Following Manchester United has started to feel more like old times, a midweek romp in Europe followed by a tricky away tie in the Premier League. If David Moyes’ tenure felt like a nightmare then supporting this club under Louis van Gaal’s stewardship is like waking up, realising it’s all over and that it can’t hurt you anymore.
In terms of a tricky away tie, it doesn’t get much harder than visiting Swansea City. Like United they are unbeaten this season and they sit just behind the Reds in the league table with five points from their opening three games.
In recent years we’ve seen a number of Premier League sides become fixated with a possession based style, perhaps wishing to emulate the tiki-taka football that proved so successful for Barcelona and Spain. Almost every side in England’s top flight aims to play football in what is generally perceived as the ‘right way’ but Swansea might just have been the most impressive in adopting this style in the last few years.
It’s a style that Manchester United have been looking to master under van Gaal and Sunday’s clash will be a true tactical battle as two similar styles clash at the Liberty Stadium. Fortunately for United, they may have stumbled across an alteration to their starting XI which may just make van Gaal’s philosophy far more optimal.
Ander Herrera is likely to play against Swansea, replacing Adnan Januzaj in midfield. The only other expected change is likely to be in midfield too, with Morgan Schneiderlin set to replace Michael Carrick, after the Frenchman was rested against Club Brugge in midweek.
When comparing both sides it’s clear to see how prominent both sets of midfield players are. Typically both teams match up similarly in the central area of the pitch, with a double pivot at the base of midfield and a more advanced midfielder in something comparable to a no.10 role.
Looking at the graphics above, it is clear to see how influential these players are on both sides. Last week against Sunderland and Newcastle respectively, both Swansea and Manchester United dominated possession, most of which was controlled by the two central midfield players, whether that was Shelvey and Cork or Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin.
With such a focus on this midfield battle, it’s key to differentiate between the two systems. Stylistically, both sides play football in a very similar way but Louis van Gaal and Gary Monk employ very subtle tactical differences that will make this the key contest in defining Sunday’s result.
Looking at Manchester United, their midweek stroll in Brugge displayed a tactical flexibility, particularly in midfield, that was especially intriguing. While I previously mentioned that United typically field two holding midfield players (which they have this season, including Saturday’s draw with Newcastle) on Wednesday night they reverted to a 4-3-3 system with a single pivot at the base of the midfield. Ander Herrera had a uniquely free role in which he was part of a midfield three but was able to burst forward and also play as a no.10 during the game.
In freeing two of these three midfielders to get forward and be more offensive, United are far more creative. After switching to 4-3-3, United scored three times and missed a penalty. The two advanced midfielders; Ander Herrera and Bastian Schweinsteiger, both provided assists, and Herrera also found the net himself. Wayne Rooney also benefitted, with the England striker scoring twice in that second half to complete his hat-trick, having barely even managed three shots on target all season in the previously used 4-2-3-1 formation. It was obvious to every onlooker – Manchester United flourish with a three-man midfield.
As for Swansea, they have better utilised that double-pivot in midfield and the combination of Shelvey, Cork and Sigurdsson has proved to be highly proficient in maintaining possession as well as being a creative force for the forward players. Gylfi Sigurdsson appears to be the key for the Swans, as his ability to seamlessly interchange between a central midfield position and the no.10 role. This flexibility allows Swansea to always maintain this midfield triumvirate in every area of the pitch, giving them multiple options in possession in deep areas as well as being a strong supporting cast in attacking situations.
But what good is conquering such a midfield battle if a side is unable to capitalise on such an advantage?
Success for United will be found in the continuation of Louis van Gaal’s atypical 4-3-3 formation. Rather than two traditional wide players either side of Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata is likely to continue from the right hand side. His tendency to drift into central areas in order to influence the game should provide United with the upper hand in the battle to control possession and therefore the game. By moving into a no.10 position, Mata will give United a 4 vs 3 overload in that central area. As well as aiding United directly in terms of ball possession and potential creativity, the overload itself will cause Swansea problems. In order to address the problem, they will need to call upon an extra to match it up man for man. In doing so, this should force space in other areas, specifically in wide areas; releasing both Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian to get forward and support the attack from fullback.
The attacking intent of United’s fullbacks this season has been fantastic and has given United an extra dimension. The heat map above from the draw against Newcastle shows exactly how prominent they were in the opposition half and how they support each attack with their aggressive overlapping runs. If they can become prominent against Swansea, Manchester United may have the edge in what will be an intriguing tactical battle.
The final point that must be made in counter to this, is that Swansea will also feel that they have the edge over Manchester United – in the form of their new look attacking trio. Bafetimbi Gomis, Andre Ayew and Jefferson Montero are dynamic, quick and intelligent footballers. They offer Swansea City a counter-attacking threat which in itself is a counter to Manchester United’s possession based style. They have a different threat this season, a unique edge over Swansea teams of the past and if Manchester United don’t respect their opponents on Sunday, they will find themselves at risk of losing goals to this counter-attacking threat.
At the Liberty Stadium on Sunday, Manchester United face one of the hardest away trips in the Premier League. Not only will it be a fascinating tactical battle, it showcases two innovative managers and two teams filled with players who have all made a strong impression at the start of this new season. Whatever the result, we’re in for one hell of a game.