The marauding Rafael led all players with 96 touches on the ball.
Opening Lineups and Formations
Manchester United were in a 4-2-3-1ish shape when in possesion and without the ball, they defended in a 4-4-1-1ish shape. David de Gea was the goalkeeper and ahead of him was a back four of Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand, Rafael, and Patrice Evra. Paul Scholes returned to the side after his absence during the midweek defeat by Wigan Athletic and he partnered Michael Carrick in the center of the park. Wayne Rooney roamed between the lines as a central creator and he was flanked by Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. Danny Welbeck often dropped deep to link play as a striker.
Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish deployed his side in a 4-1-4-1 shape. Shay Given was between the posts at Old Trafford while the back four consisted of James Collins, Nathan Baker, Alan Hutton, and Eric Lichaj. Ciaran Clark shielded the back four as the holding-midfielder and advanced from him were Gary Gardner and Stephen Ireland. Barry Bannan was narrowly-positioned as the wide right midfielder while Andreas Weimann was the wide left player in attack. Gabriel Agbonlahor was up top.
Villa's surprisingly positive approach
For anyone that read our match preview for this Villa match, you're probably well aware that I don't think much of McLeish as a football manager. During the reverse fixture, the Villa manager's tactics were negative (to say the least) and during the final half-hour of that match, his side simply resorted to route one as they continually hoofed the ball long for Emile Heskey. It led to an abysmal affair at Villa Park.
Because of this, I was quite shocked when I saw Villa attempting to press high up the pitch. Agbonlahor, Weimann, and Bannan attempted to close down United's back four while Gardner and Ireland attempted to close down Scholes and Carrick. The effort forced de Gea into a few hurried punts (9/18 passing | 10 long balls attempted), something which is quite unusual for the Spaniard. But in general, United were not bothered much. Because this approach is something that Villa doesn't typically do, it wasn't surprising to see that their high-up-the-pitch pressing was unorganized -- this combined with the strong ability on the ball of United's back six allowed the home side to patiently work the ball out of the back. Wigan's pressing troubled United at the past midweek and Fergie likely didn't expect these tactics from Villa. Therefore, with the away side entering the match six points clear of the drop zone, it perhaps was a gamble worth trying.
United simply outclass Villa in the center of the park
Many keep mentioning how alarming it was that United were so poor versus Wigan without a 37-year-old midfielder. To that I provide two simple responses: (1) Scholes is still world-class on his day and few can dictate and control the rhythm of a football match like he can when he is in good form. Any side may look somewhat lackluster when a player of that caliber is taken out of their side for the first time in 12 league matches. In addition, (2) many failed to fully comprehend how well Wigan performed and despite their current fight for Premier League survival, the Latics were probably the toughest league opponent that United has faced since their early March encounter with Tottenham Hotspur.
United's back four confidently pinged the ball around (210 passes at a 89% success rate collectively) and it was Scholes and Carrick that often came deep to collect the ball from them. From here, both midfielders maintained possession and exerted their control on the match. Quite often, Scholes quickly switched the point of the attack with his trademark and arrowed long diagonal balls to the flanks -- particularly to the right-side. This helped stretch Villa.
Despite their attempts to close down Scholes and Carrick, particularly in the earlier stages of the match, both Ireland and Gardner were poor in combating United's midfield maestros. Villa also had an extra man in central-midfield, however, their lack of organized structure continually resulted in them allowing Scholes to dictate the action as a deep-lying playmaker. Clark patrolled the space between the lines and therefore, it was up to Ireland and Gardner to close down higher up the pitch. Because so much of the match was played on one side of the pitch (43% on United's right-side and 47% on Villa's left side), both Ireland and Gardner were often getting dragged to that side of the pitch. As a result, Scholes, who was more often left of center, was free with both time and space on the ball. Gardner was often 15 yards away from Scholes and that's obviously too much space to concede. Of course, credit should go to United's midfielders as well because their interchanging movement frees them to receive and it also contributes to Villa's midfielders getting drawn out of position.
When Villa did win the ball, they simply couldn't keep it. Ireland and Gardner combined to only have a 71.4% passing success rate and on the occasion that they did accurately distribute the ball, it was rare that those passes released any attackers into dangerous areas. Villa worked hard but they lacked ideas and enough quality on the ball and therefore, they were generally impotent in attack.
Valencia/Rafael & Young/Evra are fine flank partnerships
With Nani's recent return from injury, and with his goal in this match, perhaps many wondered if he should return to being a first-choice winger for the final four matches of the title race. However, it may be best to finish the season with Valencia as the first-choice right-winger and Young as the first-choice left-winger. This isn't just because both are in good form right now, but also because both wingers have formed fine partnerships with the current first-choice full-backs. Valencia and Rafael are probably the best combination at the moment on the right side while Young and Evra probably form the best combination on the left. I don't see the need to fix it if it ain't broke right now -- even if Nani is a nice shiny option right now.
