Choices, choices. In a weekend filled with exciting games across Europe, there is plenty of opportunities to analyse. Every game seemed to be an action-packed multiple goal thriller, and those that weren’t were intriguing tactically, such as the 3-4-2-1 versus 4-4-2 diamond in the Liverpool – Chelsea match or Luigi Delneri’s switches to beat Cagliari with Juventus. However, the game we’ll look at today is one that would have received much more attention on any other weekend: then-20th placed Wolves’ 2-1 win over the unbeaten league leaders Manchester United.
The major tactical points to note were the pressing and formation of Wolves. Lining up in a slightly lopsided 4-2-3-1 meant Wolves always had an extra man in those central areas which, combined with the pressing, made it difficult for Man United to build anything, instead opting for long balls that were easily cut out by Richard Stearman and Christophe Berra.
The main problem United had when trying to pass from the back was the positioning of Jamie O’Hara, who lingered around the deepest midfielder before stepping up to meet one of the centre-backs. Although both are decent with the ball, neither Nemanja Vidic or Jonny Evans have the ability to step out of defence like the injured Rio Ferdinand so, unable to pass it on to the midfield, that first ball out of defence suffered, cutting them off from the rest of the team and forcing them into hoofs.
A by-product of Wolves’ pressing is their apparent reputation for violent play, however physical football was rarely necessary on Saturday. Wolves’ players were rushing out to meet United’s then shepherding them into tighter gaps, having forced them into dribbling by hassling their teammates too.
Wayne Rooney was so cut off from the play that he was coming a lot deeper than Jamie O’Hara despite nominally being a forward, but rarely did so when it was appropriate, bursting forward when he probably should have provided a shorter option to help out the passing in the centre, with the whole team impressively moving up the pitch as a unit. Karl Henry, the poster boy for Wolves’ usual nasty nature, was arguably the best player on the pitch, pressing well and positioning himself well to hoover up anything played behind the rest of his midfield.
In the second half, Kevin Foley replaced O’Hara and, as a more defensive player, played deeper, creating a 4-3-3/4-5-1 that made it even more difficult for United to play through.
Initially, Wolves were winning the ball back around the half-way line and knocking it back for their goalkeeper to punt long towards the front four, but as the game went on and they grew in confidence they gradually became more impressive going forward.
The first change was the Wolves players coming deeper to get the ball, knocking it about between the defence and drawing United up the pitch, before rolling it back to Wayne Hennessey to hit long again, catching United off guard. Eventually this became too troublesome for United, who pressed less, opting to stay back rather than open up space for Wolves’ front four, which just let Wolves play a standard possession-based game.
The front four were all great and fairly fluid. O’Hara and Matt Jarvis were regularly interchanging their positions while Kevin Doyle was coming short. Michael Carrick was struggling to deal with this the most, having been dragged up the pitch by Nenad Milijas, he would then have to run back to meet O’Hara only to then pick up Jarvis and was mercifully replaced at half-time by Paul Scholes.
Having said this, neither of Wolves’ goals came from open play. The Midlands club appeared to have the same plan for almost every free-kick or corner: to hit it short. It is obviously difficult to change something that is practiced over and over again in the space of a match, but just pulling an extra man back would have done United the world of good defensively.
Man United poor
We can praise Wolves as much as we like, but ultimately the top-placed team should be beating the bottom-placed one regardless of how well the latter plays. It’s been mentioned a lot during United’s unbeaten run that they often haven’t been convincing, particularly away from home, nicknamed the “Crap Invincibles”, and it’s easy to say this result has been a long time coming.
The direct football wasn’t helping of course, but there were several things you would expect from a typical United team that weren’t happening at all.
The lack of organisation during set-pieces has already been mentioned, yet the main surprises were when United were attacking. Whenever someone in a white shirt picked the ball up out wide, one of the forward would pull into the channels while the winger and full-back would move into that same space, putting three players in close proximity. This isn’t necessarily a problem: it makes intricate passing moves to get past players easier and potentially opens up space in the centre, but United didn’t take advantage of either – rarely making the runs in the open space and, instead of passing between them, regularly knocking it back into that troublesome central midfield area.
Ryan Giggs and Nani are the only players that come out of this game looking any good, and the former was particularly underused; Giggs for the positions he was taking up – the amount of times he peeled off Ronald Zubar and cut across the penalty area unnoticed by both the Wolves’ defence and his teammates must of been both joyful and frustrating for United fans – and Nani for his sheer talent.
This could be the wake up call needed for United to step it up a gear this season, but it mostly highlights the problems that they have had all season that shouldn’t go ignored even if they win the league, which they most likely will. Perhaps that’s why it hasn’t had huge amounts of attention: it just not that big a shock.