By the time kickoff arrives at 4:00pm at Old Trafford for a Sunday clash with Swansea City, Manchester United will realistically know if their hopes of conquering England for a twentieth time are still alive. If Manchester City drop points when they visit
St James' Park Sports Direct Arena for an early afternoon encounter with Newcastle United, United will know that they've regained control of the title race. However, if the 'noisy neighbours' emerge victorious from that match, then they'll only need victory at the Etihad next weekend versus a poor Queens Park Rangers side in order to become champions for the first time since 1968.
Form Guide: United's form? Not good. After going 12 league games unbeaten and going ahead of City by 8 points in the title race, United have dropped points thrice in the their past 4 matches. The most recent result was last weekend's disheartening defeat at the Etihad by rivals City. United are level on points at the top of the table but Roberto Mancini's side have a +8 goal differential advantage.
Team News: Danny Welbeck and Jonny Evans have both been ruled out for this tie after the former was injured during last weekend's derby while the latter apparently sustained a knock in training prior to the derby. Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Paul Pogba, and Anderson all continue to be out. (Full Team News Report)
Form Guide: Swansea have survived their first season in the Premier League as their 44 point total thus far -- good for 12th in the table -- has made it is mathematically impossible for them to be relegated. After suffering defeat in three successive matches, the Welsh side have shown improvement lately by going unbeaten in their following three ties. Their most recent match came last weekend when they were involved in a 4-4 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Team News: The availability of first-choice right-back Angel Rangel is in question due to a hamstring knock -- one that was severe enough to have kept him out in the contest versus Wolves. Alan Tate has been dealing with a calf injury but recent reports indicate that he has returned to training this week.
United: Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to deploy his side in his preferred 4-4-1-1ish system. Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra are nearly certain to be included in the back four as is David de Gea in goal. Chris Smalling is expected to deputise for Evans in central-defense while the choice at right-back is between Rafael and Phil Jones. In central-midfield, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes are the first-choice duo but any of Jones, Ryan Giggs, or Tom Cleverley are possible to feature. On the flanks, the likes of Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, and Nani are in contention. Up front, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) likely starts as the lead striker while Wayne Rooney can be expected in a withdrawn role.
Swansea: Michel Vorm is the Swans No. 1 and the first-choice back four as of late has been Rangel, Steven Caulker, Ashley Williams, and Neil Taylor. If Rangel is unavailable, then Caulker likely slides over to right-back and Garry Monk comes into the starting XI at center-back. Manager Brendan Rodgers typically deploys his side in a 4-2-3-1 shape and in the second band of two, Leon Britton and Joe Allen are preferred. Scott Sinclair is likely to be in the left side of attack and opposite of him, Nathan Dyer is probable on the right. However, Wayne Routledge might be in contention on either the flanks or in the middle. Up front, Danny Graham is expected to lead the line in attack while Gylfi Sigurdsson will be withdrawn from him.
SCOUTING REPORT & TACTICAL KEYS
* Will Rodgers opt for a 3-<4>-3 system?: The past weekend was interesting for Swansea in a tactical sense as Rodgers decided to tinker with his team's shape. With relegation already fought off, and with no European qualification possible at this stage of the season, the Swans merely have the marginally increasing prize money at stake that comes with each spot up the mid-table. Therefore, Rodgers must have found the Wolves match an optimal situation to try a new system for his side -- 3-4-3, or what the Swansea manager described as '3-diamond-3'. Thus, no wingbacks and instead, this meant another player in the center of the pitch.
The Welsh side are already a possession-based one but quite often, they fail to be incisive enough in attack. Their 12.4 shot attempts per game ranks 16th in the league. Thus, adding another player into the center may have been an idea to push another player forward while using that same extra-man to help control possession even more -- this could actually be seen as a defensive tactic too because keeping the ball more often might mean less time for a back three to be exposed.
