Saturday, December 7, 2013

Manchester United lack invention in final third; Mourinho gets subs wrong

Johan Cabaye's second half winner handed Manchester United a second successive home league defeat for the first time since 2002 and earned Newcastle their first win at Old Trafford since 1972. It is David Moyes third home defeat of the season. Manchester United have scored just 8 goals at Old Trafford, fewer home goals than both West Brom and bottom of the table Sunderland.

The problems today against Newcastle were familiar ones. Moyes' side lacked the invention and quality in the final third to break down an organized opponent.

With Wayne Rooney missing due to yellow card accumulation, Moyes opted for a 4-4-2 with a front pairing of Robin Van Persie and Javier Hernandez. Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones played in the middle of midfield with Nani on the left wing and Adnan Januzaj on the right.

Alan Pardew opted for a 4-2-3-1 giving Newcastle a man advantage in midfield. The visitors were able to use that advantage to control the game in the middle of the park. With Cheikh Tiote and Vurnon Anita protecting the back four, Manchester United's forays into the final third occurred in the channels and mainly throught Januzaj down the right. Newcastle's center backs Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini dealt with balls into the box from wide areas excellently and deserve a credit for their positioning.

Manchester United's inability to link play forward through the middle had plenty to do with the absence of Rooney. Van Persie lacked Rooney's energy and determination to get on the ball in the withdrawn striker role. Van Persie also lacks Rooney's directness dribbling through midfield. He attempted just one take on in the match. Playing Van Persie in the withdrawn role also meant he rarely found himself in the box where he's at his most dangerous. He didn't manage a single attempt on goal, an incredible stat for last season's Premier League leading goal scorer, and completed just 7 passes in the attacking third.

In the middle of midfield Jones and Cleverley didn't have particularly bad games. Indeed Jones was at times excellent with his defensive positioning and ability to protect the back four. However, both players are limited in what they can contribute in the attack and couldn't have been expected to provide the impetus or creativity going forward to create chances. As a result their roles in possession mainly involved funneling the ball into wide areas where the outside backs would look to overlap Nani and Januzaj tucking inside- another factor that contributed to their inability to vary their attacking approach and penetrate Newcastle through the middle of the pitch. You can see in the graphic below the number of horizontal passes into wide areas both Manchester United center midfielders made.

The extra midfielder also allowed Newcastle to control possession. They ended the contest with 54% possession, a slight but significant edge given they were an inferior team in terms of talent playing at the home of the league champions. Their goal was perhaps a bit opportunistic but Pardew's side deserves immense credit for their organization. The three center midfielders Anita, Tiote and Cabaye were all commanding in the middle of the pitch and the back four organized itself with aplomb. The performances of Debuchy and Williamson in particular deserve recognition. Debuchy was a menace getting forward from his right back position but he also had the pace and energy to make recovery runs.

Mourinho's move to 4-4-2 costly again
Stoke City shocked Chelsea with a 3-2 home win after being completely overrun for the first 40 minutes. For the third time this week Jose Mourinho's side allowed an opposition corner to bounce in the box without getting a touch on it and each time they were made to pay with a goal. John O'Shea and Phil Bardsley were able to tuck in from close range Wednesday for Sunderland, today Crouch scored in a similar fashion for Stoke. The inability to deal with set pieces will be a huge concern for Mourinho as it made the Sunderland contest more uncomfortable at the end than it should have been and shifted the momentum today against a Stoke side that was well and truly out of the game.

Not for the first time this season Mourinho was guilty of making questionable substitutions chasing a win with the game level. At 2-2 he brought on Frank Lampard for John Obi Mikel and Samuel Eto'o for Andre Schurrle and switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. He made a similar switch to 4-4-2 at home to West Brom with the score level at 1-1. As was the case in that earlier contest, the switch was meant to be a positive one but had adverse effects. By taking a man out of midfield Chelsea lost some of the possession dominance they'd been enjoying and found it more difficult to link play into the strikers. It also left them stretched on the break when they lost possession and were hit with a sucker punch just as they were in the West Brom game. The decision to remove Schurrle was particularly strange. He'd scored twice and hit the woodwork and generally seemed to be making a nuisance of himself whereas Juan Mata had had a quiet afternoon. This time around they didn't the Blues didn't have a suspect penalty to bail them out.

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