United could ill-afford a fourth consecutive defeat, and delivered when it mattered.
Following a nondescript first-half performance, Manchester United rallied in the second half to win 2-0 against Swansea.
A clear change of tactics in the second half ensured that United attacked on the front foot, enjoyed more possession and looked far more dangerous in front of goal. That change was to move Adnan Januzaj out to the left, with Shinji Kagawa playing in his favoured No. 10 role.
It worked wonders.
And so, United picked up their first win of 2014. It remains to be seen how United will build upon that win, but there’s plenty to digest. Let’s take a look at how United picked up three crucial points.
Tactics: Tale of Two Halves
United’s approach in the first and second halves were poles apart.
In the first, they sat back and allowed Swansea to have possession. A 4-4-1-1 stifled Kagawa—as it has done so often when he plays on the left—and Januzaj was United’s main threat, hitting the crossbar with a whipped free-kick.
David Moyes hails Adnan Januzaj's influence. "Everybody can see what a player we have on our hands." More: http://t.co/LJ5YhC2WuA— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 11, 2014
But in the second half, Januzaj tucked in from his left-wing role, which allowed Patrice Evra to burst forward numerous times. Kagawa saw more of the ball playing behind Danny Welbeck, and United penned Swansea back into their own half.
It’s quite simple, really: United took the initiative and won the game.
Much prefer United's shape in 2nd half. Fletcher and Carrick behind Kagawa. First time I've seen them dominate midfield this season.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) January 11, 2014
David Moyes must take credit for that switch, because the team’s mindset changed. He also made the decision to drop Tom Cleverley in favour of Darren Fletcher. That decision gave United some added mettle in midfield, and the Scot was exceptional throughout.
There is a wider context to all of this, however, because Moyes should now recognise that United play better when they take the game to their opponents. Playing the conservative, tentative football that has cost United points too many times this season will not result in a top-four finish in the Premier League.
Rather, this game taught us that United need to be aggressive, assertive and attack-minded. Even with the deficiencies in the current squad, it's still the right way to go in a tactical sense.
Statistics: Januzaj the Key to United’s Win
Rather quickly, Januzaj has become one of United’s better players. Whether that’s got more to do with the team’s squad issues is irrelevant, because the youngster is more than holding his own. And he continued his fine form by leading United’s attacking charge against Swansea.
He was just about everywhere, as Squawka’s heat map shows.
Adnan Januzaj's heat map against Swansea. The lad loves to roam. pic.twitter.com/BfJdzdRT9s— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 11, 2014
But it was perhaps in defence that United looked strongest over the course of the 90 minutes. One or two lapses aside, Swansea weren’t able to penetrate United’s defensive partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling. David de Gea didn't have to make too many saves at all, either.
And Squawka’s graphic does a fine job of illustrating that point.
It's clear from the image that Swansea saw a lot of the ball—they had 61 percent of possession—but they failed to trouble United close to goal. The defensive performance should not be overlooked in the context of the game.
Player Watch: Shinji Kagawa
Much like the game itself, Kagawa’s second-half showing markedly improved upon what was a dismal first half for the Japanese. And, really, it comes down to where he was positioned.
Kagawa revelled in the No. 10 role in the second half but struggled on the left in the opening 45 minutes. That’s something we’ve long known, though.
In the first half, Kagawa registered just 23 touches of the ball—he managed double that in the second half with 46 extra touches. Kagawa was creating far more when moved centrally, which is reflected in the stats.
But it's now a question of him building on that performance. Moyes has to give him the chance to play in the No. 10 role regularly, because it's blindingly obvious that he's most effective there.
What’s Next for United?
United face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next Sunday.
It will be a stern test of character for Moyes’ men, because Chelsea have looked strong in recent weeks. Wayne Rooney’s return would be invaluable ahead of what will prove to be a crucial game in the race for Champions League places.
Regardless of whether Rooney or Robin van Persie play, United’s win over Swansea should be the catalyst to pick up a result over Chelsea. The same players should start, but with the second-half attitude that saw off the Swans.
Moyes will likely opt for a conservative approach, though, which will be to the team’s detriment. If we learned anything from the victory over Swansea, it’s that Manchester United play better when they play like Manchester United do.
Unless otherwise stated, all statistics were obtained from WhoScored.com