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United went into a tricky away game at Shakhtar off the back of poor domestic form and with the late blow that Rooney got a whack in training on Tuesday and was therefore unavailable. Moyes opted to recall Rafael, Vidic, Smalling, Evra, Valencia, Fellaini Cleverley, Welbeck and van Persie as he made nine changes from the weekend defeat to West Brom. We welcome comments from all fans.
Moyes changes shape and it works
I’ve lost track of the number of times United have gone away from home and had the central midfield overrun. Most recently against Man City we were crying out for three in the middle, particularly now Fellaini is at the club… and Moyes went with it!
Some might suggest that it’s a negative system to use, particularly when the three in the middle aren’t pushing that high up the pitch but it provides a base to build on and control the game with. By ensuring United had the better of the central areas, Shakhtar were forced to play a more expansive game and go wide, putting crosses in which only fed the head of Vidic. This suited United perfectly and clearly didn’t play to Shakhtar’s strengths given that they completed only 2 out of 30 crosses.
It’s been a long time since United have played a hard away game – and let’s not kid ourselves, this isn’t an easy place to go to – and been as comfortable as that in terms of protecting the goal. Possession can be misleading too. It’s fine that Shakhtar had most of the ball because they had it 30-40 yards from goal in areas that weren’t going to and didn’t harm United.
The key though was to take the chances that came our way. They were going to be few and far between, particularly after we took the lead but it was so nearly the ruthless away performance we craved. Some will be annoyed we weren’t more attacking and didn’t play slightly less defensively disciplined players like Nani or Kagawa but by being cautious we were a darn sight more convincing than recent away games when teams have opened us up through the middle with ease and the defence haven’t been protected. Well done David Moyes on changing it.
A tale of two midfielders: Fellaini and Cleverley
The system was right and in many ways for an away game the personnel was right but Fellaini’s performance wasn’t quite right.
Picked to break up play both deep and high, Fellaini looked to have started the game ok. He won some aerial duels but soon found that the referee (who was largely awful) wasn’t going to let any 50:50s go and he ended up committing 8 fouls which is simply too many for a player in the middle. He was ok in possession, only giving it away on 5 occasions but his touch wasn’t good enough and although some passes found their intended targets, they weren’t necessarily weighted properly or aimed accurately.
Fellaini will improve though and selecting him wasn’t necessarily a mistake. What it showed though is that the system can be turned on its head to be something more attacking though with him directly swapped for Giggs, Kagawa or even Rooney if he was willing to drop deeper. It is important to remember it was a 4-5-1 though rather than a 4-4-1-1, Fellaini was very much a central midfielder than something a bit higher.
By contrast though, Cleverley, who for some reason has become a bit of a whipping boy for some fans had an excellent game. Energy is underrated and it’s something Cleverley has in abundance and it’s something that Fletcher made a career out of. In the three man midfield, Cleverley proved to be a very good link man, happy to take the ball off Carrick and move it on to the next person. He, like Carrick, didn’t commit a single foul and was tidy in possession. He still needs to be more of a threat going forwards but he played a big part in United winning the central midfield battle – a very accomplished performance and food for thought for Moyes.
United unlucky to draw or had it coming?
This will no doubt split people down the middle. Shakhtar, for all their possession, did incredibly little with it. In fact, their performance was very similar to United’s against West Brom at the weekend – much more of the possession, more of the territory, more passes in the final third, but a total failure to convert that into chances and efforts on target.
Shakhtar, for all their possession at home, had two efforts on target. One was the goal and one was a tame shot saved easily by de Gea (who had to make a great save after a cross hit Smalling too). Sure, United took a risk in sitting deeper as the game went on and allowing Shakhtar the ball but there was nothing to suggest it would amount to anything. So much so that the goal itself, a good finish, came via some luck – a fortunate nutmeg that meant Vidic didn’t have a chance to clear the ball properly.
The dilemma for United was that whilst maybe throwing on Kagawa or Nani and going for the second goal sounds good, it would have played right into Shakhtar’s hands – opening up the game for their pacey wide players to exploit. Keeping it tighter restricted them to our advantage. Even at 1-0 though United could have killed the game on the counter as van Persie shot seemed destined for the net but it hit a Shakhtar player.
United didn’t necessarily have to get as deep as they got but that was quite natural given that Shakhtar themselves tried to increase the tempo and build the pressure. Moyes was right to remove Fellaini who’d been booked (wrongly) but given the way the game was going, there was no need for him to take any unnecessary risks. Even at 1-1, a good result at Shakhtar, there was no point going more attacking seeing as Shakhtar then had the momentum. For me, United were incredibly unlucky not to have won but I can appreciate others might see it differently.
One of those that before the game I think most would have happily settled for a draw at a stadium where no English team has won before. With three in the middle and an experienced spine of Vidic-Carrick-van Persie, things started well as United seemed content to control the play, probing away at Shakhtar for an opening.
In the end it was Welbeck who scored – a goal that would have delighted Moyes because it was a classic poacher’s finish. Good work by Fellaini and a slip by a defender meant Danny could scramble it in as he and Cleverley, two home-produced players, excelled in the first half. United were comfortable for a lot of the second half too with Vidic putting in a monster of a performance. It was incredibly unfortunate that in the end it was he who could have and should have done better just a few seconds before Taison’s emphatic finish.
It was a good point for United. Top of the group and with a double header against Sociedad coming up next, United are in a strong position. For Moyes, it was a sign that he’s not afraid to try new things and hopefully that system can be used more often away from home with the odd tweak in personnel to make it more exciting or ambitious.