Manchester United 0-1 Newcastle United: Pardew beefs up his midfield and Newcastle dominate possession

December 8, 2013

The starting line-ups. Both sets of wingers switched during the first half.

Manchester United lost their second consecutive home league match for the first time over a decade.

David Moyes made seven changes from the side that lost to Everton in midweek. Wayne Rooney was suspended and Michael Carrick was still injured, but Robin van Persie returned.

Alan Pardew moved away from the 4-4-2 system that had beaten Chelsea and Tottenham in recent weeks, bringing Vurnon Anita into the midfield and leaving Loic Remy alone upfront.

Moyes’ side had been a touch unfortunate against Everton in midweek, but here they were simply outplayed by a superior unit.

Pardew’s formation

The main tactical story was simple: the formation choice of the away manager. Pardew’s 4-4-2 had proved successful in recent matches against big opposition, and it was expected that he would continue with a system featuring both Remy and Shola Ameobi upfront together. The forward duo have been extremely hard-working in recent weeks, dropping back and keeping Newcastle compact, and positioning themselves to prevent passes into the opposition holding midfielders.

Besides, there was no obvious need for Newcastle to be cautious against a Manchester United side that is clearly lacking in the centre of the pitch, and without their best deep-lying playmaker in Carrick. It often seems Pardew is a natural 4-4-2 man, but only goes with three central midfielders when he’s scared about being overrun in the middle of the pitch.

But here, he ditched Ameobi and went with Anita instead. Newcastle had a clear numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch, and although this doesn’t entirely explain their possession dominance – somewhat amazing for an away side at Old Trafford, especially considering Newcastle aren’t natural ball-hoarders, and spent the final half hour 1-0 up – it was a big factor.

Cabaye advanced

There were two interesting knock-on effects from Pardew’s decision to play three central midfielders. First, rather than putting Anita behind Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye in a 4-3-3, he kept a deep-lying midfield partnership with Anita and Tiote, and instructed Cabaye to move higher up in support of Remy.

The Frenchman played this role excellently – he helped press Manchester United’s centre-backs when they tried to play out, and then dropped into a deeper position to make life uncomfortable for Phil Jones. Cabaye is a tough tackler, and was cautioned within the opening 15 minutes because of two fouls, but his pressure high up the pitch was crucial in helping the away side dominate centrally – Jones never seemed to settle on the ball.

Cabaye also supported Remy keenly, summed up by his winner after an hour.

Van Persie deeper

The other effect of Newcastle’s 4-4-1-1 system was it forced one of the Manchester United forwards into a deeper role to pick up one of the midfielders, in an attempt to prevent the away side’s dominance. Usually, this was Van Persie dropping onto Anita, although Javier Hernandez also had spells in deeper positions.

Here, the home side struggled because Van Persie no longer appears comfortable playing in the number ten position – previously his natural role. Certainly, the Dutchman wasn’t 100% and it’s tough to judge his suitability for that role based upon a single performance, but he found it difficult to receive the ball in positions between the lines, and his lack of influence meant United lacked creativity as a whole.

Creativity?

Van Persie’s best moment was when he dropped extremely deep to collect a pass before hitting an excellent 40-yard diagonal for Hernandez – which was United’s best chance of the game – but this was the Golden Boot winner of the last two seasons dropping into his own half to hit long balls, rather than staying upfront and providing the finish. Pardew would have been delighted to see him playing in those zones.

Moyes’ side simply lacked guile and invention on the ball – the system seemed very flat. Tom Cleverley played a more cultured role than usual, sweeping some nice passes out to the right, and Adnan Janujaz drifted inside from the right dangerously but lacks consistent end product – as you’d expect from an 18-year-old. Nani stayed wide on the left, from where he never seems capable of sending good crosses into the box.

Midfield runs?

