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Manchester United begin the new year with a solid win over West Ham

48 hours after their dramatic 2-1 win over Middlesbrough, Manchester United ensured another win against West Ham away. With this win, they ensured that they have been unbeaten in 13 games. It also moved them level on points with Tottenham who face Chelsea on the 4th of January. 

Team lineup 

Courtesy: Onefootball app

Manchester United line up

West Ham lineup

A common pattern this season in Manchester United’s recent away games has been the exclusion of genuine wingers from the lineups. In this game, Mkhitaryan and Lingard started as wingers. Both of these players are good at tight spaces. The inclusion of Mkhitaryan and Lingard maybe due to the fact that most teams Manchester United come up against in the Premier League have smaller field dimensions. When the dimensions become smaller, the wingers virtually become redundant in terms of effectiveness. As such, the importance of local combinations in small spaces become top priority in such grounds. 

Manchester United’s set up

A peculiar feature of Manchester United’s set up for this game was the central orientation of Lingard and Mkhitaryan. This ensured that there were more players in central areas in the final third to make quick combinations. While the idea was right, the execution of the passes was substandard in this game. Mourinho mentioned this in his post match interview and claimed that it was probably due to fatigue. Mkhitaryan and Lingard’s central positioning meant there was lack of width. To solve this issue, Valencia and Darmian stayed wide to ensure that there was a passing outlet out wide when the centre became too congested. The narrow positioning of Mkhitaryan and Lingard is clearly illustrated in the passmap below by 11tegen11.

The passmap below clearly illustrates the narrow positioning of United’s wingers Mkhitaryan and Lingard. Moreover, instead of two CMs dropping deep to help build up, we see only Carrick staying deep.

Unlike earlier games when two players from midfield would drop deeper to aid build up, Carrick was the only one who stayed deeper while Herrera and Pogba advanced higher to make up the numbers in midfield to help in the combinations mentioned earlier. More numbers in midfield meant that there were more possibilities for combinations as well as greater possibilities for winning the ball up higher. The positioning of the midfielders though was not rigid with Carrick situationally playing advanced to allow Herrera to drop deep. But the overall structure was not disturbed by such movements.

United failed to find the breakthrough in the first half with Valencia coming closest to scoring whose shot was saved on the line by Randolph. 

Mourinho’s tactical changes 

With Feghouli being shown the red card in the 15th minute, West Ham’s strategy for the remainder of the game focussed on stopping United from scoring. After the sending off, they sat deep in a 4-5-0 deep block. This forced Mourinho to sub Darmian for Mata. Carrick was deployed as a centre back while Rojo moved to LB. Rashford later came on for Lingard. Unlike Lingard, Rashford was told to stay wide because of his 1 v 1 abilities. The two subs worked as they combined for the opening goal. Rashford created 3 chances and won the Man of the Match for his impressive display. 

As soon as United took the lead, Mourinho made another tactical change by bringing on Smalling for Mkhitaryan. This change meant that Carrick was restored to his role as CDM while Smalling took his place as CB to negate the threat of towering Andy Carroll. 

Other than the occasional blunder, it was a solid defensive performance from Manchester United. West Ham hardly had any shots inside the box. De Gea’s 1 v 1 save to deny Antonio was crucial in the context of the game. The xG map (credits: Michael Caley) reflects this.

Conclusion

6 straight Premier League wins has not done much to change their position in the League but with Chelsea and Spurs facing each other on the 4th, United can hope to make good ground in the Premier League race. With Liverpool up next, the tables can look very different in a few days from now. It will be interesting to see if the Red Devils can maintain their momentum with a busy January threatening to test their resilience to the limit.

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Late win seals all three points for Manchester United against resolute Middlesbrough

Manchester United marked Sir Alex Ferguson’s 75th birthday with a comeback win which was so common during his days. Late goals in the 85th and 86th minute from Martial and Pogba respectively ensured that the Red Devils ended 2016 on a high with 5 straight wins in the Premier League.

