Unplayable at Molineux
OPENING LINEUPS AND FORMATIONS
When in possession, Manchester United were in a lopsided 4-2-3-1ish shape and when out of possession, their shape was 4-4-1-1ish. David de Gea was the goalkeeper while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were the center-back pairing. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back while Rafael was chosen at right-back over Chris Smalling. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were in the center of the park while Antonio Valencia was deployed as a direct right-winger. Danny Welbeck roamed between the lines coming in from the left while Wayne Rooney dropped deep to operate in the space between the lines as well. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was the out-and-out striker.
Wolverhampton Wanderers (caretaker?) manager Terry Connor deployed his side in a system that had both 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 elements to it. No. 1 Wayne Hennessey was between the posts at Molineux while Sebastien Bassong and Richard Stearman were preferred at center-back over captain Roger Johnson and Christophe Berra. Stephen Ward wore the captain's armband at left-back and opposite of him at right-back was Ronald Zubar. David Davis, David Edwards, and Kevin Foley were nominally a central-midfield trio. However, Edwards starting playing higher and nearer to lone striker Steven Fletcher halfway through the first-half. Foley tended to drift out wide to the right when right-sided midfielder Kevin Doyle would also go high and central in support of Fletcher. Matthew Jarvis was deployed on the left flank as a true winger.
Wolves' shape was basically 4-5-1 when out of possession but they transitioned to a shape that resembled 4-4-2 when they had the ball. The trio of Edwards, Foley, and Davis provided structure in midfield and that was certainly expected against an opponent that is clearly superior in talent. Early on, they tried to pass the ball around patiently from back to front and the eventual goal was to swing the ball out wide for Jarvis. From here, the desire was to get their winger in a 1 v 1 situation and hope that he could beat his marker so that he could whip in crosses for Fletcher or for Doyle at the far-post. Despite this being partially the reason it took some time for United to settle into the match and eventually control it, Wolves failed to worry United much due to their inability to transition the ball from the back to attack. Thus, the home side eventually decided to bypass the midfield more and punt balls long for Fletcher and Doyle.
As the 1st half wore on, Doyle began to tuck inside more and position himself near Fletcher so that he could offer support on knockdowns from balls being punted long to Fletcher. Also, Doyle offered an aerial presence himself. When he did this, Foley drifted towards the right while Davis and Edwards often were a resulting midfield duo. Thus, this was how Wolves tried to transition themselves into a 4-4-2 system from a 4-5-1 one when they won the ball back. Prior to Zubar being sent off, Edwards had a 10-15 minute span where he was providing drive as well from midfield so that he could also offer support to Fletcher. Wolves went from patiently moving the ball around early in the 1st half to throwing another man forward in support of Fletcher when they decided to bypass the midfield.
Scholes at the hub of it all
When I examined the statistics for this match, one that caught my eye was Scholes only misplacing 2 passes out of an attempted 98 (97.96% success rate). Not only is this passing ridiculously accurate, but his 1.05 pass attempts per minute (98 attempts/93 minutes) shows how successful he was to always make himself available. And then when he quickly moved the ball, he instantly made himself available again to receive. The trust that United's players still have in the legendary maestro is clearly evident. Scholesy was simply at the hub of it all for United.
As previously mentioned, it took a little time for United to settle into the match but they gained control of it when Wolves began throwing a player up front in support of Fletcher -- and thus, away from the midfield. United handled the more direct approach from Wolves well and this resulted in a concession of the midfield battle to United. Scholes -- from his deep-lying position -- began to pull the strings by linking with Rooney and Welbeck through middle and by swinging the ball out to the touchlines for the wide players.
'Sat-Nav' was also spraying long diagonal balls -- particularly to Valencia on the right touchline -- and as a result, this often forced Wolves' midfielders to close down their counterpart. Sit back against Scholes, and he will pick you apart. Come out higher in an effort to close down the regista, then space opens up between the lines for the likes of Rooney and Welbeck (more on this later). Pick your poison -- this is what an effective deep-lying playmaker offers in the modern game.
Wolves' woeful set-piece defending
There are those who believe in man-marking on set-pieces and there are those who swear by zonal marking. If you're a side that uses man-marking principles, then watch video of what Wolves do -- and do your best not to replicate them. Against United on Sunday, Connor's men were horrific in their set-piece defending and it was at fault for two of their conceded goals.
United had a plan on their first corner of the day -- albeit a simple one. Rooney was surprisingly taking it and while a number of players made runs towards the center of the goal and the near-post, Carrick spun to the far-post from his central position. The midfielder was free to receive Rooney's accurate corner after Zubar lost his marker and Carrick simply cut the ball across goal for Evans' finish. In the 2nd half, it was a short corner that drew two defenders out (*) and when the ball was eventually whipped in, the remaining Wolves defenders in the box failed to track Chicharito for his free header. This sort of organization on set-pieces -- or lack thereof -- is ominous for a side that looks destined for relegation.
(*) Perhaps the biggest benefit of a short corner is that whether you play short or long from this set-up, only one attacker has been pulled out of the box while two defenders have also.
