Football Focus, Swansea-Manchester United: Swansea shows promise in possession, but poor defensive shape
Aug 21, 2013, 11:16 AM EDT
Two goals in quick succession in the first half turned an even match into a comfortable 4-1 win for Manchester United over Swansea City on Saturday. Before conceding twice, Swansea looked like a fairly capable, possession-based team.
The biggest surprise in player selection was United manager David Moyes‘ decision to start only one forward in Robin van Persie, leaving Wayne Rooney on the bench. Ryan Giggs played in a withdrawn attacking role, making the formation essentially a 4-2-3-1.
Ahead of the center backs, Michael Carrick played more of a traditional holding role, while Tom Cleverley roamed box to box, with a little more freedom to push high. Swansea didn’t really play with a No. 6 (holding) and No. 8 (box-to-box) midfielder; instead, Leon Britton and Jose Alberto Cañas (and Jonjo Shelvey, in the second half) both played No. 8 roles.
Many teams prefer to have two players starting from that deeper role, as it allows for more movement and an element of less predictability — the players involved just have to make sure that one is always in the gap between the center backs.
Swansea defensive shape to blame for two
Even with two players protecting the defense, Swansea conceded two preventable goals. The first directly involved the team’s defensive shape with relation to its deep midfielders’ roles.
When an attacking player sits in the space between the defensive and midfield lines, the goal is to draw the center backs out of position, which is exactly what Welbeck does. Chico steps up to him, and Ashley Williams is also drawn up. This leaves the outside backs setting the offside line, which should never happen.
Both Angel Rangel and Ben Davies are in proper position, accounting for United’s wide threats, but one center back needs to stay goal-side of van Persie. Shelvey (who in the run of play has temporarily switched positions with a holding player) should preferably step to Welbeck, leaving both center backs to take up their ideal positions (green line).
On the second goal, van Persie uses change of direction to get behind Williams. Before Evra crosses, Williams is in good position, goal-side and ball-side of the attacker. But watch the video — van Persie’s quick, choppy steps in opposite directions allow him to float onto Williams’ back shoulder.
The resulting separation is not much — maybe a step — but it’s enough that when Evra floats a ball over Williams, Davies realizes that his central partner will be beaten by the cross. He has to leave Valencia alone and hope he can win the ball in the air. He doesn’t, and it sends the defense scrambling.
Before those two daggers, Swansea showed a lot of promise, trying to keep the ball on the floor and play.
The idea, à la FC Barcelona, is to create triangles of support all over the field for the player in possession. The pattern of play becomes less predictable the more passing lanes for the player on the ball.
This is one of its better sequences of ball movement, created by Wayne Routledge tucking in from the left wing and Cañas and Shelvey distributing. Davies gets involved, overlapping from left back, and Rangel on the right is also in an advanced position.
When Davies loses the ball, it’s not so much a lack of options as awareness. He tries to force the ball forward when his best passing lanes are behind him, either back to Cañas or one of the center backs.
Encouragingly, Swansea never resorted to kicking the ball over the top, even when it went down a couple goals. Swansea attempted 534 passes in the game, according to OPTA, only 41 of which (7.7 percent) were long. The home side attempted 161 passes in the attacking third of the field, compared to United’s 123. Of United’s 471 total passes, 53 (11.3 percent) went long.
Second-half adjustments: New forwards in the mix
Swansea stayed in a 4-3-3 in the second half, but Wilfried Bony took over the target role. Michu dropped and took over the playmaking role, and his partnership with Bony looked promising. Shelvey moved to a holding position, which suits his skill set more. For his part, Shelvey is a good distributor, but he isn’t as apt moving forward as Michu.
The second-half Swansea look is closer to its ideal lineup, and Bony could turn out to be one of the signings of the year. He and Michu interchanged well, and with Nathan Dyer cutting in dangerously on the right, it gave the team a more dynamic attack.
When Rooney came off the bench around the hour mark, United moved to 4-4-2 with him and van Persie running up top. Carrick and Cleverley flattened out their line, and the wingers pulled wider.
