There was no change in system but there was a change in personnel this evening as Louis van Gaal reintroduced Ander Herrera to a starting lineup for the first time since the 4th January. The Spaniard started alongside Angel Di María in the Manchester United midfield as Marouane Fellaini took up a more advanced midfield role. Wayne Rooney was selected as a striker once again as Robin van Persie was rested following a string of underwhelming performances.
With Ander Herrera and Angel Di María in midfield and with Wayne Rooney up front, Manchester United had addressed multiple selection issues and solved them with round pegs in round holes. It is no surprise that putting your best players in their best positions gets the best out of them, and it was Di María and Rooney who were the most positive players in the first half at Deepdale.
The game can be broken down into two periods really; the 47 minutes leading up to Preston’s opening goal and the 43 minutes afterwards. United were in control of both really, with the goal coming against the run of play. It was United’s attitude that changed after going behind, taking the risks they had to because with the score at 1-0, there was no replay to fall back on.
In the first half United played in a 4-4-2 formation and a midfield diamond. The changes from recent weeks is the personnel and the positions they were given this evening. Herrera’s involvement gave United a better technician in midfield, capable of starting attacks and maintaining possession in advanced areas of the field. Di María played in a slightly deeper, slightly wider role on the left of the diamond, a position that has become widely accepted as his best in this system. This positioning, coupled with Fellaini’s physical presence ahead of him, gave the Argentinian more space to make driving runs at the Preston defence or pick passes for runners ahead of him. That is where Rooney’s role as a striker become so beneficial. He was making runs into the channels, in behind the Preston centre-backs, dropping deep and generally making himself available as an outlet. Anyone familiar with English football is aware of Rooney’s quality and he showed that tonight. His movement was of far better quality than we’ve seen from either Falcao or van Persie recently and it enabled United to engage with the forward players more often than usual in the first half.
That being said, it wasn’t until United fell behind that they began to create anything of note. Van Gaal changed the shape of the team and changed the game from that moment on. After an hour, the manager took off the ineffectual Falcao and replaced him with Ashley Young. They changed to a 4-2-3-1 formation and the wide players gave United a different attacking dimension in the final half an hour.
Falcao offered United nothing during his time in on the pitch because his movement was so poor. He was easy to mark and predictable in his movement so United could not turn the Preston defenders or put them into positions that they were uncomfortable defending in. Rooney had been doing that, but as he became the lone forward it gave Fellaini the licence to move closer to him to become an aerial threat. With Young and Di María on either side stretching the game and making it wider, it gave United’s forward players more space and compromised the disciplined positioning of the three Preston central defenders.
In the first half, with no wingers to defend against and two central strikers, those three defenders could stay nice and compact and smother anything and everything that was fed into either Falcao or Rooney. On the whole, a 2 v 3 battle in that area of the pitch was a comfortable situation for the home side. In the second half however, Di María and Young made the game wider and forced Preston into some decision-making. Either the left and right centre-backs went wide to combat the wide threat, or the wing-backs were made to drop deep to cover and invite further pressure from the whole United team. As a result, United were able to find and exploit the gaps that appeared and Ashley Young became a game changer with a fine assist for Ander Herrera’s second FA Cup goal.
With Di María and Young prepared to alternate and swap wings frequently, Rooney and Fellaini able to alternate between who was the lone forward and who dropped deeper to provide the link up, and Ander Herrera making late, penetrative runs from deep positions, this Manchester United was far more attacking and far more creative than anything we’ve seen in recent weeks. There were more options when passing the ball and the movement became harder to mark for opposition defenders. Suddenly United’s technicians could manipulate the ball in such a way that chances were being created at will, resulting in the second and third goals and a safe passage into the sixth round of the FA Cup.
Of course it is at this point that I must touch on Paul Scholes’ comments that were made in the week building up to this game. He questioned United’s style of play based on the amount of risks they took in their build up play. Tonight proved that United had not fully eradicated this problem from their game, their lack of shots on goal before Preston opened the scoring is testament to that, but with Rooney leading the line this team is more likely to be able to create things when a striker is so readily willing to create something out of nothing for those around him. The pleasing thing to see in the performance tonight was the reaction. Great Manchester United team’s have been built on their ability to turn things around when a situation is against them and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Things weren’t looking quite as bleak tonight, but the reaction brought a tempo and a risk to United’s play that opened the game up and allowed United to take control of the tie and score the decisive goals that put them into the sixth round. Next up its Arsenal, and after that its a trip to Wembley. This season could still end with a cup final and a chance for silverware, tonight’s comeback win could be the start of a whole lot more.