Valencia 0-1 Manchester United: 4-5-1 v 4-5-1 becomes 4-4-2 v 4-4-2, and United nick it late on
Smash and grab – Javier Hernandez’s late goal settled a tight contest.
Valencia were without Joaquin, so fielded a fluid Mata-Pablo-Dominguez trio behind Roberto Soldado, who started ahead of Aritz Aduriz. Jeremy Mathieu was preferred to Jordi Alba at left-back.
Manchester United were without Wayne Rooney, which made it an easy decision to start with a 4-5-1 (indeed, it would have been interesting what Sir Alex Ferguson would have done if Rooney had been available. Michael Carrick and Anderson’s returns from injury were timed well in the absence of Paul Scholes, whilst Rio Ferdinand replaced Jonny Evans.
Overall, the first half was fairly static, with both teams playing in front of each other, and cautious about coming forward. Indeed, it looked like both were primarily looking to play on the counter-attack, and therefore were reluctant to give the other any space to break into.
The shapes were as expected – United defended with plenty of men behind the ball, with Park Ji-Sung tucked in more than Nani on the opposite side, who started off trying to play high up the pitch, but was subsequently forced back by Mathieu’s darts forward. Valencia’s attacking three played reasonably narrow, with the wide players looking to get behind the ball and form two banks of four. As we’ve come to expect from Valencia – the front four rotated, and therefore it wasn’t unusual to see Chori Dominguez or even Soldado in a wide position when out of possession.
Anderson on Albelda
The most significant tactical factor in the first half was Ferguson’s use of Anderson high up the pitch to occupy David Albelda, Valencia’s deep-lying playmaker. This rather nullified both sides – Valencia looked slightly lost since they were unable to play through a player they generally look to at every opportunity, whilst United were then using their most attacking central midfielder in a primarily defensive role, and unable to create.
Neither side were getting the ball to their dangermen often enough – Nani had a quiet first half aside from one moment when he easily outpaced Mathieu, whilst Juan Mata struggled to find any space in the centre of the pitch. The bigger danger for Valencia came from their right-winger, Pablo Hernandez, who got past Patrice Evra and put a dangerous ball across the six-yard box that no-one got to.
Little changed at the start of the second half, although Nani played higher up the pitch once more, meaning United often looked as if they were playing some kind of lopsided 4-3-3, with Nani, Berbatov and Anderson high up the pitch, and Park deeper with the two central midfielders.
The best chance United had came from a long ball out to Berbatov on the left – he managed to beat his man and move in on goal, where his poked shot was saved easily at the near post. It was far from a blatant chance, and yet it was as good as we got before the managers turned to the bench.
Unai Emery was the first to change things, making a positive move by withdrawing Dominguez and introducing Aduriz, who played just off Soldado in a 4-4-2. Valencia immediately looked brighter and their overall strategy changed – they were getting the ball forward more quickly, getting their wide players down the line rather than cutting in, and firing crosses into the box. The delivery all night from wide positions was generally very good, but even the addition of a second striker couldn’t get them a goal.
Ferguson knew that he no longer had to field three central midfielders himself, and so responded with a similar change, taking off his most attacking midfielder (Anderson) and bringing on a second striker. Berbatov also departed, so we now had United in a 4-4-2 with Federico Macheda and Javier Hernandez upfront.
Game more open
The moves towards 4-4-2 didn’t change how either side defended, as both looked to get two banks of four behind the ball, and then had one of the strikers dropping off when not in possession. But what it did do was to open up the midfield, creating space in the central zone and allowing both sides to create more goalscoring opportunities. Valencia probably had more of the play, but rarely created a clear cut chance.
In truth, United did nothing better tactically than Valencia – they were simply more efficient in the final third on one single occasion, and the first goal in this game was always likely to be the winner.
Valencia had a warning sign moments before the goal, when Nani crossed for Hernandez, who couldn’t quite reach the far post cross. It was another Nani run that created the goal for Hernandez, with Macheda acting as the link between the two. Valencia had men over to defend against Hernandez, but his instant control and shot caught them out. Nani was yet again United’s main man – even when turning in a disappointing performance overall, he was still capable of providing the drive and directness needed to win the game.
A good demonstration of a tactical change in a game – a 4-5-1 v 4-5-1 battle, followed by a 4-4-2 v 4-4-2 battle. The first half was extremely cagey and devoid of any real goalscoring chances, but the final 15 minutes was much more open, and United were simply more clinical in front of goal.
Neither side played particularly good football, and it was obvious both were lacking creativity in the centre of the pitch – had this game featured Ever Banega and Paul Scholes, it might have been an entirely different contest, both tactically and in general terms. Valencia looked far better in the second half when they started to get the ball wide and get crosses into the box, and Joaquin was also missed – the home side needed someone to stay wide rather than constantly drift into the congested centre.
For United, the perfect away win in Europe. Carrick looked slightly unfit but generally did a decent job, and Anderson was in his element. His best position has been debated at length, but he often seems to turn in good performances in games where United are playing defensively as a whole, and therefore the attacking midfield role (his) is still broadly defensive-minded. Whether United need a player like that in the majority of Premier League games is doubtful, but like Fletcher and Park before him, Anderson might be able to make a name for himself as a ‘big game player’.