The only real advantage of Moyes using two strikers in tandem was that it theoretically created space for midfield runners. Hernandez and Van Persie’s movement is excellent, and there was a moment midway through the first half when the Newcastle centre-backs tracked them into wider positions, opening up space for Jones to storm into.

The home side’s midfield quartet rarely used this space inventively, however, and the double pivot of Anita and Tiote positioned themselves well in the centre.

Debuchy

One of the star performers here was Newcastle right-back Mathieu Debuchy, a strange player – when he’s good he’s excellent, but he can be prone to some truly horrendous performances, such as in the 4-0 defeat to Manchester City on the opening weekend.

Here, however, he was crucial. The role of a full-back in when playing against two strikers is slightly different from that when playing against one striker – the centre-backs don’t have a spare man, and therefore the full-backs need to pay more attention to the movement of the opposition strikers, and be in a position to sweep up. Debuchy did this consistently throughout the game, getting back into central positions to cover and make crucial clearances, including one in the second half that probably prevented a goal.

He won tackles in his natural zone, and made clearances behind his centre-backs.

But he also attacked well, and had two of Newcastle’s best chances in the final moments of the first half, when he raced in behind the defence to meet an excellent Remy through-ball, and then a deep Santon cross. Newcastle weren’t supporting Remy well enough for long periods of the first half, especially on the break. But when the build-up was slower, Debuchy provided a real outlet on the right when overlapping. Davide Santon, too, was impressive with his dribbling on the opposite flank.

Substitutions

Pardew made the game’s first change, withdrawing Yoann Gouffran – quiet compared to his recent outings – and introducing Hatem Ben Arfa, which Pardew cited as an important change after the match. Ben Arfa was capable of holding onto the ball high up the pitch – he’s a tricky dribbler, but also a powerful player physically – which helped Newcastle push up the pitch and force Manchester United back. The change came five minutes before the only goal, although he played no part in the move.

Moyes’ changes showed an inability to alter the course of the game. All three were essentially straight swaps – Wilfried Zaha replaced Nani down the left but contributed little, Anderson offered more drive than Cleverley but wasn’t a true game-changer, while Antonio Valencia came on for Rafael as an attack-minded right-back – but that move makes less sense when it’s Rafael being replaced, rather than a centre-back out of position there, like Chris Smalling.

In fairness, Moyes made the changes early, but none of the replacements offered anything different. Although it would have been considered a negative move, Moyes might have considered removing one of the two strikers for Danny Welbeck, perhaps allowing Januzaj to move permanently to the central zone he kept drifting into. Welbeck could have played high up on the left, and Nani could have returned to his favoured role on the right. This would have given Newcastle more outright attacking threats to cope with, even if it featured one less out-and-out goalscorer.

Pardew’s second substitution was interesting – striker Ameobi replaced mdifielder Cabaye, but this was actually a change with defensive caution in mind. Cabaye was tired (and on a booking) and could no longer help start the pressure from high up, so Ameobi played that role and helped Newcastle see out the game.

Just as the removal of a striker could have been an attack-minded move from Moyes, the introduction of an extra striker was essentially a defensive move by Pardew.

Conclusion

It’s hardly revolutionary to ditch one striker and play three central midfielders away from home against a big side, but Pardew’s change worked excellently. Cabaye played as half-striker, half-midfielder: when Newcastle were without the ball he pressed the opposition centre-backs and then tackled the opposition central midfielders. When Newcastle had the ball, he offered a simple forward passing option before sprinting forward to join Remy, eventually scoring the winner.

Aside from that, Newcastle’s task was reasonably simple against a Manchester United side lacking creativity, integrated movement between attacking players or intelligent forward passes from midfield. The whole system seemed flat, boxy and with too much space between the lines, despite Van Persie trying to bridge the gap. The absence of Rooney, Carrick and Shinji Kagawa certainly contributed, and Van Persie clearly wasn’t 100% fit, but that doesn’t completely explain the complete lack of cohesion – this was a much more damning defeat than the loss to Everton.


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