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Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 2-0 Sunderland – Barclays Premier League

Manchester United’s poor result against Swansea City coupled with Robin van Persie’s ankle injury gave Louis van Gaal the opportunity to change both the personnel and formation for the visit of Sunderland. The tactical change saw the midfield diamond scrapped in favour of a five man midfield and a lone striker. Ander Herrera and Daley Blind formed a double pivot at the base of the midfield, with Angel Di María and Ashley Young selected as out-and-out wingers in a formation that gives licence to the front four to go out and affect the game with freedom and fluidity.

The back four was disrupted through illness and injury, so Marcos Rojo moved to left back and Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling were given an opportunity to impress in a centre-back pairing, replacing the injured Luke Shaw and the unwell Phil Jones.

The biggest change for Manchester United from last week to this is the shape of the midfield. At times this season, particularly since Christmas, the holding midfielder has been incredibly isolated at the base of the diamond. Without midfield players coming short and offering themselves as options for short, angled passes to progress each attacking move, that holding player has often had to resort to hopeful long passes forward or recycle possession by going sideways or backwards to supporting defenders. This problem leads to slow build up play, regressive football in the attacking areas and a lack of chances created, which ultimately makes it harder to score goals and win football matches.

With the change in shape this afternoon, Ander Herrera and Daley Blind were able to control the game in the middle of the pitch. The intelligence with which this partnership moved complimentary to one another, made space for each other and regularly found teammates in forward areas, meant that for once United were able to do more with the superior possession that they managed yet again.

The statistics at the final whistle make for interesting reading. Of course the possession and passing stats will have become a bit skewed following the red card for Wes Brown, but while United had the lion share of possession again, a trend under Louis van Gaal this season, they did far more with the ball in the final third. In fact nearly half of all United’s passes were made in the attacking areas, making it absolutely no surprise that they managed a remarkable 30 shots on goal.

Manchester United 2-0 Sunderland full-time match stats. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Manchester United 2-0 Sunderland full-time match stats – 28.2.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

According to whoscored.com, Manchester United average the highest possession at home in the league at 62.6%, yet are a miserable 9th most creative in terms of shots per game, with just 14.6. This afternoon the midfield shape was more conducive to relentless, controlled possession in midfield and in the more advanced areas of the pitch, with Ander Herrera and Daley Blind working together as a double pivot, pulling the strings and controlling the game like conductors. The result was more shots on goal and inevitably, two goals and three valuable points.

One of the most crucial factors in their influence this afternoon was how heavily involved they were in the game. So often this season the most common pass combinations have involved defenders passing to each other or midfielders being forced backwards to defenders when there have been no other options to pass to. Against Sunderland, Manchester United’s seven most common pass combinations involved either Ander Herrera or Daley Blind. In fact the most common combination was between the pair of them.

Manchester United pass combinations vs Sunderland - 28.2.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Manchester United pass combinations vs Sunderland – 28.2.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

What is important to note here is that it was not just that they got on the ball and were involved throughout the game. When you look at the way each combination worked individually, the player receiving the ball is the one you would expect to see playing in a more advanced role, apart from the final combination; Herrera to Valencia. This suggests that both Blind and Herrera were instrumental in taking the ball from the defenders and starting each attack, moving the ball through midfield and trying to bring United’s match winners into play. In recent weeks we have seen so many different variations of formation and tactical system. Different players playing midfield and up front, and each time there have been so few options for the man on the ball. This afternoon it was different, with Herrera and Blind willing to take the ball and bring others into the game. It is exactly this kind of progressive, forward thinking and positive attitude towards the build up play is the foundation on which United can build a successful, free-flowing team.

Many people who have written about, commented on or merely even spoken about Manchester United this season have been underwhelmed by the performance level, but have also been adamant that it is not far away from clicking. MUFCLatest’s Stephen Howson has been particularly vocal on the subject, speaking of the similarities between Manchester United and Barcelona, and how United can emulate the Catalonian’s with one or two tactical tweaks. The base of which must be a good midfield, and Herrera and Blind’s performance against Sunderland might be the first sign that this system could reproduce the right kind of midfield for Manchester United.

The result of their level of control in the middle of the park was the influence of the wide players. Ashley Young and Angel Di María were prominent in the first half but for very different reasons. Young was excellent throughout in fact, but in the first half he nearly broke the deadlock and provided one or two dangerous crosses that nearly opened Sunderland up. Di María was still heavily involved, but often chose the wrong option or executed the right one poorly. His replacement at half time continued to be as prominent, and both Januzaj and Young were excellent in the second half.

Manchester United player influence vs Sunderland - 28.2.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone.

Manchester United player influence vs Sunderland – 28.2.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone.

As you can see from the player influence, Herrera and Blind were the most influential in the middle of midfield, but their control of the game allowed Januzaj and Young to take up such advanced positions. They played high and wide, isolated their fullbacks and provided a threat from the wings throughout the 90 minutes. The other important thing that this diagram shows is how much closer United’s strikers were to the midfield duo. By coming short and receiving the ball, both Falcao and Rooney allowed United to control the possession in advanced areas, made defenders move from their comfort zone in order to follow them, and in turn that gave Young, Di María and Januzaj that space and freedom to become the outlets on either side of the pitch.

It really should come as no surprise that Manchester United were able to win this game so comfortably in the end. The importance of gaining control in midfield cannot be overstated, and when you look at each of the top teams they have players in those positions that suffocate the opponent. Constantly winning the ball back, moving it forward and giving the opposition no time to think as the attacking players try again. Chelsea have Matic and Fabregas, City have Toure and Fernandinho and now Manchester United can start to depend on Herrera and Blind in the same way. Two players who compliment each other, work off one another’s strengths and weaknesses and who can make the game that much simpler for those around them.

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