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Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson mixed an experienced midfield and attack with an extremely inexperienced back four (1 start combined prior to the match) versus Newcastle United. Everything turned out okay.
It's generally assumed by most that you can't gather much information from
Carling Capital One Cup matches -- especially in these early stages of the knock-out competition -- because Premier League, FA Cup, and European commitments (for those involved) are the priority for most clubs. Therefore, diluted sides are typically named in these midweek ties and enthusiasm often wanes. For me though, these matches can be enjoyable because you get the chance to observe promising youngsters (players you often read about but haven't yet watched) get blooded in to the first-team, fringe first-team players who are need of a game, and important squad members that have recently returned from an injury. Overall form of the side can't really be judged but you can sometimes get a decent read on the individuals that are involved. With that context provided, here are five observations from Manchester United's 2-1 defeat of Newcastle United in last night's Capital One Cup enounter.
1. United play without wingers in a 4-4-2 diamond/4-3-2-1 'Christmas tree' shape
When the team news was revealed prior to the match, most likely assumed that Sir Alex Ferguson planned to deploy his side in a 4-3-3 shape and not all too dissimilar to counterattacking style that was so successful between 2006-09: a midfield trio of Darren Fletcher, Anderson, and Tom Cleverley was anticipated with a front three of Javier Hernandez (Chicharito), Wayne Rooney, and Danny Welbeck. What resulted though was a slight deviation and what Fletcher described as a 4-4-2 diamond in post-match interviews. The intention was for the Scotsman to hold at the base of the midfield diamond, Ando and Cleverley to shuttle just ahead of him, and Rooney to act as the playmaker at the tip of the diamond. With Welbeck dropping deep though, and with Chicharito clearly the lead striker, United's shape resembled a 'Christmas tree' 4-3-2-1. It was quite effective.
When United take a proactive approach, and this generally occurs in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish shape, they typically overwhelm opponents with their tricky wingers, marauding full-backs, and their creative between the lines playmaker. This works splendidly against weaker foes but United's cavalier approach can be exposed against more difficult competition because of a vulnerable defensive shape. This is precisely why Fergie often elects to deploy his side in a more stable and structured 4-3-3. This conservative approach though is dependent on the front three to provide enough variety and unpredictability in attack. What was interesting about United's shape versus Newcastle was how fluid the attack was -- the front three were interchangeable while Cleverley and Anderson did well to get forward with late-arriving runs into the box. Even though it was versus a weakened Newcastle side, it was encouraging to see United attack so effectively while playing in a structured shape. This has rarely been the case for a few seasons now.
2. The young back four hold their own
The combined age of the starting back four was 84-years-old (the combined age of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes is 75-years-old...) and they were ahead of 21-year-old goalkeeper David de Gea -- although the Spaniard is quite experienced for his young age. In addition, only Alexander Buttner had started a game for United (only one though) while Michael Keane's substitute appearance in the past was the only other experience any of the back four had for the first-team. Marnick Vermijl and Scott Wootton were making their senior side debuts. The youngsters looked vulnerable in moments but they generally did okay.
Keane in particular looked composed throughout as he looked comfortable defending and in possession. He perhaps might be a decent option as cover while the likes of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Nemanja Vidic remain out with injuries. Wootton did fine as well but he did let the talented Papiss Cisse slip him for a goal. Vermijl did well to provide width at times on the right flank and he sent in a few beautiful crosses -- one in the 2nd-half should perhaps been converted by Chicharito. However, the young Belgian looked increasingly troubled as the match wore on. Although it didn't match his spectacular debut versus Wigan Athletic, Buttner's performance was adequate enough.
3. Fletcher the protector
It's hard to know what Fletcher can provide the club going forward because of his difficult to manage bowel condition. Even if he can't ever become the energetic box-to-box screener like he used to be for passers like Scholes, Cleverley, and Michael Carrick, he still could become a reliable holding-midfielder. The Scotsman has the awareness positionally and his distribution is tidy enough for building attacking moves from the back. He did well versus Newcastle in shielding the young back four and he also did well to balance United's shape when Ando and Cleverley got forward. If his health can remain stable for any long stretches of this season, he could prove useful in three-man midfields or as a holder for a more mobile box-to-box types like Ando or Cleverley. United need more variety in the center of the park and Fletch showed encouraging signs that he could possibly provide this.
4. Cleverley and Anderson shine together again
Cleverley and Anderson were tremendous together at the beginning of the 2011/12 season. The two covered each other well -- when one would get forward or drop deep to pick up the ball from the back four, the other would move in the opposite direction and provide some vertical balance in central-midfield. However, they often weren't compact enough with the center-backs -- particularly when Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were deployed together -- and United were often far too open when possession was lost. This resulted in United allowing an alarming number of shots on their goal last season in the early-going.
In this match, the duo shined again. Cleverley was fantastic at using his mobility to make himself available and he did well to keep possession and keep the ball circulating in a quick fashion. Anderson provided drive from midfield and as he typically does when he's playing well, he got the ball forward quickly -- whether it was through quick passing exchanges or by carrying the ball himself. His goal did well to sum up his night as prior to his attempt, he carried the ball forward while using his strength to hold off a challenge from a menacing defender. As previously mentioned, having Fletcher in behind Cleverley and Ando provided stability to United's shape and it gave the mobile United midfielders freedom to get forward.
5. The fluid front three
Rooney and Welbeck appeared to mostly have free roles in behind Chicharito and the lack of attacking threat from Newcastle's full-backs didn't make tracking them a priority. Rooney's touch looked much sharper than it did versus Everton and Southampton and he seemed much more willing to move around the pitch. Welbeck's movement continued to impress and it's amazing how he never stops buzzing around looking for pockets of space to exploit. His role in the build-up of attacking moves is very underrated. Perhaps what was most encouraging though was the improved link-up play of Chicharito. The Mexican international was clearly the lead striker but he continually dropped deep to combine and this often cleared space for a Welbeck run into vacated space or for a surging run from deep by Ando or Cleverley. The interchanging movement between Chicha, Wazza, and Danny was hugely impressive.