United may not have been symmetric, but they were balanced
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, United played in a lopsided 4-2-3-1ish shape when they had the ball. Although definitely describing a shape can be futile and it's perhaps better to describe the roles that players were deployed in so that one can have a better understanding of an overall approach.
What is definite though is that United had balance and variety. On the left side, Welbeck tended to drift inward and looked to combine with Rooney and Chicharito. This was complimented well by Evra motoring up the touchline when needed so he could provide width with overlapping runs. Down the right side, they had a more traditional approach with a direct winger in Valencia receiving nearing the touchline and having a go at his counterpart. This also helped stretch play so that larger gaps could be created for Chicharito to work the channels and for when Rooney and Welbeck looked to split the defense with quick and fluid combination play in the space between the lines.
While both Rooney and Welbeck were creative forces while buzzing between the lines -- their 5 and 4 key passes (chances created) respectively can attest to this -- it was Valencia who was the truly unplayable attacker. The Ecuadorian winger was in tremendous form in January and in early February prior to his most recent injury. No reasonable person could have expected a similarly dominant performance from Valencia after this being only his first game back since that time. However, after continually receiving near the touchline, he simply torched his counterpart -- Ward -- over and over again. Valencia beat him to the byline to whip in crosses, he cut inside and blew by him to combine with United's other front four attackers, and he ruthlessly surged past him into space on counterattacks -- most notably when Rooney released Valencia into space for his rocketing run during United's goal. The winger created an incredible 7 key passes and if more tangible statistics are your thing, then his goal and two assists also does well to exemplify his superb performance.
Chicharito stretched the opposition vertically, Valencia did the same horizontally, Rooney and Welbeck creatively combined between the lines, and they were all supplied by midfield maestros Scholes and Carrick. United broke down Wolves when the home side defended deep and they also broke at speed on the counterattack. As Jonathan Wilson stated earlier this week in a piece for the Guardian, symmetry isn't essential in football, but balance is. United certainly showed this at Molineux.
All roads lead to Jarvis
51% of Wolves' attack occurred down their left side. That is in comparison to only 26% down the right side and only 23% through the middle. Headed into this match, Wolves attacked more down the left side (42%) than any other Premier League side. This clearly shows that playing through Jarvis in attack is their main -- and predictable -- route. It makes good sense then that their best chance in the 1st half occurred through a Jarvis cross that found Fletcher's head in the box.
As the match wore on and Wolves resorted more to punting the ball long, Jarvis became less involved because the ball was being swung out to him less from midfield. Although he was still able to attempt 13 crosses -- many from set-pieces -- he was mostly quiet and dealt well with by Rafael. In the reverse fixture, Jarvis terrorized Smalling and thus, Fergie likely deployed the Brazilian because he has more quickness and pace to deal with this left-wing threat. Evans and Ferdinand dealt well with Fletcher -- and whoever else got forward in support -- while Rafael did well to nullify Wolves' biggest attacking threat. Rafael didn't get forward as often as he typically does so that he wouldn't risk being caught out. As we all saw, Valencia was fine to terrorize Wolves all by himself anyway on the right side. Again, good overall balance by United.
Wolves go down to 10-men
United were improving as half-time approached but they only had a single goal lead prior to Zubar being sent off in the 39th minute. As a result of being reduced to ten men, Conner shouted the instructions for his side to shift to a 4-4-1 shape. Unfortunately for Wolves, half-time couldn't come quick enough as United quickly bagged two more goals after Zubar went off and before the break had arrived.
Even though Conner likely still would have deployed his side in a compact 4-4-1 shape after half-time had they been down only 0-1, it is impossible to say for sure. Would the Wolves boss perhaps considered an alternative shape such as 4-3-1-1 or one with a back three so that his side could have had more hope in attack? The two banks of four provided a decently balanced defensive structure for a ten-man side but it stranded Fletcher up front as a lone target. Perhaps a narrow defensive shape with one player further up to link with Fletcher could have offered a chance to steal a result against United. However, with the scoreline being 0-3 at half-time -- with that being the most logical time to give detailed tactical instruction for a change -- damage control may have been Conner's only goal. United's two quick goals after Zubar was sent-off effectively won the match.
It was an impressive scoreline for United and the five-goal difference aids their overall goal differential for the season. This could prove vital in the title race. However, United were a bit sluggish early and despite being calm and control in the final half-hour, they failed to add to their goal tally at a time when Wolves were reeling. Overall though, it was a great result and it was a good bounce back after being dominated by La Liga side Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League. Valencia looked he hadn't missed a beat while injured and this sort of form is certainly welcome and needed for the run-in. In addition, Welbeck continued to shine in a free-role from out wide and he even scored his first goal in 8 weeks. Furthermore, youngster Paul Pogba impressed during his half-hour on the pitch -- hopefully his continual involvement as of late portends well for United in their current contract negotiations with the starlet. Although Manchester City have a game in hand, a performance like this to go four points clear ahead of the 'noisy neighbour's' upcoming clash with Chelsea FC at the midweek can't be considered anything but optimal.