LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 18: Wayne Rooney (L) of Manchester United celebrates as teammate Michael Carrick (3rd R) scores his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Manchester United at Loftus Road on December 18, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Opening Lineups and Formations
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson fielded an unchanged side from the one that defeated Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1 last weekend at Old Trafford. David de Gea was in goal while the center-back pairing was Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back and Chris Smalling lined up opposite of him at right-back. In United's 4-4-2 shape, Michael Carrick partnered Phil Jones in the center of the park for the third successive league match and they were flanked by Nani on the left and Antonio Valencia on the right. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck formed a partnership up top.
Queens Park Rangers manager Neil Warnock fielded his side in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1ish shape. Radek Cerny was chosen in goal over Patrick Kenny. In defense, Matthew Connolly deputised for an injured Anton Ferdinand at center-back and he was partnered by Daniel Gabbidon. They were flanked by Armand Traore at left-back and Luke Young at right back. In central midfield, Alejandro Faurlin and Joey Barton were the duo while Jay Bothroyd was higher up the pitch in a withdrawn role from lead striker Heidar Helguson. Out on the flanks, it was Jamie Mackie on the right and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the left.
* This match wasn't the most thrilling tactically -- United simply outplayed QPR in nearly all phases of this contest. Therefore, here are just some thoughts from this observer, rather than a full-blown tactical review:
1. United's defense mostly (except you Patrice) impresses: Quite simply, Ferdinand and Evans were fantastic as a center-back pairing and Smalling was nearly Vidic-like in aerial duels. There has been much discussion of Ferdinand's decline and of Evans always "having a mistake in him" -- while there is a grain of truth in this at times (e.g. Manchester derby), it has been greatly exaggerated and to the point where it has become lazy rhetoric for some pundits and writers. Both were tremendous with their positioning and anticipation, while bravely dueling in the air throughout the entirety of the encounter due to the constant long-balls sent to Helguson and Bothroyd. I'm not suggesting that Ferdinand is still at the top of his game as he was when he was younger, however, he still is a very-good center-back when he is fit and untroubled by his back -- which appears to be the case for the current moment (*crosses fingers while knocking on wood*). Obviously this is a concern, but Evans -- whether you believe he is a capable starting caliber center-back or not for a top side -- provides capable cover for an injury-prone Ferdinand and the youngsters Smalling and Jones.
Smalling was once again deployed at right-back and he was up against a speedy winger in Wright-Phillips, just as he was last week versus Wolves when he was up against Matthew Jarvis. However, the versatile United defender fared much better this week. There were a few moments when Smalling's pace looked vulnerable to Wright-Phillips' but because the supply to the QPR attacker was constantly cut-off -- in the form of passes played to feet or into space to for the attacker to run onto -- this wasn't much of a factor. However, Smalling was continually forced to duel in the air and he nearly won every single duel that he was involved in. Often it was up against the smaller Wright-Phillips, so a "Vidic-like" description is perhaps too flattering. Nonetheless, he won 11/12 of his duels: he dutifully cleared passes that were hoofed but he also provided a target for goalkeeper de Gea when QPR pressed high up to close down the easy outlet to either Ferdinand or Evans. This successful outlet, higher up the pitch, allowed United to quickly transition into attack from Smalling's knock-downs.
* At the time of publishing, the chalkboard that I created for Smalling's aerial duels is not able to be embedded. I will do so ASAP.
2. Evra had a shocker (again): This is becoming a worrisome trend. Last season, Evra's form was inconsistent but I don't think many were too concerned about ahead of this season. However, his performances have gotten worse and perhaps because of his past contributions to the club, I've been somewhat hesitant to criticize the defender. Well, I won't hesitate to state that he may may been the worst player on the pitch on Sunday at Loftus Road.
There have been some whispers that Evra has been quite affected by the issues surrounding the allegations that he's been racially abused by Liverpool's Luis Suarez -- this is something that is impossible to know since we aren't privy to that sort of information. However, his positional awareness has been atrocious at times this season as he constantly gets caught out. In addition, it's also possible that he has lost a tiny bit of pace but proper positioning would help the left-back compensate since he still does have quite a lot left. It's almost shocking that QPR were not able to get Mackie the ball more as his high positioning often left him available to receive in behind Evra. Perhaps Ferdinand's recent move to left-center-back, rather the usual right-center-back position he's played in most recent seasons, is due to the necessity of his (increasingly) deep-positioning providing cover for Evra.
3. Carrick and Jones outclass Faurlin and Barton: Carrick continued his recent run of good form while Jones once again provided a nice compliment in central midfield. Last week versus Wolves, it was Jones who was typically positioned right of center while Carrick was left of center. In this match, the two switched sides -- this allowed Jones to provide a natural positional foil to Barton. The QPR midfielder is the one who often controls play for his side and it could be reasonably assumed that Fergie wanted to use Jones' energy -- a trait of Jones' that the United boss praised in post-match interviews -- to quickly close down his counterpart. It worked.
