It was a surreal feeling. By the time kickoff had arrived at Old Trafford on Sunday, everyone -- the players, staff, and supporters of Manchester United -- were well aware that Yaya Toure's brace within the past hour was probably the final dagger into our title hopes. Not even what followed -- a commanding victory over a decent Swansea City side -- one that featured the legendary Paul Scholes scoring a goal in possibly his final act at the 'Theatre of Dreams', could arouse the masses. Only a miracle by Mark Hughes and his QPR boys next weekend at the Etihad can prevent that dagger from being fatally driven in deeper -- at least 'Sparky' has a personal score he wishes to settle with Manchester City. This is what we've been reduced to.
Context is everything. Had we come into the match with the lead in the title race, the narrative would have been how this was a controlled and professional performance that showed the steel of United in their penultimate league match of the season. The truth is, it actually was a controlled and professional performance. However, because the title race is out of our control, and perhaps due to the shell shock of surrendering an 8 point lead in the title race during the past month, the feeling of helplessness made the whole occasion feel rather numb. I succumbed to this drop in enthusiasm as well.
I honestly have no desire to offer up a detailed tactical analysis of the match and my guess is that most of you don't really wish to read one either. Perhaps I presume this for you readers so that I can excuse myself from this duty. Nonetheless, here are some of thoughts of mine from United's 2-0 defeat of the Swans at Old Trafford.
1. United come out with urgency - When the match started, the goal differential advantage for City was 10. It was certainly very wishful that United could overcome that in this one match, or even during the season's final two matches, but the urgency that they came out with allowed them to overwhelm Swansea. From the start, United played with a high tempo and it was clear that their intent was to create as many chances as possible.
Brendan Rodgers' Swansea side came into the match second in the league with an average possession of 58.0%. Despite this impressive ability to retain the ball, the Welsh side struggle to create chances at times but their calmness on the ball provides them an effective defensive tactic -- the more that they keep it, the less opportunities the opposition has in creating chances. In Sunday's match, United took away this control and it was Paul Scholes and MIchael Carrick pulling the strings from the center of the park. The two United maestros were metronomic pinging the ball around (combined 94.2% pass accuracy) but they also quickly supplied the attackers and brought the full-backs into play when obvious attacking moves could be started.
United's own ability to retain the ball deserves the mention that it was given in the previous paragraph but the reason United had the ball in the first place was because of their aggressive pressing high up the pitch: Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) and Wayne Rooney closed down Swansea's center-backs, the wingers -- Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young -- got tight to the full-backs, while Scholes and Carrick tracked their central-midfield counterparts. This left space for the dangerous Gylfi Sigurdsson between United's midfield and defensive lines as the Icelandic attacking-midfielder certainly created chances for both himself and others. However, this cohesive pressure disrupted Swansea's short-passing game. The Swans averaged a 86% passing success rate ahead of this match but their passing success rate at Old Trafford was just 81%. United did well to command this game.
2. Young and Evra provide an understanding and balance - Without a doubt, the best partnership out wide this season has been Young and Evra on the left touchline. The two exhibit a strong understanding and Young's willingness to track back helps provide a bit of balance between that side's attacking and defensive responsibilities. Rio Ferdinand's covering ability for Evra certainly helps at times when the left-back gets caught out but it isn't an uncommon site to see Young chasing down an opposing winger when Evra is in the attacking half of the pitch. Part of that is Evra's poor positioning at times, but part of that is also the understanding that Young and Evra have when they interchange. It's a typical movement to see Young come inside and deep in order to receive and combine while Evra exploits the space near the touchline with overlapping runs. That results in Young being in better position to track back at times when the opposition ignites their counters.
Young was superb on Sunday and it was his tremendous off-the-ball movement that started so many bright attacking moves. He was seen receiving out near the touchline, in the pockets of space between the lines, and even deep into own half. Evra reads these movements well and his own ability to vary his attacking moves allows the duo to be unpredictable and fluid on the left-side of attack. Young was able to free himself often enough to attempt an incredible 23 crosses in this match.
3. Jones woeful going forward - On the other side of the pitch, the understanding between Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia appears to be lacking. Rafael partners very well with Valencia down the right touchline but Jones seems to be preferred at right-back for the moment after the Brazilian's poor recent performance versus Everton FC. Jones, who was thought to be a natural center-back -- and he still might be -- when he was brought over to the club in the summer, has shown the ability to motor forward when deployed at right-back. The 20-year-old had a superb first-half of the season and many of these surging runs forward from the back resulted in chances created -- whether that be from a whipped-in cross or from a brave run into the box so that he could have his own attempt on goal. However, his form has severely dropped in the season's second-half and despite his strong defensive performances in the past two weeks, his crossing has been incredibly disappointing. This is both in the decision-making and quality of them.
4. The Rooney/Chicharito partnership underwhelms - To point out the obvious, Chicharito's finishing was quite disappointing. The very simple consensus on the Mexican international seems to be that his all-around game is lacking but he generally makes up for it because his finishing in the box is clinical. Therefore, if he's not bagging his chances, most will tell you that he's been shite on that day. There's certainly a bit of truth in that general assessment -- although pleasantly, his link-up play was decent on Sunday as he held the ball up well and he quickly redistributed it. As he should I suppose.
Most of the time, the Rooney and Chicharito partnership is mutually beneficial because the threat of the latter's pace and his willingness to sit on the shoulder of the last defender creates more space underneath between the lines for the former. This puts the creative onus through the middle on Rooney and this makes Chicharito's supply line partially reliant on his partner's sharpness. Wazza has been bagging lots of goals this season and he certainly deserves much credit for that. However, I'd argue that he was a better player during last season's run-in when compared to any point this season -- especially these last few months. For how dependent Untied are on Rooney in building attacking moves, it's been disappointing to see his touch and decision-making lacking as of late. It'll be interesting to see if Sir Alex Ferguson decides to do a tactical rethink in regards to the role of his most talented attacker.
Perhaps part of Chicharito's relative struggles this season can be attributed to Rooney simply not being as productive this season as a creator. However, in this particular match, the Mexican was receiving supply from the wingers and he was simply wasteful. Quite simply, the chances that he missed -- particularly on a few headers -- are ones that we've grown used to seeing him bag regularly. I have little worry that Chicharito's finishing ability will be fine for next season but I hope that he can have a healthy preseason this year and that he can continue working on his all-around game.
5. Scholes- Here's what I continually reminded myself of on Sunday -- 'Enjoy this. Things may be subdued as a whole, but be sure to appreciative another sublime Scholes performance in front of the Old Trafford faithful. There might not be many left, there might not be any left'.
If we fail to win the Premier League trophy this season, my fondness memory will be the half-season of genius that Scholes gifted us with. What an absolute treat it was.
Conclusion - The tactical battle in this game was Swansea wanting possession so that they calmly slow this match down versus United wanting the ball so that they could quickly attack -- the home side won this battle. The result was pretty much as expected and the performance by United was a commanding one, but they will have been disappointed to not have won by more. However, in the grand picture of the title race, United simply don't have control anymore and while they can go out on Sunday and offer another convincing performance versus Sunderland, their title hopes are entirely dependent on City slipping. That is the sad reality that has brought about these subdued emotions. Mark Hughes has already provided so much in the past -- but imagine if he has one more grand gift to provide on Sunday...