Newcastle 0-3 Manchester United: Ferguson’s diamond forces Newcastle to change shape
Manchester United won the game primarily because of a dominant opening 15 minutes.
Alan Pardew selected a 4-4-2 from the start. James Perch was at centre-back, Davide Santon on the right, and Shane Ferguson at left-back.
Sir Alex Ferguson continued with the diamond he played against Cluj in midweek. Danny Welbeck replaced Javier Hernandez, while Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick came in for Anderson and Darren Fletcher.
There were three phases here. First, Manchester United’s diamond dominated Newcastle’s 4-4-2. Second, Pardew switched to a 4-5-1 to compete in the centre of midfield. Third, Ferguson switched to a 4-5-1 to give protection to his full-backs.
It’s impossible to consider the tactics for this match without thinking back to the equivalent fixture last season. Newcastle won 3-0 in a staggeringly dominant performance, and while long balls towards Demba Ba and Shola Ameobi (this was pre-Papiss Cisse) provided the major attacking threat, the real story was in the centre of midfield.
“We won because we controlled the game in terms of what we wanted to do,” said Pardew at the time. “We wouldn’t let them play, I thought we took a bit of a gamble in terms of a high press on them, and then physically and aerially we had an advantage, and we capitalised on that.”
The midfield partnership between Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye completely overpowered Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick that day – to the point some suggested Ferguson should attempt to sign either of them to bolster his midfield. Instead, Ferguson persuaded Paul Scholes out of retirement three days later.
Phase one – Manchester United diamond plays around Tiote and Cabaye
Knowing that Newcastle were dominant in the centre of the pitch last time, Ferguson continued with his diamond. With this set of players, he could have opted for a 4-2-3-1 / 4-2-1-3 like against Everton on the opening weekend of the season, but he wanted to pack the central midfield zone to ensure dominance of possession.
Carrick sat deep in space, Tom Cleverley was to the left, Kagawa higher up on the right and Wayne Rooney at the tip of the diamond, closely supporting Robin van Persie and Welbeck. The full-backs provided overlapping runs on the flanks, but generally only one at a time.
Last week’s defeat to Tottenham, when his side were caught out 2 v 2 on the counter-attack, was probably the reason Ferguson told his full-backs to be more cautious, so when Patrice Evra or Rafael went forward, the other maintained a 3 v 2 at the back.
The real story was in midfield, however, where the away side enjoyed a staggering amount of possession in the first 15 minutes – 78%. This was turned into an attacking threat, as they had eight shots compared to Newcastle’s none.
The home side’s problem was their attempt to replicate last season’ strategy, trying to press in an area of the pitch where they were outnumbered. In the first five minutes, Cabaye was pressing Carrick, Tiote pressing Cleverley. But there was always an easy out-ball – either one of the full-backs, or forward into Rooney, who was left unattended between the lines – as both Newcastle’s centre-backs were occupied by strikers.
The two goals came from corners rather than open play – Jonny Evans and Evra both headed in – but it was a fair reflection of the game in the first 15 minutes.
Phase two – Newcastle go 4-5-1
After the second goal the away side were clearly in the ascendency, so Pardew was forced to make a tactical change. In 2012 he’s often made switches between 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, using Ba as either a forward or a wide midfielder and tucking Jonas Gutierrez inside. Today’s change was different – he moved Gutierrez into the middle, but shifted Cisse rather than Ba to the (right) flank, which meant Hatem Ben Arfa moving to the opposite wing. This was a recognition that Ba was Newcastle’s main attacking threat, having scored all five of their previous league goals.
The move unquestionably steadied the ship. It would have been natural for Manchester United to sit back more with a 2-0 advantage, but statistics demonstrate the change. Between 15 and 45 minutes the possession figures were now 49-51 (quite a difference from 22-78), and Newcastle had eight attempts compared to Manchester United’s zero. The extra man in the centre of the pitch was helping Newcastle compete, and this forced Rooney into a deeper position, where he defended well, but was unable to offer much attacking drive.
Phase three – Manchester United go 4-5-1
This pattern continued into the second half, when Newcastle got the ball into the final third and tested David De Gea in the air. The home side were particularly dominant down the left, with Ben Arfa darting towards goal with the ball, and Shane Ferguson overlapping energetically past Kagawa.
Therefore, Ferguson turned to the bench, bringing on Antonio Valencia in place of Kagawa. Valencia’s qualities as a defensive winger are well-known, while Kagawa is accustomed to a free role at Borussia Dortmund. The Ecuadorian tracked Shane Ferguson up and down the line, as Manchester United went 4-5-1 – Welbeck moved left, Rooney was now a standard central midfielder (he was later replaced by Scholes) and van Persie played upfront alone.
Now, with both sides having a spare man at the back and a ‘free’ holding midfielder, the game was played at a slower pace and there were few goalscoring chances. Cleverley’s long-range strike increased the advantage, but the first 15 minutes was where the game was won.
If the Clasico was a match between two sides playing their own game, this was the complete opposite. Ferguson’s diamond was, in part, a response to Newcastle’s dominance last season. Pardew had to adapt his own side to compete in the centre of the pitch, and then Ferguson switched formation himself, to get numbers on the flanks. Essentially, there were three separate examples of a manager changing formation specifically because of the opposition’s area of dominance.
Ferguson’s diamond won the game in the first 15 minutes. Even when Pardew successfully changed formation to get Newcastle into the game, this was a sign of Ferguson’s tactical victory, for the game was now being played on the away side’s terms – about possession – and Newcastle had one fewer target to replicate the aerial bombardment of last season.