Manchester United vs. SC Braga: 5 Tactical Talking Points
As has been their wont this season, United started off badly, conceding two goals in the first 20 minutes of the match. However, two goals from Javier Hernandez on either side of a Jonny Evans tally gave United a 3-2 victory at full time.
This was United's third consecutive win in the Champions League group stage, giving them the maximum nine points from three games. With the other two teams in the group drawing their game, United are now odds-on favorites to progress from Group H as the winners of the group.
Here are the main talking points from Manchester United's comeback victory.
Chicharito Finally Comes to the Party
A lot of column inches have been devoted recently to the form of Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) and rumors linking him to moves away from Manchester United. Chicharito's relative struggles were also put into sharp relief after seeing Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck score against Stoke City at the weekend.
However, Sir Alex Ferguson reposed his faith in the Mexican striker by naming him in his starting lineup for the game against Braga. And Chicharito did not disappoint!
He scored two of United's goals. The first of these came due to a header from Shinji Kagawa's cross. It brought United back into the game after they found themselves two goals down after 20 minutes.
Chicharito's second goal was another header, as he escaped his marker to meet Tom Cleverley's beautiful cross with his head. Soon afterwards, he was substituted to a standing ovation from the Old Trafford crowd.
Chicharito's overall statistics show that he had a pretty good game for a striker. He had three shots, each of which were on target. His passing was also neat and tidy, and he looked sharp in his movement.
There was one particular moment before the winning goal which stood out clearly. Chicharito first stayed up on his feet despite a heavy challenge from the Braga defender near the half-way line. Subsequently, he did a neat turn and dribbled the ball for half the length of the Braga half before curling a beautiful ball for Nani to run on to.
Of all the things that happened during this game, Sir Alex will take the most pleasure from Chicharito's performance. His goals now mean that all the United strikers are in scoring form—a fact that becomes even more important considering the state of the team's defence.
Despite the Attacking Riches, Defensive Concerns Remain
In the first half-hour of the game, Braga dominated and took a well-deserved 2-0 lead. Manchester United, on the other hand, looked disjointed, lackluster, slow, tired and short of ideas.
There were three main observations about United's defence (or the shambolic remains of one) in this period. First, the defenders played like strangers on the same pitch. Second, there was no real leader in defence who could realize this and sort things out. Third, Michael Carrick never was, and never will be a central defender.
There were numerous incidents in the first 15 minutes when Carrick, Jonny Evans and Alex Büttner all converged to defend against the same attacker. This left wide open spaces for other attackers to run into and exploit.
The worst thing about this defending was that all three of them stood and watched as Alan put Braga ahead. This was despite the fact that they were all only a few feet away from the striker.
It was evident to even the most casual observer that the United defence showed a lack of understanding. Having never fielded this defence before, the situation was calling out for a leader to show his presence and organize the back line. However, this never really happened until the start of the second half, after some words were obviously spoken about this issue in the dressing room at halftime.
As far as Carrick was concerned, he did the best he could in a difficult situation. But it can be argued that he should never have started in central defence. For most of the second half, he found himself out of position too often and too easily.
Of course, the job of the defence wasn't made any easier by Braga's pacy, counter-attacking style. The diamond formation did nothing to help the United full-backs tackle the service from Braga's wings and contributed to United's defensive difficulties.
Playing the Diamond Against Braga Was a Miscalculation
True to pre-match indicators, Sir Alex Ferguson organized his starting midfield in a diamond, with Wayne Rooney at the tip and Darren Fletcher at the base. Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley were deployed as the shuttlers in this formation.
However, the strategy of playing the diamond backfired spectacularly in the first half.
The diamond is always a susceptible formation against opponents who attack from the wide areas. One way to counter such opponents is to starve opponents of the ball by keeping possession of it.
Manchester United's shoddy passing combined with Braga's industrious pressing put paid to this strategy. As a result, the Portuguese team saw more of the ball than United would have liked and made good use of their possession in the first half.
With United's full-backs often running up the pitch to provide the necessary width, Braga could always exploit the space they left behind to mount their attacks. The left-hand side of the United defense, manned by Alex Büttner, was particularly susceptible to this strategy.
In general, Büttner did have a terrible defensive game in the first half. He was responsible for losing Alan for both Braga goals and generally found it difficult to cope with the dual responsibility of supporting attacks and also defending his flank.
In the second half, Sir Alex recognized the problem and switched things to a more conventional 4-4-1-1 by replacing Kagawa with Nani. This gave United extra protection to the United full-backs. In addition, United also raised the tempo of their passing, which allowed them to dominate and then overrun Braga.
United's Tactical Flexibility Will Be Their Greatest Strength This Season
In the pre-match press conference, Sir Alex Ferguson revealed his thoughts about tactics and formations, especially with regards to Europe. Here is what the Manchester United manager had to say (via manutd.com):
The diamond is seen as a little revolutionary because it goes against our history. But the level of the game in England and Europe is so high now that making yourself unpredictable is a strength.
Teams will now have to think about whether we will play with two wide players or in the diamond because we have the players who are capable of doing both things.
Even in the match against Braga, United's tactical flexibility helped save the day. When it became clear in the first half that the diamond wasn't working against the Portuguese opponents, Sir Alex switched to a more conventional 4-4-1-1.
Nani began the second half on the right after coming on for Shinji Kagawa. Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney moved to the left, although he had more of a free role than Nani did on the opposite flank.
There were two other tactical tweaks that helped United dominate the game in the second half. First, the defence looked more organized and stepped up a few yards. Second, United started passing the ball at a higher tempo—something that helped them even more as they began using the full width of the pitch.
The first of these points is particularly pertinent since the United defence were playing too deep in the first half. As a result, the midfield kept dropping deeper to be closer to the defence, which in turn harmed United's offensive play. It was evident that Sir Alex recognized the issues at halftime and his tweaks led a turnaround in United's fortunes.
In the long run, the diversity of systems that Manchester United can play and Sir Alex Ferguson's ability to understand the right tactics for the right games are going to be the Old Trafford club's most important asset this season.
The Curse of Slow Starts Needs to Be Thrown off
By conceding the first goal to Braga in the second minute of the match, Manchester United fell behind for the eighth time in their 12 games so far this season. Despite all warnings that they cannot allow this to keep on happening, United just haven't learnt from their mistakes.
If they keep on carelessly gifting their opponents goals at the start of games, it will only be a matter of time before they fail to mount a big enough comeback. In fact, this has already happened to them once this season against Spurs.
If United want to win any silverware this season, it is imperative that they keep up their concentration right from the first minute. Sir Alex Ferguson and his managerial staff will have to work extra hard over the next few days to ingrain this into the minds of the players.