Amid the transfer market noise it is almost easy to forget that Manchester United was consigned to the club’s first defeat of 2015/16 Premier League on Sunday. Louis Van Gaal’s side twice lost to Swansea City last season and slipped to another defeat in Wales at the weekend prompting thoughts that the Welsh side is the United’s ‘bogey team’, just as Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides of the late noughties struggled to beat Middlesbrough.
Still, the match at Liberty stadium once again demonstrated the Reds’ propensity to turn heavy possession into few goals, with Louis van Gaal resorting to sending Maroune Fellaini on late in the game as a desperate last resort.
United started brightly though, with Ander Herrera deployed in place of injured Adnan Januzaj at number 10 in an otherwise familiar shape:
The difference between in the Spaniard and the Belgian’s movement, below, was one of major factors in, if not the cause of, why United struggled to break down a stubborn Swansea defence though.
One factor is how often Januzaj hits the flanks – far more regularly than Herrera. Herrera may create more chances – he created four at Swansea while Januzaj failed to create any against Newcastle United – but the Belgian’s movement compensates for Juan Mata’s lack of presence on the right flank. Januzaj vacates central space for Memphis Depay to cut in and shoot. Herrera’s more classic interpretation of the number 10 role prevented this at Liberty stadium:
Where United failed, credit goes to Swansea manager Gary Monk, whose switch to a 4-4-2 diamond following Mata’s goal won the home side the game. United’s shape, with essentially no right-wing, has allowed the Reds to dominate the centre of the park in pervious matches, but the Swansea manager negated that advantage by opting for a narrow formation.
In fact, using two strikers as well as an attacking midfielder, was a particularly effective way of testing United’s makeshift central defensive partnership of Daley Blind and Chris Smalling. It was a shrewd tactical move on Monk’s part.
Van Gaal’s response – bringing Ashley Young on in place of the goalscoring Mata – made perfect sense too. The 4-4-2 diamond is highly vulnerable to being stretched across the field, and introducing a hardworking traditional right-winger is a textbook move to combat the formation, as illustrated below.
Michael Carrick’s concurrent introduction in place of Morgan Schneiderlin was also a wise move on Van Gaal’s part in the context of United’s shift to a 4-3-3 formation. Recall that United’s best football last season was in this system with Carrick holding. Carrick’s superior range of passing means that he engages the flanks much more effectively than Schneiderlin and is therefore well suited to work the inherent weakness of 4-4-2 diamond.
More controversial was Van Gaal’s decision to swap Herrera for Fellaini – and then using the giant midfielder at number nine. With United a goal down the decision to push Fellaini into the Swansea box could have been useful. Indeed, Swansea brought on a third centre-back just to follow the Belgian around the pitch.
Perhaps the braver move still would have been to introduce Fellaini in place of Wayne Rooney, who again struggled to get into the game as he has in each Premier League match this season.
Still, the Herrera-Fellaini substitution was the right call. Again, Rooney works the flanks better than the Spanish midfielder. ‘Lumping it to the big man’ was an option, but another – perhaps primary plan – was to allow Memphis, who had been quiet, to come into the game more. Rooney sat to the left of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the Scouser, who has always displayed a tendency to drift towards the left, makes for an ideal central midfield partner to Memphis.
Tactics aside, the game highlighted some clear problems with some personnel. Sergio Romero reinforced the opinion of some that the Argentinian is not a reliable goalkeeper for a side aspiring to compete on all fronts. David De Gea would have made a better fist of saving Swansea’s first goal, while most Premier League ‘keepers would have stopped the second.
Meanwhile, the major problem caused by Rooney is that he does not ‘lead the line’, nor can he hold up the ball effectively. This allows the opposition defence to creep up the pitch and squeeze Memphis and Mata out of the game.
In theory, Fellaini might perform effectively at number nine. The Belgian could force the opposition into a catch 22 situation where they cannot push up – the traditional defence against a target man – lest Fellaini act as a focal-point for midfielder runners such as Memphis, the now departed Januzaj, and Mata. Nor can they defend deep given Fellaini’s aerial presence.
Still, Memphis, Januzaj and Mata had started to build an understanding with one another before the Belgian’s departure on Monday. Januzaj’s roaming to the flanks allowed Memphis and Mata to cut in – and the three have shown flashes of just how devastating this combination could be. This observation, and Rooney’s tactical indiscipline, could be incorporated into a strikerless formation.
Rooney’s movements to the right could be interpreted as the England captain covering for Mata, but acquiring a strong right-winger could also solve a number of United’s problems. Indeed, this column previously failed to identify a striker that would improve United significantly, while a right-sided forward – such as Gareth Bale or Kevin Volland – would make up the goalscoring numbers and, theoretically, have the same impact as acquiring a new striker.
Using Young or Januzaj on the right does not really solve this issue. Memphis has quickly established himself as an important weapon in United’s arsenal and the Swansea game has demonstrated that a ‘traditional’ number 10 significantly hampers the former PSV player’s game. Mata, Rooney, Fellaini and Herrera simply are not as comfortable as Januzaj on the flanks and Januzaj had to play at 10 in a 4-2-3-1 if Memphis was to shine.
In this analysis the ideal scenario is that a classy right-winger replaces Mata on the right. Still, with Pedro not deemed good enough, it appears unlikely that a classy right-winger will join United before the transfer window closes. Januzaj’s departure also suggests a more permanent move to a 4-3-3 system, below.
This formation will leave room for Memphis to cut in. If Mata is chosen ahead of Young on the right, with Januzaj now at Borussia Dortmund, the Spaniard at least formed a fruitful relationship with Herrera last season. This shape is aided by Matteo Darmian, who has started the season strongly.
The shape is narrow, but this is not a major problem with three players in central midfield allowing Luke Shaw and Darmian to bomb forward. This is not unlike the system Van Gaal used in United’s convincing victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City last season. United, of course, now has better players.
United’s defeat at Swansea demonstrated just how vital Januzaj is to making a 4-2-3-1 system work. With Januzaj now departed, the need for a ‘proper’ right winger lingers. It appears that a 4-3-3 formation is now the only feasible option going forward. Indeed, Van Gaal said he will use “more or less 4-3-3” this season. It is now time to live up to those words.
Diagrams from sharemytactics.com
Statistics and illustrations from squawka.com