Manchester United cruised to an easy 3-1 win at Old Trafford against West Ham United on Saturday.
In a game that saw United’s midfield sparkle for the first time after a considerable period of time, we analyze the Red Devils’ play through the centre of the park.
West Ham’s Lack of Pressing
This season, United have struggled when their central midfielders and defenders are subject to intensive (or sub-intensive) pressing and marking, or, when they get quickly closed down by the opposing players after coming in possession.
Even Michael Carrick tends to succumb under pressure occasionally. In addition, United have missed a ball-playing defender since the form of Rio Ferdinand has started to deteriorate.
Against Newcastle United, the Red Devils lost 1-0 and their defenders and midfielders endured a difficult time against the Magpies’ industrious closing down of their nemesis. Against Stoke City, United only got into the groove after Stoke’s players had tired and lost the energy to press the hosts.
West Ham, however, were happy to let United have the ball and simply stood off, giving United too much time on the ball.
Sam Allardyce was more concerned with denying United to the space to play direct passes through the centre. But Ravel Morrison did little out of possession, while Adnan Januzaj and Antonio Valencia ensured West Ham’s midfield remained stretched. So the Red Devils could easily pass directly behind West Ham’ s midfield and the Hammers rarely intercepted the ball through the midfield zone.
It was evident from the very start after Tom Cleverley played a direct pass to Adnan Januzaj across the visitor’s midfield just after 30 seconds. The attack ended with a United corner and subsequently, a fantastic attempt by Cleverley from the set-piece.
Wayne Rooney Drops Deep
Rooney dropping deep in possession meant United got another “midfielder” to build up plays.
Rooney continually took off possession from the defenders, something the likes of Jones and Cleverley have failed to do in the past and he linked the attack to the midfield.
In addition, Rooney played his usual diagonal balls to Antonio Valencia, getting the Ecuadorian involved in the play and the Englishman brought a new level of unpredictability and pace when United started their attacks. His vision and passing skills are more developed than Jones and Cleverley so United circulated the ball relatively quickly.
Rooney was allowed to drop back unmarked as neither Mark Noble nor Matthew Taylor knew whose duty it was to mark the former Everton striker.
Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones Make Midfield Runs and “Inverted” Triangle
Against West Ham, virtually for the first time this season, we saw United midfielders make runs into the channels and gaps in the final third.
In the ninth minute, Rooney dropped and took Mark Noble away with him, while Matthew Taylor was plucked towards the action area by Cleverley.
United’s play was focused near the left-wing zone, allowing Jones to exploit the space with a forward run after receiving the ball from Jonny Evans. Jones final pass to Danny Welbeck was disappointing however. Two minutes later, Jones again pierced through West Ham’s midfield before taking a long shot. Jones’ final product was lacking, but United finally saw runs from midfield and that helped them to play with a high tempo.
Cleverley also made surging runs from midfield and his movement was highly impressive.
The England international took up space vacated by Rooney when the latter dropped and the two often dragged West Ham’s midfielders out of their positions. The key to United’s play was the link among Rooney, Jones and Cleverley. The trio exchanged a total of 56 passes and set up a very fluid triangle in the middle of the park.
While West Ham’s lack of pressing meant United had no problem to shift play from the defensive third to the attacking third, the midfield triangle ensured the hosts dominated game in the opposing territory. Jones was often the supplier while Rooney and Cleverley exchanged passes with each other in between the lines. Their mobility made it impossible to mark them. This triangle passed “within” or to the wingmen.
Morrison didn’t do much and Noble and Taylor were clearly confused with their roles.
The three midfielders also helped to create continual winger overloads, particularly on the right flank.
Simply put, Jones, Cleverley and Rooney tried to ensure there was always a free player all over the pitch to receive the ball and recycle it.
Hence, Untied dominated in West Ham’s half so heavily.
The only tactical difference from United’s previous games was that this time, United’s midfield triangle had two up top when ball was in opposition half, rather than the usual one and both the midfielders took the initiative to get forward.
It has to be noted that United focused playing down the right and got the ball to Valencia in very promising positions. But the 28-year-old was very inconsistent with his shooting, passing and crossing.
Problems for West Ham worsened when Welbeck started to drift out wide or in the hole.
Initially, Welbeck was told to stay on the shoulder of the last man as that pushed back West Ham’s backline, ensuring space for Rooney and Cleverley and also a man at the top for the Red Devils.
But in the 26th minute, Welbeck dropped in the hole and Collins was pulled out of the backline with Englishman. This opened a channel for Rooney, which the 26-year-old ran to provide the assist.
For United’s second, Welbeck again dropped and Collins decided to stay put as he was nervous of Welbeck’s pace and the space he could’ve left behind him. This allowed Welbeck to run the “half channel” opened owing to Januzaj attracting two West Ham players towards him.
Subsequently, Welbeck was combined with Januzaj and the duo’s movement decimated the Hammer’s organization before the Belgian put the ball into the back of the net.
Arrigo Sacchi reinforced off the ball movements in football.
“Before Sacchi came to Milan, the clash between two opposing players was always the key, but with him it was all about movement off the ball, and that’s where we won our matches,” Paolo Maldini once said.
Against West Ham, United mainly focused on their off the ball movements and like Sacchi’s Milan, they won the game owing to that.