Team lineups

Courtesy: Onefootball app

Manchester United lineup

Middlesbrough lineup

Build up structure

A common pattern during the last few games has been the higher position occupied by Manchester United’s fullbacks. In the earlier games, one of the fullbacks stayed deeper( usually the left back) while the other took up an advanced position. The advanced fullback was Valencia. 

However, in the last few games, both fullbacks have occupied higher positions. This has maximized Manchester United’s attacking potential. Firstly, the advanced positioning of the fullbacks allows the likes of Pogba and Herrera to drop into the halfspaces to help in a smooth build up. Without ball playing centre backs (Rojo and Jones in most games;Smalling and Bailly in this game), it would have been unwise to expect the centre backs to help circulate the ball into advanced areas. The deeper positioning of Pogba and Herrera in the halfspaces helps avoid this problem. The positioning of Pogba and Herrera in the halfspaces also ensure that they have access to the centre as well as the wings. Rene Maric wrote an excellent article on halfspaces

The advanced positions taken up by Blind and Valencia enables Herrera and Pogba to drop deeper to aid Man United’s build up

Secondly, the higher position of the left fullback in recent games has allowed the left wingers to flourish in recent games. Martial played his best game this season. Other than his performance, it was the 2 v 1 situations or 2 v 2 situations created by the higher position of Blind which helped him produce such a performance. In the first few games, he seemed to be struggling because of the deeper position occupied by Manchester United’s Left back( Shaw in most games). This often meant that he was isolated against the opposition fullback and retreating winger. As a result he was getting easily dispossessed. The higher positioning of Blind has helped him maximise his potential. 

Blind’s presence ensures Martial has better chances for success in subsequent actions

Chance creation in the final third

32 attempts in the game is proof of how dominant Manchester United have been in this game. Like the old days under Sir Alex Ferguson, the wings seemed to be the most preferred route for attacking. Other than the crosses, it was impressive to see Manchester United win most of the second balls. This was made possible by Manchester United’s positional structure in possession. Herrera and Mkhitaryan were intelligent in their positioning throughout the game. Mourinho has praised Mkhitaryan in recent games for his skills in transition phases. The Armenian is intelligent in the timing of his pressing movements. This enables him to win the ball in higher zones. One of the pressing triggers he uses is underweight passes from the opposition CB to the fullback. This enables him to intercept passes which can then create chances for his team.

A problem for Manchester United early in the season was their poor occupation of the halfspaces in the final third. But as the season has rolled by, the players have become better in their positioning with better occupation of the halfspaces and centre in possession. This has ensured that Manchester United win most of the second balls after crosses are delivered into the box. This is the reason why almost every game at Old Trafford yields so many chances.

Manchester United’s structure in possession. This ensures that Middlesbrough have no outlet for a counter attack other than a long punt to Negredo up front. Smalling and Blind are well equipped to deal with Negredo


Mourinho’s substitutions

After going behind against the run of play,Mourinho made some interesting substitutions. Blind,having being booked earlier, was replaced by Rojo at LB to look after the dynamic Adama Traore. Rashford came on for Smalling and Mata came on for Fellaini as Man United switched to a back 3 comprising of Valencia Bailly and Rojo. Herrera sat deep in midfield to balance Valencia’s movements. The changes were interesting because it meant Manchester United played with Mata,Zlatan,Pogba,Rashford,Martial and Pogba all of whom are considered as predominantly attack-minded players. It was a bold move but paid off after earlier efforts were thwarted by Middlesbrough. Manchester United’s structure ensured that they were not at risk of conceding from a counter attack even though so many attacking players were playing at the same time. 

Conclusion

Having opened up a 9 point gap with the 7th placed team Everton,Mourinho will be looking for slip ups from teams ahead of him in the title race. A top 4 finish is looking highly probable.But the possibility of finishing higher than 4th is also looking likely if United can maintain the strong performances.

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