Barton's rhythm was disrupted on Sunday and it can be displayed with two examples: (1) Probably most obviously on his woeful pass that Carrick intercepted and took 35 yards for United's second goal. (2) In addition, Barton's passing statistics provide a hint towards this as well -- his season averages are 54.3 passes completed per game at a 72.4% success rate. Versus United, Barton completed 43 passes at a 62.0% success rate.
Faurlin typically is positioned slightly deeper than Barton so this subtle switch by Fergie made Faurlin the natural positional foil to Carrick. But because of this deep-positioning, Carrick was often allowed to receive the ball and not have any defender within 10 yards of him. This allowed the United midfielder to dictate from deep and his quick one-touch distribution set the tone for United's fast and fluid attack versus QPR. Carrick noticeably made more driving runs forward this game and much of this was due to the simple fact that there was space going forward to exploit. Carrick and Jones bossed the match in the center of the park.
This partnership for United has done well now for three successive weeks but it remains to be seen on how they will fare against competition of higher quality. Jones' energy and driving runs appear to a fantastic compliment thus far to the intelligent positioning and clever distribution that Carrick provides.
4. United's fluidity in attack: United's defense was solid while Carrick and Jones were controlling the match in the center -- this freed up the fast and fluid attack that was on display versus a hapless QPR side. It is quite amazing that United did not bag more goals. Similar to what we witnessed at season's beginning -- when United were scoring goals at a record-setting pace -- the attack consisted of one-touch layoffs, fluid movement that dragged defenders out of position, and midfield runners into this exploitable space. It's not uncommon for Nani to end up on the opposite side of attack from where he is deployed as this often creates overloads in attack. However, even Valencia was spotted on the left-flank on numerous occasions while providing similar benefit.
It remains to be seen who will eventually become first-choice to compliment Rooney when both Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) and Welbeck find both form and fitness at the same time. Welbeck provides a better well-rounded game: link-up play, intelligent movement between the lines, and the vision and range of passing to split a defense with an incisive pass through the channels. However, he hasn't shown the same consistent finishing, nor poaching ability as Chicharito. Both are certainly quality players and it's even a bigger benefit that both provide a different skillset. Welbeck wasn't poor, but he certainly hasn't shown the same form recently as he did in the season's beginning prior to his injury. Having said that, it's probably not a coincidence that the attack looks fluid again since his return to the lineup. Perhaps though, a fully-fit Chicharito could have helped United bag the more goals that they deserved versus QPR?
5. An in-form Valencia compliments United's fluid attack well: Two seasons ago, when Rooney was often featured as the club's lead striker, he scored 34 goals and afterward, he had this to say about Valencia: "I couldn't have scored the amount of goals I have this season without him. He's been great this year and the quality of balls he puts in the box for me has been unbelievable." Wazza is obviously appreciative of the tremendous service that the Ecuadorian winger provides when he surges past his marker, gets to the byline, and accurately places a cross into the box for a United attacker.
Valencia is another player that appears to be finding his form recently and the timing is fortunate when considering that Ashley Young's and Park Ji-sung's has dipped in recent months. Perhaps the bigger benefit though is the tactical benefit that Valencia provides: his direct style of play stretches play for United's other interchangeable attackers and it also provides a different avenue of incisiveness.
6. QPR's patient-passing attempts to slow down the game's tempo: The biggest tactical focus -- in terms of providing a response to United's dominance in this match -- was mostly two-fold: (1) target Helguson and Bothroyd with long balls out of the ball in order to provide relief from United's attack and also to have QPR's other tricky attackers get on the end of knock-downs. (2) When the ball did reach the midfield, there appeared to be an intentional effort to slow the tempo of the match down with patient passing. In regards to the first tactic, the likes of Ferdinand, Evans, Smalling, Jones, and Carrick did well to compete and minimize this threat. In regards to the second, the loose passing by Barton and Faurlin continually put their side under pressure. Much of this was due to the previously mentioned combativeness of Jones and the intelligent positioning by Carrick. The latter had a match-high 5 interceptions.
It was an impressive away victory for United and perhaps they were deserved to have won by more -- or perhaps not if that is the punishment for not being clinical enough with their finishing. Nonetheless, that is two successive performances that could be graded as impressive after their European disappointment. In addition, Fergie appears to have found a starting XI that is clicking at the moment. The holiday fixture list is congested so the squad will likely be rotated a bit in the upcoming matches. The pain of the derby disaster still lingers, as does the night in Basel, but there certainly some positives from these past two league ties. Players like Evans, Carrick and Nani are too easily criticized when they put in lackluster performances -- well here's a 'Cheers' to them for fine performances against QPR