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Manchester United find the perfect balance between defence and attack

United 3-0 Tottenham: Analysis and Observations

It is still early days but the manner in which Manchester United conducted themselves in their first home game was most encouraging. And such a result against a team thought to be the ‘dark horses’ of the Premier League this season gives all the more reasons to be optimistic. Tottenham’s resilience was apparent in the first half where they mounted a good challenge, seeing more of the ball and creating chances but all their hard work was undone in the second where they collapsed meekly and let United take charge.

It was an authoritative performance from the hosts after the interval and, indeed, United found the perfect balance between defence and attack. This was all done despite the likes of Ferdinand, Vidic, Fletcher, Carrick, Berbatov and Hernandez either on the bench or absent through injury. Manchester United have always been blessed with great strength in-depth, able to sweep aside opposition regardless of who is and isn’t playing.

Defence copes well under pressure

A lot was made about Manchester United’s apparent inexperience at the back but as any observer of the clubs knows, ‘inexperience’ doesn’t exactly have to be a negative word. The two centre-halves, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones, were both strong contender for Man of the Match. Evans was disciplined and assured allowing Jones to be in his comfort zone and venture forward when needed. Both Chris Smalling and Patrice Evra were solid and provided another attacking outlet down the flanks.

<Figure 1> This was a fine performance by Evans. It was, to use the annoying football phrase, a ‘no-nonsense’ performance from the Northern Ireland international. The above diagram shows his defensive clearances – four of which were in dangerous positions in and around the box.

<Figure 2> There are many reasons to be excited about Phil Jones. If you take a look at the key below, you can just see how useful a player he is. He made plenty of interceptions and clearances; and had freedom to press into spaces – restricting Spurs to use long-range efforts in order to find a goal.

Spurs failure to exploit United’s so-called ‘weakness’

<Figure 3> A lot has been of David de Gea’s apparent weakness from long-range shots; indeed, he conceded more than any other player from efforts outside the box in last year’s La Liga but a quick look at the goals suggest that some were unstoppable and that it’d be unfair to call it a weakness of his. However, it was quite obvious that Spurs had tried to target him, with a majority of their shots coming from outside the box. It should be added that this was also partly the case because United’s back four had restricted Spurs.

Cleverley and Anderson give stability to midfield

For the third consecutive game, United’s new look central midfield pairing were excellent. At first, they struggled to impose themselves but soon got into the groove – it was Tom Cleverley with the vital cross for Danny Welbeck that finally broke the deadlock. With Anderson (who scored the second) alongside Cleverley, it gave stability to the midfield and the team. There is a perfect balance between the two.

<Figure 4> Anderson carried out his defensive duties well. It is vital for a midfield player to stay disciplined and prevent the opposition from creating, and so Anderson’s six interceptions were crucial. That sounds more impressive when you consider Tom Cleverley didn’t even make one – but what it tells you is that both have different roles despite playing in a similar position.

United utilise the wings so well

“You’re just a shit Barcelona,” observed the travelling Spurs fans of Manchester United whose chants, albeit witty, were ultimately flawed. It’s probably not worth dwelling on such a comment but United, as it were, are almost something of an ‘anti-Barca’ – however, that isn’t a criticism. There are many ways a team could play in order to be successful and, in this game, they displayed great verve down the flanks, with a tendency to spread play quickly and without as much focus on possession keeping. For instance, even at 2-0 up, it wasn’t a case of simply keeping the ball and building patiently – it was more attacking the full backs and finding the man in the box. Not to say Barcelona don’t necessarily do that but as so much has been made at the fact that United “don’t have a central midfield”, it is worth saying that different teams work in different ways and players are given roles according to how their team is set up. There is no ‘right way’ to play the game, for sure.

And not many teams concentrate so much on their wide players like United do – it’s worth mentioning that by the time they scored their third, they had already attempted over 30 crosses. Ashley Young, or “a shit Aaron Lennon” as a couple of intellectuals chose to describe him as, looked dangerous on the flanks and already he looks a shrewd acquisition. Nani is very similar; but now, he tends to drift into the centre a touch and link up play and so far, he’s done it with much success.

<Figure 5> The chalkboard above looks a touch concerning but it does suggest United’s reliance from the wide ball. They scored 18 headed goals last season – more than any other team – and that’s partly to do with their perseverance to find the man in the box. In reality, 6 successful crosses from 33 is not as bad as it sounds when you consider that two of those were assists.

