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Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 2-1 West Ham United – Barclays Premier League

Louis van Gaal continued with the diamond in midfield, with Rooney once again playing just behind the partnership of Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie. Luke Shaw made his debut for United at left back in a makeshift back four, with Marcos Rojo switched to centre back to partner youth academy graduate Paddy McNair.

The first half an hour showed great promise. Just like against Leicester, some of the attacking football was great to watch. The midfield diamond brought the best out of Angel Di María, who was once again a threat through the middle and in wide areas. Playing in this system allows him to become a dual threat, and West Ham struggled to deal with him at times. With our first choice fullbacks on display though, this afternoon was the first opportunity to see the way they can exploit the space in the wide areas. With a midfield diamond that prohibits the use of out-and-out wide players, Rafael and Luke Shaw were able to offer attacking width. Particularly on the right hand side, with Ander Herrera tucked in to a central area, Rafael was given the freedom and the space to impact United’s attacking play in the first half.

His energy and positivity created multiple attacking opportunities for United, and he was even able to provide the assist for Rooney’s goal with a cross from the right hand side. His attacking intention allowed United to dominate the central area with Herrera tucked inside, whilst still providing a threat in wide areas. He was given the licence to go forward by Daley Blind, who was able to sit and cover the threat of a break every time Rafael went forward. His intelligent positioning gave the right back the freedom to attack and show the potential within the system for dominant possession. It was a vintage Rafael performance, one that we haven’t seen for a while from the Brazilian. All action, energy, quality in attacking areas, and most importantly, no rash tackles and needless yellow cards.

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Manchester United Player Influence (Credit: FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

For as good as the attacking side of United’s game was this afternoon, defensively there were certainly worrying moments. One aspect of it came through the lack of discipline within the United midfield. Rooney and Di María were part of the midfield diamond, but as you can see below, they were far more intent on attacking than defending.

This created large gaps that West Ham could exploit, and at times Daley Blind was overrun in the middle of the pitch. While there were evident improvements in this aspect of United’s defensive work since last weeks capitulation at Leicester, it was still not completely sorted and a better team would have punished United for it. The midfield diamond should be a tight-knit group of four that covers ground and moves together efficiently in order to control certain areas of the pitch at any given time. Instead the players were too far apart and West Ham were able to pass between the United midfielder’s, exposing the United back line.

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In fact it was this gung-ho attitude towards attacking which led to Rooney’s senseless red card. West Ham were able to turn defence into attack too quickly, and with the back four exposed Rooney felt he needed to bring the attack to a halt immediately by bringing Downing down. Inexplicably he did so with a reckless challenge and put his side in danger of losing the three points, but the need for his intervention highlights the naivety with which United’s midfield operated at times.

Being down to 10 men for so long, under pressure following a disastrous performance last week, and with three of the back four in new surroundings, the defensive organisation and the desire on show was admirable. Marcos Rojo and Paddy McNair were fantastic at the heart of the defence, particularly the young debutant, who made a goal-saving intervention to head the ball away towards the end. Luke Shaw must also get a mention for a very good debut, he impressed both defensively and offensively, and the potential in the young man is exciting for Manchester United fans.

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Manchester United Passing Versus West Ham United (Credit: Squawka)

Today’s result could prove to be huge. The win was the most important thing, no matter what, but not many could envisage such a nervy end to a game that appeared so comfortable in the first half. Once again going forward the attacking play on display was wonderful, and Louis van Gaal has found a system to compliment the vast array of world-class attacking talent in the squad. This team will score goals against anyone and it was a joy to watch some of the football in the first 45 minutes.

The very same thing which could win us games comfortably may also lose us many points as the season goes along. Defensively United look shaky but it was clear this afternoon that the problem does not lie purely with the defenders. Van Gaal must find a way to make this system as compact and solid out of possession as United are fluid and creative in possession. It is a problem that he has already admitted to being aware of, but for as long as it goes unsolved, United’s games will be spectacular. Entertaining for the neutral but stressful for United fans.

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