Wayne Rooney has enough class to effectively play nearly every postion -- but United miss his incisive playmaking higher up the pitch.
Opening Lineups & Formations
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson sprung a slight surprise by having Manchester United play in a 4-3-3 shape. Anders Lindegaard was in goal as No 1 David De Gea was rested. For the first time since the opening weekend at West Bromwich Albion -- when both came off due to injury -- captain Nemanja Vidic formed a partnership with Rio Ferdinand at center-back. The slight wrinkle with this familiar tandem was that each was opposite of the normal side from where they typically line up -- Rio was left of center while Vida was right of center. Patrice Evra was the left-back and Phil Jones played right-back. Darren Fletcher was deployed as the holding midfielder while both Wayne Rooney and Ji-Sung Park were more advanced in the central midfield. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) led the attacking line and he was flanked by Nani on the right and Danny Welbeck on the left.
Sunderland manager Steve Bruce deployed his side in a 4-4-2ish shape -- just as he had during the past two weekends. But there was a slight twist to this. When out of possession, the Black Cats resembled a 4-4-1-1 shape as striker Ji Dong-Won continually got goalside of Fletcher. When they were building an attack, the shape often resembled a lopsided 4-3-1-2. Stephane Sessegnon would cut in from the left flank and play just behind the strike partnership of Nicklas Bendtner and Ji -- the latter came on just a few minutes into the match for the injured Connor Wickham. Sebastian Larsson provided width on the right in midfield while Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback positioned themselves in the center of the park. In defense, Kieren Westwood was deputising in goal while former United defenders Wes Brown and Kieran Richardson were at center-back and left-back, respectively. Michael Turner was Brown's partner in central-defense while Phil Bardsley deputised for the injured John O'Shea.
Since the 1-6 derby demolition, United have solidified their defense with four straight cleansheets in all competitions. However, these solid defensive performances have come while the attack has sputtered. As mentioned previously, it was a slight surprise to see Fergie use a 4-3-3 shape rather than some sort of 4-4-2. Since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, the Reds have struggled to generate a fluid attack when playing in a 4-3-3/4-5-1ish shape. The three-man central midfield provides functionality but the versatility and interchangeability of Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney, and Park allowed them to be lethal on the counter. It was a balance that led to domestic and continental titles. United have yet to show the same ferocity in attack since while playing in this shape.
United got off to an extremely slow start versus Sunderland. Perhaps some of this may be due to the occasion of Fergie's 25-year anniversary celebration and also to the early injury to Wickham that delayed the action. Nonetheless, that does not excuse the fact that United were quite poor in attack for most of the first half.
The back four were solid and Fletcher did well to shield his defense while providing tidy distribution to the midfield -- 59 passes completed at an impressive 95% success rate. Park provided the industry and bite to combat Cattermole and Colback while Rooney somewhat pulled the strings -- 33 passes completed at a loose 77% success rate.
The genesis of this struggle -- in a simple and macro sense -- may come from two areas of the pitch. (1) United lack a controlling playmaker that can consistently dictate the flow of the game and (2) the three attackers failed to contribute much in this match.
In regards to the former, this is where the club misses Paul Scholes and have yet to replace him. Michael Carrick did well to provide this for last season's run-in from a deep-lying playmaking role -- though perhaps not to the same brilliant extent as Scholesy. Rooney has done a solid job in this role during the past few matches but his distribution was too loose while in this role during the first half versus Sunderland (more on the 2nd half later).
It may be more appropriate to pass the blame onto the the three attackers higher up the pitch in this match though. In this role for Rooney -- one that positions him deeper than his usual roaming between the lines -- his job is to swing the ball wide out to the flanks or to link play with the attack. The responsibility of incisive distribution and a penetrating attack is generally on the trio of Chicharito, Welbeck, and Nani in this stiuation. The latter two theoretically should be fine in a system such as this because of their versatility and comfort levels to interchange in attack. However, both struggled -- as did Chicharito.