Welbeck’s starting position changed noticeably. Even though he still cut inside, he began his runs wider and also had the option of running the flank. Evra stayed home more, and Rooney and van Persie had space to operate in the middle of the field.
Breaking through the ceiling
Coaches often talk about players’ “ceilings,” or potential. That same terminology could be applied to teams. While United looked to be a bit closer to its top form on Saturday, Swansea has a lot of room for growth.
When Bony came on, it changed the dynamic of Swansea’s attack. Michu is too dynamic of a player to not have him in the middle of the field (he checked back often from the striker spot anyway), and Shelvey is not dynamic enough for that spot.
Although United won this game comfortably, Swansea will likely improve more as the season progresses than its opponent, relative to the start of the season. Swansea’s ceiling isn’t as high as United’s because of the gap in individual talent, but fans have plenty of reason to be optimistic.
Did you miss the game? Watch it all unfold here.
Jul 24, 2014, 11:25 PM EDT
Introduced to the media in Houston, Beasley said he’s move on from midfield.
Jul 24, 2014, 10:24 PM EDT
With Wenger interview, SI had to get Zelalem out of the way first.
Jul 24, 2014, 9:16 PM EDT
Reds’ owner does not want a repeat of last year’s weaknesses.
Jul 24, 2014, 8:02 PM EDT
NBC Sports and Fathom Events are taking Premier League soccer to the big screen.
Jul 24, 2014, 7:10 PM EDT
Balotelli, Honda, Muntari, and more from the Rossoneri’s N.Y. training.
Jul 24, 2014, 7:04 PM EDT
Pinto will depart after failing to come to new terms with the federation.
Jul 24, 2014, 6:12 PM EDT
After appearing three times at Brazil 2014, Besic is set to add depth behind Gareth Barry and James McCarthy.
Jul 24, 2014, 5:21 PM EDT
Adu close to joining the 10th club in his 11-year career.
Jul 24, 2014, 4:08 PM EDT
After seeing time with the senior squad, 18-year-old prospect will be sidelined indefinitely.
Jul 24, 2014, 3:25 PM EDT
The Colombian striker takes a few hacks before AS Monaco’s friendly in Miami against Atletico National.
Jul 24, 2014, 2:50 PM EDT
Limited to just 16 matches last year after his big transfer from Liverpool to West Ham, Carroll is battling another ailment this season.
Jul 24, 2014, 2:09 PM EDT
The rags-to-riches defender steps away from the pitch, at least as a player, while reflecting on his career journey from North America to Europe and back.
Jul 24, 2014, 1:46 PM EDT
Herrera chats exclusively to PST: “If we are a humble team and we work hard, we will achieve our objectives and we will win trophies.”
Jul 24, 2014, 1:26 PM EDT
His dad played for El Tri, but California-born Fernando Arce Jr says his U-20 bow with the States makes him an American player “forever”
Jul 24, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
Aston Villa, Manchester United and Manchester City all cruised, while Spurs had to find a late winner after coughing up a two-goal lead.
Jul 24, 2014, 12:47 PM EDT
What about the Premier League? Bundesliga? Serie A?
Jul 24, 2014, 12:15 PM EDT
Goran Milanovic is hoping the former American prodigy chooses to revitalize his career with FK Jagodina in the Serbian top flight.
Jul 24, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
One of the best stories is United States men’s soccer history is about to move past the “playing career” chapter.
Jul 24, 2014, 11:47 AM EDT
How big of a deal is the Chelsea legend signing for New York City FC? It’s up there.
Jul 24, 2014, 11:14 AM EDT
Lampard: “I want to test myself, carry on challenging myself, I want to be that leader and that person on and off the pitch that can make things happen for this club.”
- DaMarcus Beasley, introduced in Houston: I see myself as a left back 0
- Wenger talks Zelalem, gets taste of U.S. obsession for potential international 1
- EXCLUSIVE: Manchester United’s new signing Ander Herrera focused on success 2
- Serbian boss: Freddy Adu sought by Europa, UCL clubs in Serbia, Cyprus 0
- Frank Lampard delighted to sign for New York City FC, start MLS adventure 1
- Official: Frank Lampard unveiled as New York City FC’s latest signing 4