Welcome to the latest edition of a new series here at B/R, analysing and formulating a plan to beat some of the top teams in European football.
Next up is Manchester United—a team who are really starting to find their groove under David Moyes after a somewhat rocky start. Hosting Arsenal this weekend is hardly a picnic, so what weaknesses can Arsene Wenger expect to find?
Please note that this isn't a piece dedicated to ripping the Red Devils apart, and you shouldn't take it as such. It's a tactical debate.
It's important to note that United's "phase" of being easily attacked as a weak link, a flop, is over. An unbeaten run of eight games, including five wins, has seen the pressure on Moyes lift considerably.
Following Sir Alex Ferguson is an unenviable task, and a dropoff is expected. Amid wild expectations that Manchester United would actually drop out of the top four, their new manager can go about proving the doubters wrong.
An element of consistency, or form, will be enough to secure a top-four finish this season, as Manchester City and Chelsea—both favourites to tussle for the title—have set a marker for erratic showings and occasional clangers.
Wayne Rooney has stepped up big for United over the past two months, and during their lowest point of the season—the mauling at the hands of Manuel Pellegrini's City—looked the only player who truly looked bothered about what was happening.
Robin van Persie's mini-goal drought is over, Antonio Valencia has caught form, and Michael Carrick is evergreen. Things are looking up for United, but they're not infallible—not by a long shot.
On the Counter
United have, for want of a better word, accumulated something of a "lumbering" midfield corps.
Tom Cleverley should be more mobile (or more committed) than he is, Michael Carrick is understandably leggy, and Marouane Fellaini lacks burst over short distances.
A snarling, agile, snappy midfielder is missing unless Phil Jones converts to a full-time defensive midfield role. But he's currently time-sharing the right-back and central defensive positions, and most believe he will end up in defence.
He played a holding midfield role away at Fulham on Saturday and accumulated five tackles while keeping it simple on the ground. Ferguson used him in midfield on special occasions (i.e. to mark Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale), and he could really use a run in the side there gauge his effectiveness.
Until that happens, United could be considered ripe for counterattacking, and this leads to issues in a multitude of ways.
Attack the Space
United always leave space in behind. They always have; they likely always will.
Championship-winning teams hold faith in the idea that if they can start quickly—that they can bury any opponent. That was certainly the case at Craven Cottage, where the Red Devils went 3-0 up in the first 22 minutes, and there's a reason so many players talk about escaping the first 20 minutes at Old Trafford unscathed.
Depending on the personnel and the system, this space appears in different areas. Right now, under Moyes, that space is opening up behind Patrice Evra when he bombs forward—hardly a coincidence when you consider the experiences the Scot shared with Everton left-back Leighton Baines.
|Patrice Evra Statistical Comparison|
|Aerial duels won pg||2||2|
|Key passes pg||0.7||1.8|
|Dribbles completed pg||0.8||1.1|
|Crosses completed pg||0.6||1.3|
|Total crosses per game||2.5||4.8|
|WhoScored.com (pg = per game)|
Evra looks a man rejuvenated. He's hitting the byline, he's firing in more crosses, completing more key passes, and providing a constant outlet.
Attacking-wise that's brilliant, and whoever plays on that flank—be it Adnan Januzaj, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck or Shinji Kagawa—enjoys license to tuck in and penetrate the box because of his distracting presence.
It does leave a hole, though, and a pretty sizable one at that.
Teams must be careful of fielding the correct personnel to plug the gaps left when full-backs bomb forward, and this is where the lack of mobility threatens to harm United.
Had the likes of Sidney Sam and Carlos Vela not shown their inexperience at the highest level and kept their cool, the left flank could have been a fruitful source of goals by now...for the opposition.
Stretch the Pitch
Even if you're not delivering goals, assists or killer passes from the wider areas, once you bypass United's attacking full-backs, your very presence in advanced positions sets off the alarm bells.
Quick counters using the wide areas force United's double midfield pivot out of their comfort zone, as Manchester City demonstrated so ruthlessly at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season.
That lack of mobility really shows up here, as a player like Carrick can't track back with enough speed to halt fast breakaways. As the midfield scramble to make up the ground, pockets of space open up everywhere—particularly if Rafael has bombed forward from the other side, creating a full-back imbalance.
Putting United under the cosh is no use, but countering them can work wonders given their current squad. Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand hardly scream "speed," and once you're past the midfielders you'll have them under the microscope next.
That Manchester City dominated United for long spells, yet only really scored via counterattacks, is indicative of the Red Devils' prowess in smaller, tighter, more compact areas.
United have played 17 competitive fixtures this season, and although the Moyes era is beginning to take shape, there are holes to be exploited as with any side. The games played have highlighted those, even in games the Red Devils have won with comfort.
As the transition (between managers) continues, those gaps will disappear and the unit will become watertight. Catch them while you can.