Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez scored a header against Braga in United’s 3-2 victory
Manchester United beat S.C. Braga 3-2 having fought back from two goals down after Alan scored two first half goals for the Portuguese. Javier Hernandez scored two headers in between a Jonny Evans equalizer. Sir Alex Ferguson opted for a 4-4-2 diamond, however the withdrawal of Shinji Kagawa saw the introduction of Luis Nani, which gave United width in a more traditional 4-4-2 as Wayne Rooney moved to the left flank. Here we discuss the talking points from the game and welcome comments from both sets of fans.
Diamond formation and shape
United started with the diamond shape (roughly 4-3-1-2) that suited their approach at Newcastle and FC Cluj so well. In came Buttner, Cleverley, Kagawa, Fletcher and Hernandez as Fergie rotated carefully ahead of Chelsea at the weekend. Braga adopted somewhat of a fluid 4-2-3-1, with high fullbacks and with Alan adopting a ‘10’ role, working with Eder. Braga’s approach at times resembled the Bielsa model utilised by his Athletic Bilbao in last season’s competition.
The thinking behind the recent tactical change for United is to do with ball retention and possession of the ball in the most important area of the field; the centre. The diamond essentially allows you to play with three central players at any one time – where Cleverley drifted over to the right touchline tonight, Rooney would drop in and create a trio with Fletcher and Kagawa; likewise, we saw Rooney and Kagawa interchange positions (left and to the tip of the diamond behind the two strikers), with the aim being to drag one centre half out of position and allow midfield runners and the active fullback to get in behind. Fletcher’s role was not just to sweep up in front of the back four, but also to instigate and lead the pressing from the centre. He pressed the space in which Alan was dropping into, and was frequently seen directing Cleverley and Kagawa, acutely aware of both Amorism and Michael coming into the centre to make it 4-2-2-2 when Braga lost the ball (and getting into wide positions when on the counter). It worked relatively well, despite United conceding early again – Buttner will have to improve his strength and aerial challenges, and Carrick was simply ‘done’ by Eder – and Fletcher, despite tiring enormously in the last 15 minutes, will be satisfied with his progress, and will hopefully push for a start in the league in the coming weeks.
Excellent forward movement
With van Persie now starting to find his modus operandi in the side (in addition to his clinical finishing of course), his intelligent movement into wide left and right positions and use of the ball is a joy to behold. His combination play with Rooney – whose movement away from goal was equally impressive tonight – allowed the midfield players, Buttner, Rafael and man of the match Hernandez, space in which to do damage. Braga’s deep back line (and a bank of 5 in front at times) in the first half (more due to going ahead in the game rather than pre-emptive), was a tough system to penetrate, but it was superb link-play between Buttner, van Persie and Kagawa down the left hand side – creating that vital space inside the penalty area – that left Hernandez able to head home from close range, sparking the comeback. (The referee Mazic played a fantastic advantage here, and credit must also go to the assistant for a tight offside call.)
Hernandez worked tirelessly all night, playing astute one-two’s on the edge of the area and working the left channel with aplomb, constantly drawing defenders out of position. Crucially too, his timing for both of his goals was impeccable, and the Mexican can be satisifield with his night’s work after taking a back seat of late with the other three forwards stealing the limelight.
Second half change
United drew level early in the second half, Evans pouncing in the penalty area yet again (his second goal of the season, but having come close on 2-3 other occasions of late), from yet another nice van Persie in-swinging corner. Fergie had earlier exchanged the injured Kagawa for Nani – who was unlucky not to start here, and who immediately supplied the width down the right, pushing Leandro Salino back for the first time in the game, and of course forcing Braga to concede the corner in the first place. Rooney went to left midfield, leaving van Persie operating behind Hernandez in somewhat of a 4-4-1-1. Nani’s introduction also saw Rafael’s influence on the game grow after a poor first half, and it was his interplay with the Portuguese again that opened up the space for Cleverley to deliver the perfect ball for the winner.
Cleverley’s unglamorous role
Tom Cleverley’s energy and pressing was yet again vital to this system, and though his defensive third contribution wasn’t as outstanding as it was in the games vs. FC Cluj and Newcastle (where he played on the opposite side, in front of Evra), his battling and quick short passing in the centre, and in drifting out wide was once again important. Scholes’ passing is unparalleled but the Cleverley’s guile as well as panache is so useful in a three, and arguably provides more to the team output at present. He is very much operating in a box-box capacity, and it was his cross from the right (vs. Newcastle he found similar space for such a ball – and goal – but from the left) that found Hernandez to head the third. With Carrick almost certain to start in the centre vs. Chelsea on Sunday, the youngster’s energy and commitment to the system will certainly mean he is challenging Scholes for a berth, especially if the three-man centre is retained.
United go behind yet again
Alan’s early strike at Old Trafford meant that Manchester United, yet again, were playing catchup. Against Everton (lost), Fulham (won), Southampton (won), Liverpool (won), Tottenham (lost), Cluj (won) and Stoke City (won) Manchester United conceded the first goal. Many will see this determination to turn a result around as a good mark of character, but Sir Alex Ferguson will no doubt want to eradicate this pattern of conceding early. Alan’s header exposed a flat footed Buttner, whilst the cross should never have been put in the first place. United travel to Chelsea next and Ferguson will be working hard to ensure that United take the lead, rather than having to fight back.
Javier Hernandez excellent
Many label Javier Hernandez as a superb finisher, without acknowledging his all round play. Against Braga, he was outstanding from the start of the game until he was substituted having scored United’s winner and first goal to get them back in the game. His determination and competitiveness was there for all to see as he shrugged off a challenge to emerge with the ball on the left hand touchline, a ball he should never have won, before beautifully playing in Nani on the right hand side, who forced Beto to make a decent save.
Hernandez movement was sublime and his contestant play on the shoulder of the last defender stretched the game and gave United something to hit. He was extremely unlucky to be called offside when television replays showed the Mexican was well onside in the second half. It should also be noted, that he also had another first half strike disallowed for a wrong offside call. An excellent performance from Hernandez, who is currently fourth choice behind Rooney, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck. This will no doubt enhance his chances in the future, but I don’t expect him to start against Chelsea on Sunday.
Following United’s victory, the club finds itself on nine points after three games. The draw between Cluj and Galatasaray has helped United establish a clear lead at the top. There are two away games (Galatasaray and Braga) and one home game (Cluj), however United are in pole position to qualify:
Manchester United showed great character and determination to recover from a two goal deficit against Portuguese club Braga. Alan scored a superb header and following an exceptional piece of skill from Eder on the left hand touchline, hit his second past the helpless De Gea. Javier Hernandez was United’s saviour with an exceptional all round performance and two headed goals. Wayne Rooney again operated in the trequartista role as Ferguson opted for a 4-3-1-2 setup. The injury to Shinji Kagawa meant that Ferguson had to shift to a more traditional 4-4-2, with Nani on the right hand side and Rooney on the left.
Although extremely impressive in the 3-0 victory over Newcastle United, United looked unimaginative in the first half, when Kagawa was asked to roam on left when in possession and tucking in when the ball was relinquished. There is no doubt that such a shift from United’s institutional 4-4-2 with a lot of width takes time, however can United really get the best out of Kagawa, who impressed so much in his first few games in a support role for Wayne Rooney? Arguably, Kagawa’s best position is central running towards goal – so the support between midfield and attack was ideal for him in his first few games. I doubt United will lineup with a diamond on Sunday against Chelsea but more a 4-2-3-1. Check the website later in the week for our preview.