Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 0-0 Newcastle United – Barclays Premier League 2015/16

Well, we’ve been here before haven’t we? Plenty of possession, a few really good chances created but no goals and points dropped at Old Trafford. Was it bad luck or is it becoming a genuine problem? Either way, Manchester United’s 100% start to the new season is over and it really shouldn’t be.

Louis van Gaal selected almost the same team that played against Aston Villa last week, making just one change. Bastian Schweinsteiger made his Premier League debut, replacing Michael Carrick alongside Morgan Schneiderlin in midfield.

Despite the headline-grabbing scoreline, Manchester United’s performance in the opening 25 minutes was excellent. In the first half of the first half, United had eight shots at goal, six of which were on target and saved with the other two being blocked by Newcastle defenders.

Manchester United shots on goal 0-25 minutes - 22.08.15. Credit: Squawka.

Manchester United shots on goal 0-25 minutes – 22.08.15. Credit: Squawka.

This was a marked improvement from United’s opening two games when creativity and chances were at a distinctively low point. The difference between this game and those that went before it was the way in which the three players behind Wayne Rooney played beyond the rigid tactical structure and were flexible in interchanging positions to try and find space and create chances.

Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata heat-map 0-25 minutes - 22.08.15. Credit: Squawka.

Januzaj and Mata heat-map 0-25 minutes – 22.08.15. Credit: Squawka.

Memphis played predominantly from the left, an outlet and a goal threat cutting in from that side with his pace and strength, eager to get himself into goalscoring opportunities. The other two players though, Januzaj and Mata, were interchangeable. They appeared all across the pitch in that opening period, making it difficult for Newcastle defenders to track their runs, pick them up and prevent them getting on the ball. The pair were able to do all of those things and were able to wreak havoc as United created chance after chance.

So what went wrong? Why weren’t United able to translate that early dominance into goals and therefore a victory that was arguably deserved?

Most of the time, when a team doesn’t score goals, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the centre-forward. In this case, that would be Wayne Rooney and he does have to face up to that blame, but not necessarily for the reasons you would think.

Rooney didn’t play badly this afternoon. He wasn’t fantastic and of course we should be expecting more but United created quite a few chances and you can’t do that if the lone striker is abysmal. On the flip side of that, he didn’t score. He had one ruled out after a borderline offside decision but aside from that he was blunt in front of goal. Again.

The problem, I believe, is no.9 is not his best position. It might be no.10 but then you’d argue for forever and a day that Mata would be better in that role. In my opinion it’s something of a hybrid between the two, similar to a false 9, a roaming attacking player who can do damage anywhere across the frontline.

He isn’t as effective as a lone striker, isolated as a no.9 and expected to lead the line and his positioning shows that. Here is a heat map of Manchester United’s average positions before Javier Hernandez entered the action as a second half substitute.

Manchester United average positions vs Newcastle United - 22.08.15. Credit: @ESPNFC

Manchester United average positions vs Newcastle United – 22.08.15. Credit: @ESPNFC

Rooney wanted to drop deep, link with the midfield and play in those deeper areas more accustomed to a creative midfielder rather than a striker. In fact it was Memphis who was in the most advanced position most often for United, suggesting that Rooney is hindering this team as a no.9.

It then became a case of the same old problems for United. Anyone remember the defeat to West Brom last year? Today we saw the same problems. Complete domination but no goals. The only saving grace this afternoon was keeping a clean sheet and leaving with one point rather than losing all three.

Manchester United vs Newcastle United match stats - 22.08.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Manchester United vs Newcastle United match stats – 22.08.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

To have 70% possession, complete over 550 passes and make 248 in the attacking third without scoring is almost unforgivable. What United need is a striker who can lead the line and be a threat in the penalty area against teams who deploy a deep defensive block. For those of you reading this and screaming ‘Javier Hernandez!’ in response to that, I agree, he is that type of player. What I don’t believe is that he has the sufficient quality to do that all season. His miss today suggests that might be the case.

So United need a striker, that’s obvious. Wayne Rooney, for as talented as he is, is a problem. That’s been known for a while too. But let’s focus on some positives from today’s game. United didn’t lose. Hardly the biggest thing, but that West Brom game last year could have been repeated. Daley Blind and Chris Smalling have been solid at the back, Morgan Schneiderlin is a wonderful addition to the midfield and United haven’t conceded in the league yet this year, without arguably the world’s best keeper who is still sat in the stands each week. Another positive is Memphis, who shone in small bursts today and still looks to be United’s biggest attacking threat. The fullbacks have started well too. Three games, seven points and plenty of strong elements to this United side. It’s not all doom and gloom.

So United move on to Belgium and the Champions League. An opportunity to qualify for the group stages of the competition and set the club up for a chance to compete for Europe’s biggest prize. Ed Woodward now has 10 days to try and complete any further transfer business (much-needed in my opinion) and United can erase any negative feeling from today with good performances from both the team and the executive vice-chairman. It will need to be something special; for all the positivity I tried to put on today’s performance, it absolutely cannot happen again.


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