The following graphic tells you all you need to know about Manchester United’s performance yesterday at the Stadium of Light:
The vast, vast majority of United’s passes were played in front of the home side. As discussed in the review of the Swansea game, Van Gaal is insisting upon fielding three centre backs up against one striker – an unnecessary surplus. This is leaving his side light further up the field – specifically in wide areas.
Sunderland, yesterday, set up in a 4-3-3 formation. This meant that their midfield matched up man-for-man with United’s, with Cattermole given the anchorman position and therefore the responsibility for marking Juan Mata. Wes Brown and John O’Shea were marking Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. Wide players Will Buckley and Connor Wickham tracked United’s wing backs before powering past them on the break. Who did Sunderland’s full-backs have responsibility for? No-one.
This allowed them to defend very narrowly, close to their centre backs, and prevent Manchester United from penetrating with through passes. In addition to this, as all three of United’s attacking triumvirate are naturally attracted towards the ball, no-one was looking to make runs in behind either (Mata’s late run to finish Valencia’s deflected cross was one of the very few examples to the contrary)! So both the route and the target were absent. United only played one successful pass past the 12 yard line in the whole game, as you can see above.
Compare and contrast to the much maligned West Ham United’s performance away to Crystal Palace yesterday:
Note the massive amounts of unsuccessful long balls that we have become accustomed to associating with Big Sam’s West Ham. Note also the number of successful passes in advance of the 12 yard line. Sam’s ultra-direct approach may be rudimentary (some would say prehistoric), but it was certainly more penetrative than Van Gaal’s this weekend. Bear in mind also that this West Ham performance came against a side that has proved itself more than capable of minimising space both between its defenders and in behind them.
Bottom line: Van Gaal needs to swallow his pride and abandon this shape ASAP. The imminent arrival of Angel Di Maria may provide just the cover necessary to do so.