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

Louis van Gaal kept faith with the same team that beat Leicester City at Old Trafford last week, reverting to that same first XI after making rotating certain players in the midweek FA Cup win. With so many of Saturday’s results going in United’s favour, the game against West Ham took on even greater importance as United had the opportunity to solidify their position in the top four of the Premier League.

Another lacklustre away performance, another disappointing draw. Snatching a point from the jaws of defeat will always feel better because of the nature of a late goal, yet Manchester United will leave London knowing they blew a big chance today. They were not at the races for the majority of the game and against a patched up West Ham United side they should have given a better account of themselves.

For the first hour or so, West Ham were the better side and were more combative, more incisive and more energetic in the performance. They played with more pace than United and the forward players for the home side were a constant threat to Rojo and Jones. One of the biggest differences between the two sides was the energy and willingness to run in behind from West Ham’s forward pairing as opposed to Manchester United’s. Every time West Ham played the ball forward, whether long passes from the back or through midfield, Sakho and Valencia were prepared to run the channels, run in behind the centre-backs, turn United defenders and make it very uncomfortable for them to defend against. Even when they didn’t get on the end of those passes, their energy resulted in throw-ins and corners and a chance for West Ham to gain a foothold deep into United territory from which they launch an attack and create substantial pressure.

West Ham United passes in the attacking third vs Manchester United - 8.2.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

West Ham United passes in the attacking third vs Manchester United – 8.2.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

As you can see from the graphic above, there were plenty of passes targeted into the channels behind either fullback, the red passes being those that failed and the blue being the successful ones. In the end it was irrelevant whether the passes found their target or not, because it was the energy and willingness to press, penetrate and work the United defence that gave West Ham such a presence in the attacking third.

Contrast this to Manchester United’s striking partnership, Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie, and we see a completely different story. On paper these are two of the very best strikers in world football, yet neither has hit the heights expected of them this season. They were the polar opposite to Sakho and Valencia today. Not playing as a partnership, not making runs in behind, completely static in their lack of movement and did not provide their teammates with an outlet. They need to be making penetrative runs in behind centre-backs, selfless runs in behind fullbacks to the channels and overall working harder for the team. They did not make Kouyate move from his comfort zone and test his mobility and positional sense as a makeshift defender. While Sakho and Valencia made it difficult for Jones and Rojo, Falcao and van Persie made it far too easy for Tomkins and Kouyate.

The other aspect of the game that United fell short in was their physicality. Under Sam Allardyce, West Ham have always been a threat from set pieces and balls into the box. Despite the improvements in the playing style this season, West Ham still remain a big side with plenty of aerial threat and Manchester United did not deal with it at all.

Both sides completed a similar number of crosses into the box, but it was West Ham who made more of them count. They created chance after chance from balls into the penalty area, scoring from one early in the second half. United were second to the knockdown and Kouyate was given the freedom of the penalty area to juggle the ball before firing home. For all of the good play from West Ham, it was only really crosses in the penalty area that troubled Manchester United and they needed to be braver and more dominant in their handling of such a threat.

West Ham United & Manchester United crossing - 8.2.15. Credit: Squawka.

West Ham United & Manchester United crossing – 8.2.15. Credit: Squawka.

Given West Ham’s aerial threat, it is surprising that Fellaini did not start the game. Not only would he have been a threat in the opposition penalty area, but he would have helped defensively at set pieces and may have been the dominant aerial presence who could have prevented so many of the chances created by West Ham from these situations. Ultimately, no matter what system or what formation is being used or what the philosophy may be behind the playing style, there are times when you have to be prepared to match your opponents work rate and physicality and be able to win the battle as much as the football match. For the first hour United were not able to do so and it cost them all three points.

At the other end of the pitch, United were wasteful in their attempts to cross the ball into the box. Before Fellaini’s introduction in the second half, United had no real aerial presence, and although Luke Shaw created a headed chance for Falcao it was the only real opportunity that was created from crossing the ball from a wide position. This United attack is not suited to repeated bombardment from the wings, neither van Persie or Falcao are particularly threatening in the air, yet the lack of movement from the strikers meant United were forced to go more direct to the front two rather than playing the ball through West Ham and creating chances in a more favourable manner.

When Fellaini was on the pitch, United were given greater reason to go direct to the big Belgian and it was more profitable for them. The equaliser came from an angled pass into Fellaini, and although he could not make the most of it himself, it did fall to Blind who found the net with a good finish in stoppage time.

Manchester United saved a point at Upton Park this afternoon. With Arsenal losing and City and Liverpool both drawing yesterday, this draw meant United had wasted a fantastic opportunity to gain ground on those around them. As bad as United were, they still had chances to win this game, chances that fell most notably to Radamel Falcao. With both him and van Persie misfiring, it seems criminal to allow Wilson and Rooney to be left on the bench or played in midfield. Both would provide greater energy and more intelligent running for the team, and they are likely to form a better partnership than the non-existent relationship between the two strikers that were selected today. There is still plenty of work to do if this Manchester United team is to have a successful season, but the fighting spirit was there for all to see. Another point gained whilst playing badly is admirable, but it leaves plenty asking when will they actually begin to play well and start to add impressive performances to the results. The jury is still out.

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