Wayne Rooney can compliment anyone

When Wayne Rooney drops into that almost-trequartista position, his impact on the game is likely to be huge. He appears to have created a good understanding with Danny Welbeck, who came in and out of the game but was finally able to impose himself in the second half when he scored the first and created the second. Rooney was impressive again – he attempted the most passes in the final third (38, 13 more than second-best Nani) and was in the right position to nod in the third towards the end.

The Report Card. United players are graded as if they’re back at school; David De Gea C – Chris Smalling B, Phil Jones A, Jonny Evans A, Patrice Evra C – Nani C, Tom Cleverley B, Anderson B+, Ashley Young B – Wayne Rooney A, Danny Welbeck B

Analysis and Observations: Authoritative Manchester United excel as a unit

United 3-2 Manchester City

Just a friendly, you say? Of course, but that hardly matters; it was the performance alone which was enough to fuel excitement ahead of the new season. At first, it was simply frustrating as Manchester United failed to convert. And even more frustrating when they conceded two cheap goals. Then breathtaking. One thing for sure, these 90 minutes – or United’s 85 minutes of dominance – was the embodiment of something good. Against a team supposedly strong enough to win the title, this game saw the Red Devils prevail in the mental battle. Quite vital when you consider that the 11/12 campaign is less than a week away.

United show power through the flanks. When you contemplate the inflated prices in the transfer market these days, £16million for Ashley Young looks a steal. Historically, United have always had a whole host of competent wingers and Young appears to be a fine addition. Here, he displayed great verve down the flanks and drifted in when he needed to, reducing the workload of both Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck at the same time. And, with United two goals down, he delivered a fantastic cross from a free-kick which allowed Chris Smalling to score setting United up for the rest of the game.

With Young making a good impression on the left, Nani enjoyed a good game on the opposite flank. He had made a good start but, at times, was kept quiet by City’s full backs. However, as so typical of the Portuguese winger, he excelled when United needed him most and led them on their fightback. A beautiful interchange in the box had allowed Nani to stroke home and equalise – setting the tone for the last half hour where United charged at City’s back four with much authority. Quite predictably, they found their third in stoppage time. Nani, the source of it as he dispossessed Vincent Kompany on the halfway line and then coolly rounded Joe Hart. And, after a terrific campaign last year, it was barely a shock.

Cleverley’s, er, genius, shines through. As the team has always prided itself in having great depth, Manchester United may need to sign another central midfielder in the summer window as they appear to be a little short on number. However, Tom Cleverley gave a timely reminder of his worth here at Wembley – evidently, his loan spell at Wigan Athetic has paid dividends. With United two goals down at the half time, they needed a change of personnel – not because they were playing badly, in fact they were easily the better team, but confidence had obviously been shot.

Who knows? Had Michael Carrick been fully fit coming into this game, he might have played on. As it happened, Cleverley replaced him and he instantly got into the game, stringing passes together and showing adventure whenever possible. He created a half-chance for Danny Welbeck immediately, before going on to assist the second. Here, Cleverley forged a good partnership with Anderson, much like he had a week earlier when United had beaten Barcelona 2-1 in a pre-season friendly.

David de Gea struggles to impose himself. Unfortunately, United’s new Spaniard keeper didn’t enjoy the sort of competitive debut his teammates such as Young or Phil Jones did, as he made two made avoidable errors towards the end of the first half. Firstly, for Joleon Lescott’s goal, he positioned himself poorly for a free kick and was made to pay as the defender easily nodded in. Then, minutes later, he was slow and sluggish as he failed to save an Edin Dzeko strike. He did try to atone for these mistakes in the second half when he pulled off a few decent saves, but his performance will still be under scrutiny. It’s important that he is given time, though.

United operate as a team. The reason why City struggled to assert themselves was because they focused too much on individuality and certainly did not pass the ball as well as United, who had a large share of possession even when they were behind. The equaliser epitomised just how good United are as a collective – showing great understanding together. It is also worth noting that when the final whistle was blown, United’s eleven players on the pitch had an average of 23. At one point, their oldest player was Ashley Young, quite amusingly – at the tender age of 26.

The Report Card. Yep, it’s back. United players are graded as if they’re back at school; David De Gea F – Chris Smalling B, Rio Ferdinand C, Nemanja Vidic C, Patrice Evra C – Nani A, Michael Carrick C, Anderson C, Ashley Young A – Wayne Rooney B, Danny Welbeck C – Subs: Phil Jones C, Jonny Evans C, Rafael C, Tom Cleverley B, Dimitar Berbatov (too cool for school)

Protected: Tom Cleverley has all the attributes for midfield success

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Manchester United defeated but not disgraced

Barcelona are synonymous with everything good. As they went to collect their winners’ medal, there was a shot of United’s players clapping as if they were resigned to defeat, as if this were an event of inevitability. Perhaps, it was. Indeed, they were outclassed – as many observers had predicted – by a team that are not destined for greatness, for they are already there. ‘Greatness’ is not on the agenda; ‘perfection’ is more apt for this side.

After Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Chelsea which virtually sealed their 19th league title, Jonathan Wilson wrote: “This was an annihilation, and in the rigor of its pressing, the pace and directness of its attacking, the intelligence of its movement, particularly in the opening half-hour, United looked a team that might perhaps be able to challenge Barcelona in the Champions league final.” But Wilson’s words could not reflect better on United’s opponents at Wembley, who themselves ‘annihilated’ the Red Devils, who themselves displayed pressing of the rigorous kind and whose movement dissected the United defence and with it, the very life of Sir Alex’s men. They witnessed a masterclass and were made to taste Barcelona’s humble paella. It was not a taste to savour.

It feels almost wrong to say Barcelona are invincible, but the gap between them and the second best team in Europe, which is United, is huge. While the standards of European football appears to be declining (look at the Serie A), Barca have emerged as the greatest team in living memory; even better than the Dream Team of Johan Cruyff or Brazil’s all-conquering side of the Seventies. Pep Guardiola, under the tutelage of Cruyff, has gone and done something unprecedented – overtake his mentor not by trophies won, (statistically, he has a trophy less than the Dutchman) but by infusing his ideology into his side and has appeared to have bettered everything he has done.

This is not to say Manchester United played badly; much like the final in Rome 2009, they started encouragingly and again Barcelona seemed to have been starstruck almost. However, the Catalan Giants are perennial slow-starters and this was nothing new; like an experienced batsman who sees off the swinging, new ball they gradually found their rhythm and punished the opposition.

Park ji-Sung started brightly, but perhaps overrun himself; even the man they call ‘three lungs’ cut an exhausted figure after 20 minutes. By then Barcelona were in the ascendancy. Xavi and Iniesta were playing pinball, while Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets formed a defensive barrier that required more than a spirited Wayne Rooney to breach. In fact, their only weakness appeared to be Victor Valdes, who was visibly shaken in the first quarter, huffing and puffing after a few instances of lapses in concentration. But creating chances to trouble him thereafter proved far too difficult. Javier Hernandez was isolated and suddenly the exclusion of Dimitar Berbatov seemed a mistake. However, even the delightful Bulgarian would not have prevented defeat.

When Pedro put Barcelona ahead, it was difficult to foresee an equaliser. Yet, it happened anyway. It was a moment of beauty and disbelief; Wayne Rooney scoring a goal that was even more magical than that acrobatic finish against City earlier this season. Rooney dispelled the myth that he wasn’t a big-game player and his goal, an excellent finish which saw intricate interplay beforehand, allowed United to go into half time with much belief. The Englishman has had somewhat of the clichéd rollercoaster season. After the intense media scrutiny in the first part of the season, Rooney has since come out and displayed the type of football that he is renown for; and again at Wembley, he tracked back and dropped deep trying his utmost to link up play. Make no mistake; Rooney is committed to Manchester United.

Hope was restored. 1-1, the scoreline read. Arsenal had already done the impossible and doggedly fought back in the first leg from 1-0 to win 2-1 in the last 16 of this competition. With all due respect, these were entirely different circumstances. Lionel Messi was the protagonist, as if there was going to be anybody else, and dribbled in such limited space, evoking memories of the great Garrincha and Maradona. He is a legend in the making. His goal, Barca’s second, typified and epitomised the Argentine wonder. A neat finish was followed by more dazzling with the ball, helping David Villa score the third and final goal which sealed United’s fate.

Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will certainly look back and rue this night; but both had showed great determination and character. Edwin van der Sar, in his final game, was blameless – he might have been able to prevent the first goal when he was wrongfooted by Pedro’s strike, but made a string of saves that kept the scoreline at respectability. Old Trafford will be without him next year; and the trophy that all of Europe desire. However, La Orejas is with its rightful owners. Barcelona will dominate the continent for years to come, but who’s to say this Manchester United side, passionate, spirited and with the potential to get better, will not cross their path once more in the near future?

Manchester United can exploit Barcelona’s defensive weaknesses

It’s not often Manchester United go into a game, any game, as underdogs. But that evening in Rome still lives long in memory (Patrice Evra: “It hurt so much when we lost. We did the team pictures the following season. We had three trophies. But we were missing the one with the big ears.”) and the pain still remains. But United are adamant that they’ve learnt their lessons and that, on Saturday, there will be no such naivety on show this time around. Of course, words are just words.

