For the fifth successive league match, Manchester United encountered an opponent that defended deep and consistently got nine players behind the ball. In the four matches prior to Sunday's versus Queens Park Rangers, United averaged 64% possession. Against Mark Hughes' 10-man side, the Red Devils had a 73%-27% possession advantage and they completed 461 more passes than their counterparts (668 to 207 passes completed). The Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick led possession-based approach is controlling matches, and by keeping so much of the ball, this has factored into why the Red Devils have kept a clean sheet in every single one of their five past league contests. However, dominant possession doesn't necessarily translate into goals, nor even playing well. None of United's last five opponents sit higher than 9th in the table and during this span of games, they've averaged 2.40 goals per game (12 goals in 5 matches). In their other 26 league matches this season, they've averaged 2.54 goals per game (66 goals in 26 matches). Nonetheless, despite some moments where patient build-ups have led to impatience at times from nervous supporters, United are undoubtedly playing some sound and solid football right now and this approach should calmly see them through the run-in as they chase their 20th league title. Let's have a closer look at what transpired on Sunday.
Opening 14 minutes
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deployed his side in an expected 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish shape (*). David de Gea was behind the first-choice back four of Rafael, Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand, and Patrice Evra. Scholes and Carrick sat relatively deep in front of them in the center of the park while Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were the wide players in attack. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were the pairing up front but neither were out-and-out strikers as both dropped deep to link play.
(*) As always, I'm not big into formation nomenclature for this United system because it has elements of each of those systems that I listed.
Hughes deployed QPR in a conservative 4-5-1 shape. Paddy Kenny was between the posts at Old Trafford and ahead of him was the back four of Nedum Onuoha, Anton Ferdinand, Clint HIll, and Taye Taiwo. Skipper Shaun Derry was at the base of a midfield three as he was surrounded by Samba Kiakite slightly to the left and Akos Buzsaky slightly to the right. Adel Taarabt was narrowly positioned as the left-sided midfielder while Jamie Mackie was the wide right player in attack. Jay Bothroyd, who was preferred to Bobby Zamora and DJ Campbell, had the difficult task of being the isolated centre-forward.
It could be reasonably argued that United played some of their best football prior to QPR's Derry being sent off. In fact, Fergie shared this sentiment during his post-match interview:
"The sending-off didn't help us at all. I was actually more confident before that in terms of the speed of our play and the movement of the team which was very good."
As the boss mentioned, the key to United's bright start was the quick-tempo to their play and their tremendous movement. QPR's conservative intent was clear from the start as their lines were deep in their own half while Bothroyd -- whose selection hinted at Hughes' desire to have someone hold the ball up as the centre-forward is better at this (**) than first-choice Zamora -- was often separated from the midfield by a good 15-20 yards. Valencia stayed near the touchline to receive and the threat of his devastating direct play pinned back his natural foil, Taiwo, and it also prevented the QPR left-back from providing cover against other attackers. Thus, Valencia successfully occupied his marker and helped stretch the opposition's defense.
(**) Bothroyd impressively won 10 aerial duels.
The movement of Young, Rooney, and Welbeck was fluid and it factored into the attacking move that eventually got Derry sent off. Although the sending-off was controversial, the build-up to the move worked because of tactical reasons. Onuoha, QPR's right-back and the player responsible for Young, wasn't positioning himself as narrow nor as deep as Taiwo was on the opposite side. Young intelligently broke inside often and freely darted into central areas between the lines when the ball was in United's right-side of attack -- something that occurred frequently as they spent 41% attacking down that side in comparison to only 23% down the left-side (36% through the middle as well). Rooney dropped deep to receive the ball and Hill followed him. This resulted in a gap opening up in behind and it was Young that ran into that freed-up space. Young was offside by a yard or so but his break into that space was quick and smart and Derry, the QPR holding-player that is supposed to be patrolling that space between the lines, was late to pick up the United winger as he got himself into a vulnerable position in the box. The interchanging movement of United's attackers was dragging QPR defenders out of position and thus, gaps were opening up and chances were being created.
QPR go down to 10-men
Fergie may actually have been onto something when he implied that his side wasn't necessarily helped by QPR losing a player. Quite obviously, competing against a 10-man is preferred and despite the away side losing a man in the center of the park, if forced them to dig deeper in a positional sense and it perhaps forced them to concentrate on compacting their lines better. Taarabt and Mackie dropped a few yards deeper and each also tucked in slightly as well from wide positions. Both players had 4 tackles each, with 7 of those occurring after Derry was sent-off -- this maybe hints at them being strictly instructed to stick to their defensive duties. Hughes' quotes from his post-match interview were insightful as well in regards to his side's approach after going down to 10-men:
"We couldn't have any effect on the game because we couldn't afford to concede a shed load of goals. We had a real challenge to make sure we didn't go under and I was really proud of the boys because they didn't allow that to happen. I have been part of United teams that have scored avalanches of goals because their opponents have capitulated. We didn't do that today. I am really pleased with what we produced even if the game as a contest was over after 15 minutes.''
Taiwo, who was already positionally conservative, began to play even deeper and more narrow against Valencia. Taarabt was preoccupied by a marauding Rafael so it was Diakite that was often sliding to the left to provide inside cover when QPR looked to double-up Valencia. As a result of this, Welbeck continually came deep into this space to receive from Valencia when Diakite left it. In addition, Rooney was also dropping deep into this space between the lines, as well into midfield to create overloads, because Buzsaky was often leaving it in attempt to close down Scholes and Carrick. Ferdinand and Hill were reluctant to step out and help so when Rooney dropped into the midfield zone, United often had 3 v 2 advantages -- or 3 v 1 when Diakite provided inside cover on Valencia. If either Buzsaky or Diakite picked up Rooney dropping deep, then either Scholes or Carrick would surge forward into the open space created by this movement. This fluid and interchanging movement, combined with the obvious technical class by Rooney/Scholes/Carrick, was a big reason for them being so open and often in the space 20-35 yards from goal. This freed them up to spray the ball around for United's attackers (***), but it also freed them up to take shots from outside the box -- something they did much more frequently in the 2nd-half.
(***) By half-time, Scholes and Carrick had combined for 157 passes. This was 39 more than the entire QPR team at that point.
For the most part, this match resembled most of United's recent matches -- using patience to methodically breakdown a deep-defending side. I could get into it more, but much of what's been written in recent tactical reviews applies here. In this particular match, United's attackers continually moved into the space inside of Onuoha and behind Buzsaky -- the biggest consistent gap in QPR's structured shape. In addition, Rafael did well to surge forward into the inside right space in the attacking third when either/both Diakite or Taarabt were preoccupied with doubling-up on Valencia. Even though Scholes' goal came off a poorly cleared corner, Rafael passing from an inside right position to an open Scholes just outside the box is representative of the spaces that United often exploited in their build-up play. These were the gaps to probe in the attacking third and when combined with the movement and balance in attack, this resulted in the home side controlling this match and continual chances created. However, a bit of misfortune, poor finishing, and reluctance to fire from distance in the early-going prevented the gap in the scoreline from being bigger. This win though, helped stretch United's lead over Manchester City to 8 points in the title race with 6 matches to go. That's a gap that probably pleases most of you.