Credit should be given to Sunderland for defending well. Cattermole was particularly impressive in the midfield and he did well to continually close down Rooney and Park -- the chalkboard below charts his impressive 5 tackles and 4 interceptions. Ji also worked quite hard to get goalside of Fletcher and prevent Sunderland -- who only deployed two central-midfielders -- from being overrun in the center of the park.
Rooney could be seen yelling at Nani in the 32nd minute to "get wide!" United were quite narrow in attack and their only width was provided by the marauding runs of Jones and Evra. Welbeck and Nani both looked to come inward towards goal in the attacking third. When the latter did cross, he was quite poor -- only 3 crosses out of an attempted 16 found a United attacker. The chalkboard below shows Nani's failure to provide incisive passing in the attacking third. Chicharito stayed high but he did not successfully occupy the two center-backs as an orthodox center-forward often does in a 4-3-3. The attacker leading the line should provide at least one of two things: (1) come deep for the ball while dragging out a marker so that space can be created in behind him for midfield runners. (2) Or occupy two center-backs while holding up the ball and allowing the wide forwards or late-arriving midfielders to join the attack. Chicharito is a fine out-and-out striker in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 system but he has yet to prove that he can effectively be deployed as a lone striker.
Jones' marauding runs
The most positive part of United's attack in the first half was when Jones got forward for his overlapping runs. Space was available for him to exploit when Sessegnon was caught out after United regained possession in their own half. As mentioned, Sessegnon often drifted inward in support of Sunderland's two strikers. Prior to the corner that led to Brown's own-goal, it was a surging run forward by Jones that led to United's corner. Sessegnon was on the other side of the pitch in attack when Sunderland lost possession of the ball. Jones got forward into space to receive and the result of this quick counter was United's earned corner.
United change to 4-4-2 after half
No substitutions were made at half but Fergie did switch his side to a 4-4-2 shape. Park moved out wide to the left and Welbeck joined Chicharito up top. Sunderland made a subtle switch by moving Ji out to the left and Sessegnon in behind Bendtner.
United were instantly improved. They began to play with width, fluidity, and an increased tempo. The width was key. It is possible that Fergie mentioned the same instructions to Nani at half that Rooney did to him in the 32nd minute. Rooney completed nearly the same amount of passes in the 2nd half (35) as he did in the first (33), but he increased his accuracy to 83%. This chalkboard below -- which compares Rooney's passing from the 1st and 2nd halves -- shows that he was sending more long diagonal balls out wide to Nani on the right flank. The shift to a 4-4-2 coincided with Rooney sending in more penetrating passes into the attacking third.
United played well for the first half-hour of the 2nd half and were unlucky not to bag a 2nd goal. It was certainly the only bright spell in the match for the home side. In the 76th minute, Bruce made some positive substitutions for his side and at this point, United were content to grind out a 1-0 victory -- which they successfully did.
Vidic is a rock in the back
It has been uninspiring as of late for the Reds but they do have their captain back -- and they have recorded their 4th straight cleansheet after conceding six to Manchester City. Vidic was a beast in the back and he contributed with 10 headed clearances and 4 aerial duels won during the match. Larsson whipped in a number of crosses -- whether in open play or from set-pieces -- but United's defense did well to deal with the aerial bombardment. Vidic put in a man of the match performance.
The Reds started poorly and they clearly lacked cohesion and creativity in their 4-3-3. But United did not concede a goal. Since the City match, United have been functional and have grinded out results. They have mostly been solid in defense but they clearly are lacking at the moment in attack. Rooney has provided a nice band-aid for the recent injuries to Tom Cleverley and Ryan Giggs but he may be needed higher up the pitch. United have found ways to attack fluidly and fast but with vulnerabilities in the back. United have found a way to solidify the defense but with the concession of creativity in attack. Can United find a balance?