Manchester United 3-0 West Ham: a slow start, but a comfortable victory for United
Manchester United struggled to get going, but were always comfortable after Wayne Rooney ended his goal drought from the penalty spot.
Avram Grant set West Ham out in a conservative 4-1-4-1 system, with Scott Parker deep in midfield. Grant chose to field Kieron Dyer on the left of midfield, and Luis Boa Morte in a central role. Mark Noble was the central midfielder with most license to get forward and support Carlton Cole.
As expected in a game like this, Sir Alex Ferguson continued with a broad 4-4-2 system, with Dimitar Berbatov just off Wayne Rooney. Ryan Giggs was on the left, so Nani moved to the right.
The game started at a surprisingly slow pace, with West Ham’s five midfielders sitting deep and trying to prevent United playing through them. The West Ham midfielders were told to strictly track runs from Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher, to the point where we had near-man-marking jobs going on – Boa Morte on Fletcher, Noble higher up the pitch trying to close down Scholes. Parker swept up behind them.
United dominated possession despite their numerical disadvantage in midfield, with Patrice Evra and John O’Shea playing high up the pitch, leaving 2 v 1 against Carlton Cole at the back. But despite their dominance, United were struggling to formulate decent attacks by passing through midfield, and with Nani coming in from the right, they lacked width to get crosses into the box for their two forwards.
High defensive line
West Ham’s main problem was that they combined a conservative approach overall with a reasonably high defensive line. This meant United were able to hit long passes over the defence with some ease, and their closest two attempts in open play came from this approach – first Nemanja Vidic lofted a long diagonal ball over the West Ham defence for Berbatov, who knocked it back for Nani, whose shot was tipped onto the woodwork by Rob Green. The other opportunity was just before half-time, when Giggs chipped the ball through for Nani for a one-on-one with Green, but the Portuguese winger flicked the ball over the crossbar.
Aside from that, West Ham were neutralising the game quite well. The goal came from a penalty after Jonathan Spector’s stupid tackle on Giggs, when there were covering defenders, and can be attributed more to an individual mistake than any wrong strategic decisions from Grant.
One point of interest was how United’s approach play differed with Nani on the right, compared to with Antonio Valencia there. Valencia is much more keen to stay wide, whereas Nani likes to come inside and become involved in central build-up play. The outcome of this is that less play goes down United’s right (this was a feature of their play last season) – 31% of their passes were on the right flank against Fulham (with Valencia on the right) compared to just 22% in this match, with Nani there.
Little West Ham threat, so United comfortable in second half
The problem with West Ham’s defensive game, of course, was the fact that they weren’t getting forward to cause United much goal threat, and Cole was seen complaining on multiple occasions about his lack of support. In part this was understandable – the gap between he and the midfield was huge – but Cole wasn’t helping himself by trying to beat two defenders whenever he got the ball, rather than actually holding it up and bringing his midfield into the game. Vidic rarely had problems with him.
As the game progressed, West Ham were guilty of the mistake Newcastle made – increasingly standing off Scholes and letting him dictate the play. His influence grew and United’s overall movement and interplay was better in the second half – Nani’s goal was excellent, and at 2-0 United seemed out of sight.
Grant tried to change things by introducing Pablo Barrera for Julien Faubert (who had a terrible game) and they looked much brighter on the right. Dyer on the other side was by far West Ham’s best player, and had a very presentable opportunity at 2-0, but hit the post.
Neither side changed anything in terms of formation or tactics, and Berbatov’s close range volley from Nani’s chipped cross with twenty minutes to go was the final significant action of the match.
It was the right approach overall from West Ham, with the 4-1-4-1 causing United problems early on. When Noble stuck to Scholes, United seemed a little lost having depended on him for so much of their good play in the first few games of the season.
But they got two things wrong – the defensive line was very high, inviting United to knock balls over the defence, and they countered poorly – Cole seemed alien to the idea of holding the ball up.
For United it turned out to be a routine win. The Nani issue is the one interesting factor – he seemed more comfortable here on the right, but since Cristiano Ronaldo left United just over a year ago, he’s started twice as often on the left as he has on the right. What is his best position?Manchester United 3-0 West Ham: a slow start, but a comfortable victory for United