Weimann, who is more naturally a centre-forward at this stage of his young career, continually failed to track back on Rafael when United were in possession. The Brazilian smartly motored forward to create 2 v 1 overloads with Valencia. The Ecuadorian winger had a fine game but one could also argue that Villa's left-back -- Lichaj -- competed admirably when one considers he was continually outnumbered. The young defender impressively won 3 tackles and intercepted 5 passes.
Perhaps the most alert part of Rafael's movement was when he would dart diagonally inside of Valencia and Lichaj. Ireland was preoccupied with the deep-lying Carrick and he wasn't dropping deep in any sort of hurry to help defend in the space behind him. Clark was often preoccupied with Rooney so Rafael would dart into this open inside-right space behind both Weimann and Ireland. It's not much of a surprise that Rafa's 96 touches on the ball in this match were more than any other player. Rafa is rightfully lauded for his combativeness (he had 8 tackles vs. Villa) but he also exhibited intelligence in two ways during this match: (1) his recognition of this hole in Villa's shape and (2) in his understanding with Valencia.
On the other side of the pitch, Evra got forward as well to support Young. Since the beginning of the season, both players have shown a clear understanding with another and both often interchange. Bannan also failed to track Evra and just like Rafael was, the left-back was an easy outlet near the touchline when United were building attacking moves from deep. Sliding the ball out wide to Evra or Rafael, which also has the benefit of bringing another player into attack, was always available for Scholes, Carrick, Ferdinand, and Evans.
United's opening two goals fit the pattern of the game
The first two goals in this match do well to display the rewards of a patient build-up, good movement in attack, and individual quality. I recommend watching the highlights (linked at the bottom of this write-up) to compliment the following:
1st goal: Well, this goal has certainly gotten enough attention -- but I'm not going to go into that here. On the build-up to the goal, United completed 15 passes during a 50 second span before United was given a penalty. The move did well to show many features of United's style of play in recent months: interchanging movement from deep between Scholes, Carrick, and Evans, Scholes switching the point of attack, Evans surging forward from his center-back position, Evra getting forward to overlap, and Young being tricky enough to beat both his marker Hutton and the inside cover of Clark.
2nd goal: Once again, the build-up was patient from the back as Welbeck eventually scored after 12 passes were completed. Impressively, every United outfield player touched the ball during the move. Once again, there were some usual features: the ball was switched twice, Rooney and Carrick had a clever and quick interchange that sprung United into the attacking third, and it was Evra surging forward again to provide the assist for Welbeck's back-post finish.
Villa switch to 4-4-2 and are immediately exposed between the lines
With Villa down 2-0, McLeish decided to bring on Heskey for Clark in the 64th minute. Heskey had already been warming up but perhaps the substitution for Clark was not the original plan and instead forced after the holding-midfielder received a nasty knock on his head. The ultimate result of this was Villa bringing on a 2nd player up front and switching their shape from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-4-2. If Clark hadn't been injured, it's unknown whether this shape change would have occurred. It seems more likely than not though that it would have happened anyway as McLeish perhaps used the simple logic that having another attacker might get his side back into the game. However, the opposite occurred as the lack of a holding-player patrolling the space between the lines resulted in Rooney's knock-out blow.
Despite bagging a brace, Rooney was poor in this game -- which was acknowledged by both himself and his manager afterward -- but it didn't prevent himself from finishing an open chance for United's third goal. Both Ireland and Gardner continued to position themselves just as they were when Clark was in the match. But when the holding-midfielder was withdrawn, the gap between the Villa central-midfielders and their center-backs was massive. Rooney and Welbeck naturally drop deep and both were enjoying the freedom of this space (see diagram below). When United were building their attacking move, it made perfect tactical sense that Rooney would be wide open between the lines when Valencia found him for a cutback.
It's hard to say that McLeish got his starting tactics wrong as his side's intended shape was supposed to provide structural stability while his positive approach had an element of surprise to it. However, the execution was flawed and soon enough, players like Scholes and Rafael were exploiting space created by Villa players constantly being caught out of position. Perhaps more than execution though, United simply outclassed a young Villa side. McLeish made a mistake though by taking away a player from a zone that his side was already struggling to compete in. The result of this tactical move was United punishing them in this space for a 3rd goal -- the one that guaranteed the home side three points. It'll be interesting to see going forward whether United can effectively use their recent possession-based approach when they travel away to Manchester City for a possible title-decider or when pass-happy Swansea City come visit Old Trafford. United have controlled every match that Scholes has started in since his return.
TBB Post-Match Coverage