The 3-diamond-3 seemingly worked as Swansea scored 4 goals in the first-half versus Wolves and on two separate occasions, they earned themselves a three-goal lead. However, there were leaks in the back and the Welsh side continually found themselves offering too much space to the Wolves attackers. Rodgers eventually switched his side to a more familiar back four but Wolves continued to pile on the pressure until they were able to equalise. With Swansea being that exposed defensively to a side at the bottom of the table, it's hard to imagine that Rodgers would try this 3-diamond-3 system at Old Trafford versus United. However, opposing teams have become more audacious lately at the 'Theatre of Dreams' so I suppose that could be a possibility for a brave tactician like Rodgers.
* United's approach to Swansea's short-passing and possession game?: In the most general sense, there are two ways to approach Swansea's passing game: (1) Be proactive by attacking them and look to cut out passes high up the pitch when Rodgers' side looks to patiently build attacks from the back. The alternative approach would be to (2) give them time on the ball as they build attacks from the back and then look to squeeze their space in the attacking third. United most certainly will take an approach that more closely resembles (1) than it does (2).
How much pressure will they apply high up the pitch though? Swansea's 58.0% average possession this season is second best in the league but much of that passing is done in their own half of the pitch -- only Blackburn Rovers spend more time in their own half. Their build-ups often begin with Vorm as the Dutch keeper's 70.6% passing rate is indicative of his impressive ability to effectively distribute the ball. Chicharito will certainly be closing down a center-back but if Rooney gets forward as well to press the other center-back, rather than one of the two deep-lying Swansea midfielders, then that might force Vorm to hoof the ball long. This aggressive approach may open United up though as Scholes and Carrick would also be forced to come forward and close down Britton and Allen. This may then leave acres of space between the lines for players like Sigdursson and Sinclair -- Rio certainly does not like to play high up the pitch in this autumn of his career so throw out the idea of United playing a high line in order to compact the lines.
If Rooney drops off onto Britton or Allen, then means only one of Carrick or Scholes would have to come forward -- which also means one of them could drop off and patrol the space between the lines. This latter approach though would allow Swansea to keep possession and patiently build attacking moves from the back. This might also allow them to be comfortable and to possibly grab control the match.
The aggressiveness of United's approach could depend on their own selection choices. If the likes of Valencia, Young, and Chicharito are chosen, that would result in three changes in attack from last weekend and the biggest benefit of that could be fresh legs for pressing. Will Fergie look to close down Swansea's back four or will he drop his side off a little bit and then look close down in midfield? Keep an eye on Rooney -- whether he presses a center-back or drops off onto a midfielder will likely reveal United's approach.
* Swansea's attack: The biggest individual danger for Swansea is Sigdursson. The Icelandic attacking-midfielder is on loan from German side Hoffenheim and he's been an instant hit in the Premier League. The 22-year-old was even chosen as the Premier League's Player of the Month for March. While center-forward Graham does decently well to lead the line, and while Sinclair is a threat when he cuts in from the left to fire on goal, it is Sigdursson from a withdrawn position that has the most attempts on goal (3.9 shots per game) for this Swansea side. His return of 7 goals in 16 matches is very good for someone that isn't a forward. He is also a creator of goals as well which perhaps is evident by his 3 assists and 2.6 key passes (what Opta defines as chances created) per game. Sigdursson tends to be positionally based in the space between the lines, so it'll be important for United to patrol that space or to minimize it by compacting their defensive and midfield lines when they're out of possession.
As discussed earlier, Swansea like to patiently ping the ball around until they can find space in attack to probe into. However, one common pass they make that is more direct is the long diagonal ball that left-center-back Williams likes to play to the right touchline into the attacking half of the pitch -- particularly when Dyer is the right-sided attacker. Allowing Dyer to receive in this space is dangerous for the obvious reason that the attacker can cause problems by dribbling past defenders -- something that he did with regularity past Evra in the reverse fixture. In addition, this can stretch the United defense horizontally and therefore, this may create more space in the middle for Swansea's passing midfielders. If Chicharito sees the ball passed to Williams, he needs to be alert enough so that he continually closes down the center-back before he can play long balls into attack.
KO: 4:00pm BST, 11:00am EST | Old Trafford
TV: Sky Sports 1 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.A.)
Referee: Chris Foy
Odds: Manchester United 1/5, Draw 7/1, Swansea City 16/1