However, the general perception is that this will be a more competitive final. Indeed, it will be – or at least, it should be. Despite inexplicably improving even more so since Rome 2009, the formidable Barcelona can be beaten and even without the aid of this. “Basically, Barcelona do not like being attacked or pressured,” says Rafael da Silva. “We need to make them feel uncomfortable.” They have weaknesses, and United must exploit them.

Of course, that’s easier said than done because Pep Guardiola has worked incessantly in his three years in charge to make Barcelona the ultimate footballing machine, perfect in every way and devoid of any weaknesses.

The Guardian journalist Paul Hayward suggested earlier this month that Gerard Piqué is Barcelona’s weak link (also noting how pressing Barca high up the pitch can stifle them): “According to Guillem Balague, the respected Spanish commentator, coaches in his homeland reckon the way to inconvenience Barcelona is to attack their “first line”, which means their centre-backs (principally Gerard Piqué), who start most of their forward moves.” However, Guardiola has anticipated this, even though those sides who have used the tactic have troubled Barcelona. He looks to spread the centre-backs wide across the pitch in the hope of evading the press as this means the opponents will have to cover more ground to try to get the ball off them. Yet by doing so, it comes at a risk because it leaves more space in the middle to exploit and if United get the ball back there, Barca will be in real trouble. Sergio Busquets is usually the man who drops in to make a three and allows them to spread with assurance but press him – that is, if you can – and Barca lose the man who starts off most of their moves.

<Figure 1> Barcelona opt to spread their centre-backs wide when in possession as they anticipate Manchester United, like many other teams who have they faced before them, press high up the pitch. By spreading the defenders it is hoped that closing them down will be more difficult as there is more space to cover. However, it comes at a risk because it leaves a massive gap if United can win the ball back in this area. Sergio Busquets will particularly be targeted as he is the man who plays the ball out so the duel between him and Rooney will be fascinating. (Image generated by The Arsenal Column).

(Another example of Barcelona’s tactic is displayed by Porto who use a similar strategy of spreading their centre-backs wide. Here, Fernando, the defensive midfielder, drops back to receive possession but is dispossessed, resulting in a great chance for Braga. Barcelona, though, are a different kettle of fish in possession.)

Barcelona’s key selection will be that of Eric Abidal at left-back or Carlos Puyol. Manchester United might hope the latter as Puyol will not be very comfortable at full-back getting forward and particularly using his left foot. United must not allow him the easy pass inside and can profit if they cut off the angles off his right boot. Pressing full-backs is an underused strategy as they are cramped for space to the side, even more so as Puyol is not on his “natural” side. Park Ji-Sung did this well against Branislav Ivanovic, forcing him centrally thus making play narrow. They will need him or Antonio Valencia to do the same again at Wembley regardless of who starts.

One player who needs no invitation to get forward is Dani Alves although he has hinted he may be more conservative in the final. Alves’ role is often understated simply because he is a full-back but he gets forward as much as a winger would and is key to helping Barcelona stretch the play. In a way, he sets the dynamics of the team’s movement forward, pinning opponents back. If he doesn’t play, Barcelona are less fluid as he is often their out-ball. Sir Alex Ferguson may want to exploit any space he leaves but is Park the correct man to do that? Valencia could be thought of doing likewise on the other side but if it’s Puyol he’s up against, he’s unlikely to get forward as much. Nevertheless, the left flank seems the most vulnerable side to exploit as David Villa will not track back as frequently bringing the energy of Fabio or Rafael into play.

In the season gone by, Manchester United finished with more headed goals than anybody else in the Premier League (they notched up 18 headed goals, three more than Newcastle in second) and although they have struggled to convert from set-pieces and corners in particular, their aerial threat is a key asset to their game and one that can ultimately see defeat for their opponents. Barcelona are not as bad as made out to be in the air, they are sometimes vulnerable.

“Ferguson is aware of the physical superiority of his team and knows that United’s best chances may be from mistakes and corners,” says Cesc Fabregas, who also recommends starting Fletcher in a 4-3-3. “This strategy is the key in the finals. A dead ball for [Nemanja] Vidic is dangerous. Rio Ferdinand does not go up all the time, but I think in the end he will when it matters. United are extremely combative.”

Barcelona come into Saturday’s game as overwhelming favourites – but they are beatable and United will know that. And, despite boasting some of the best defensive players in the world, their backline is an area that they have to, and can, breach. When it does happen, you’ve got to take your chances; you never know if you’ll get another one.

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