable enough in dealing with any balls played in behind them with this higher line.
Chicharito was brought on in the 69th minute and this changed United to their 4-4-1-1 shape. Rooney dropped deeper to play between the lines and Giggs dropped deeper as well to play in the center in a box-to-box role. By the 75th minute, Jesus appeared content for a draw as he brought on Nemanja Matic for a tiring Aimar -- this fortified the Benfica midfield.
A closer look at Carrick
This match was an odd one for Carrick. He clearly had a few shocking moments but he also was good at times as well -- this is not to say he had a good match because his miscues nearly led to goals conceded on a few occasions. A consequence of United holding possession so deep in the first half was that a single misplaced pass would put United under pressure. Despite Carrick completing an impressive 86 passes with a 92% accuracy, it was his few loose ones that provided for some tense moments. The other oddity was that there were a few memorable moments where Carrick was beat while defending. But, he had absurdly good 8 interceptions and supplemented that high total with 4 tackles. Perhaps this match is an extreme epitome of a man that divides opinion. Carrick is a confidence player and when he gets a string of good matches, he should be fine -- I hope. He's an important player in this squad.
The result is not ideal but it is not a bad one either for United. Benfica played well and United played somewhat poorly while having a few decent stretches. Jesus appeared to get his tactics right -- he kept it close for the first hour with sound defending while playing on the counter, he took his shot for the full three points by the positive substitution of Nolito, and then he closed out the draw by bringing on Matic to provide more bite in the midfield. This was the first match where United played with three central midfielders this season, including the six preseason matches. Also, they tried to bring in many players who have not been playing regularly. Add to that a tough tie away in Europe and it makes sense that United were not firing on all cylinders. This is not an excuse though, it was a poorly played match which had a decent result. Heading into the Chelsea tie on Sunday, United likely revert to 4-4-1-1 but it was beneficial to get a 4-3-3/4-5-1 run in while being able to get some squad members playing time that was needed. The marathon of a season requires a full squad.