Manchester United found their scoring touch as they eased to a 3-1 win against Swansea with a superb first half display in South Wales.
After failing to beat Burnley’s Tom Heaton with any of their 37 attempts at goal last week, United raced into a three-nil lead in the first 45 minutes thanks to a wonderful Paul Pogba strike and two clinical finishes from Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
With Ander Herrera suspended and an injury list causing havoc with Mourinho’s defensive selection, the United manager made five changes to his starting XI. United reverted to a 4-3-3 system without a recognised no.10 behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, instead opting for midfield trio and a shape that, on paper at least, appeared to suit more of his players’ natural qualities.
The success of any tactical system hangs on the quality of understanding between two players at any given time. For United, the important relationships were in two places; the relationship between Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba in midfield and the relationship between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the rest of the team. Manchester United needed to control possession and they needed to supply the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the right areas. With very little pace in the team, ensuring Ibrahimovic wasn’t isolated and ineffective was vital to United’s prospects of victory.
Taking a closer look at Michael Carrick’s performance, it is easy to understand why Paul Pogba’s display took the headlines. Not only is he a calming influence in midfield, not only is he Manchester United’s metronome, Michael Carrick is an intelligent footballer. Despite his age, Carrick remains vital to United because he offers something that no one else in the squad can. It is not just his ability to keep possession but also the quality of his pass selection. Too often United are accused of playing the safe pass, but Carrick progresses each attack with forward passes, breaking the opposition lines and moving United into advanced attacking areas.
Not only does he build up play from these deeper areas with his selection of passes, the intelligence of his movement allows those around him to play with more freedom and greater attacking responsibility because they know he is always in the right place at the right time. His heat map shows that he is comfortable as a single pivot in midfield, screening for his back four and covering for his midfield partners, while crafting each new attacking phase from a deep position.
The beneficiary of this new relationship is Paul Pogba. He was United’s most influential player in the first half against Swansea. It wasn’t just his goal, but his all-round performance that gave Manchester United control of the game. With the knowledge that Michael Carrick was behind him, orchestrating proceedings and filling in any gaps, Pogba could influence the game in a way that he hasn’t always been able to do in a United shirt.
The difference between Pogba in a 4-3-3 system as opposed to playing as the no.10 in a 4-2-3-1 is the way he is involved in attacking positions. Against Swansea he started in a deeper position and was able to run onto the ball, face the goal with the whole picture in front of him and assess his options, as opposed to his role as a no.10, when he has his back to goal most of the time. A situation that doesn’t suit him at all. This afternoon Pogba was at his best, getting on the ball as often as he could, driving forward and creating opportunities for his teammates with a wide range of passes that constantly asked questions of the Swansea defence. It is in this position that Pogba can do the most damage, not as a holding midfield player, and certainly not as a no.10.
When presented next to Carrick’s, Pogba’s heat map shows how the two work within the same system. While Carrick was predominantly deeper, Pogba pushed on and took up a more advanced role on the left. Even this brief illustration of United’s midfield composition shows how both this system, and these two players in it, can provide United with a balance that gets the best out of two of their more accomplished players.
The other significant aspect of Manchester United’s clinical opening half an hour was Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As a lone forward who lacks pace himself, it can be easy for Ibrahimovic to become isolated if the service is not up to scratch. Without Rashford or Martial, United lacked speed in wide areas, so they needed to get players up in support of Ibrahimovic to make sure that when he did get the ball, there were runners beyond him who could threaten behind Swansea’s back four.
Ibrahimovic’s passing statistics demonstrate how many times he got on the ball and played it forward, indicating how often United got men around him and beyond him. Not only did that stretch Swansea’s shape, it meant Ibrahimovic could drop deep and become an effective part of proceedings, rather than becoming counter-productive in search of the ball. United answered the questions about their own lack of pace with intelligent and well-crafted periods of possession that brought three goals and a comfortable win.
That being said, they were aided by a very poor Swansea side. Bob Bradley’s team sat deep, invited United on to them and allowed them to play at their own pace. Had Swansea tried to press them high, squeeze the game into the United half and made the midfield more congested, United might have rued their decision to choose precision over pace.
Ultimately, United dealt with this game in a pragmatic and ruthless fashion. Yes, they have played better this season. Yes, they’ll need to play better if they are to beat Arsenal after the international break. But after the disaster that was October, to start November with a clean slate and three points was all that really mattered.