Wolves 2-1 Man United: poor defending from set-pieces costs United their unbeaten record

February 6, 2011

The starting line-ups

Manchester United lost in the league for the first time this season.

Mick McCarthy made two changes. David Jones and David Edwards made way for Jamie O’Hara and Nenad Milijas.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s right side of his defence changed – Rafael in for John O’Shea, whilst Jonny Evans was a late replacement for Rio Ferdinand.

All the goals here came in an action-packed first half. It was not a particularly ‘tactical’ contest – United were 4-4-2, Wolves were 4-4-1-1 with Jamie O’Hara just off Kevin Doyle. Both sides played their natural game, and didn’t particularly look to change things throughout.

Wolves start well but United lead

Nani got United off to a fantastic start with his excellent goal after three minutes, but that was the highlight of United’s attacking play. That was a moment of individual magic rather than a good team move, and United seemed too reliant on one of their attackers doing something exciting – Wayne Rooney was fairly quiet, Nani was often wasteful after his goal.

Still, even considering how early the goal came, it was against the run of play, as Wolves put United under plenty of pressure early on. Their game was fairly simple – long balls towards Doyle complemented with intelligent wing play – particularly through Matt Jarvis on the left, who played higher up the pitch than Adam Hammill on the left. Karl Henry moved the ball from flank to flank, Milijas drove forward more.

Their long balls were not hoofs, however, they were accurate, direct passes towards Doyle, who moved in sync with O’Hara across the pitch, meaning the latter was always in a position to pick up the knock-downs from the Irishman. Both Wolves goals came from set-pieces, though – both needlessly conceded by United, and made worse with poor marking.

United toothless

The issue for United was not a case of a specific tactical match-up undoing them, but their confused strategy finally resulting in what even United fans must admit is a long overdue defeat away from home. Their overall performance here was not entirely dissimilar from the performance at Blackpool, West Brom, Aston Villa or Stoke, all games where they managed to collect points having been very poor at times. Here, they simply lacked the magic in and around the penalty box that Nani, Dimitar Berbatov or Javier Hernandez have provided in previous games.

It’s difficult to know what United’s gameplan is away from home. In previous seasons, with first Cristiano Ronaldo and then Wayne Rooney the focal point of their attack, they were devastating on the break. Now, with Berbatov the main man and Rooney playing off him (a reversal of the roles from last season) it’s not entirely clear what United are trying to do on their travels. At home they dominate the ball and put pressure on the opposition defence throughout the match, and the 4-4-2 with Rooney and Berbatov upfront has worked very nicely – 12 wins from 13 games. Away, however, they neither have the counter-attacking threat of previous years, not the ball retention ability they possess at home, and they have 3 wins from 12 games. Their unbeaten record until this game was testament to their character rather than their tactics.

Second half

Sir Alex Ferguson chose to replace Michael Carrick with Paul Scholes at half time, a good move as Scholes’ passing was both surer and more incisive.

by Guardian Chalkboards

The formations remained the same for much of the second half, and there was little change from the overall pattern of the first. The one exception was O’Hara being replaced with Kevin Foley and Wolves going to 4-5-1, with an extra man scrapping in midfield. They offered no goal threat in the second period.

Ferguson brought on perennial supersub Hernandez for Berbatov, and in response Wolves’ defence played a lot deeper to nullify the Mexican’s pace. Balls through the defence were no longer an option, and so United instead started crossing the ball more – and so then they lacked height and a physical presence in the box. Hernandez’s finishing ability this season has been impressive – but here finishing wasn’t really the problem, United simply weren’t creating chances to finish. Hennessey wasn’t tested after the 20th minute.

by Guardian Chalkboards


Nothing fancy from Wolves – long balls to the forwards, tricky wing play, and goals from set-pieces. However, at 2-1 up their defensive shape was excellent, their two banks of four rarely became dragged out of shape, and they won plenty of challenges in their own box. Doyle played the lone striker role very well, as always.

United lacked spark, creativity in their side. None of their attacking players had good games, and it’s difficult to remember anything of note United did in the final third after Nani’s opener. Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs all became frustrated late on, and United are now in the position of having to bounce back from a defeat – something they’ve yet to experience so far this campaign.

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