Attacking trio lights way to a more dynamic approach

April 6, 2014 Tags: , , Reads 29 comments
featured image

Imagine for a moment a Manchester United side without Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney. In the kind of thought experiment common in pubs throughout the land consider, if you will, whether United could actually be better off without two of the finest strikers in Europe? Odd as the premise may seem, there is growing evidence that some of United’s more exciting performances in recent times have come when David Moyes’ hand has been forced into change by injuries.

None more so than at St. James’ Park on Saturday where the Reds hammered Newcastle United with a brand of dynamic, flexible, attacking football rarely seen under the new management. Neither Rooney, nor van Persie were available and, perhaps more pertinent still, United spent much of game without a traditional winger in sight.

This was a performance far flung indeed from the risible avalanche of crosses delivered against Fulham at Old Trafford in January, where United lobbed in more than 80 to such little effect that Cottagers defender Dan Burn compared it to Conference level football. Such has been the pattern for most of the campaign.

Indeed, at the heart of United’s performance at St. James’ was £37 million January acquisition Juan Mata, the rejuvenated Shinji Kagawa and teenage sensation Adnan Januzaj. Each man has a legitimate claim, and talent, to be United’s ‘number 10’; each seemingly lies behind Rooney in the pecking order for the role. Yet, in the north east the trio worked in tandem from the 18th minute on to devastating effect as United ran out comfortable winners.

Juan Mata heatmap vs Newcastle United

Juan Mata heatmap vs Newcastle United

While Januzaj’s form has waned a touch in the new year, Kagawa and Mata are growing as a pair with each passing game. The Spaniard was deployed through the centre against Newcastle, and Japanese nominally off the left, although in reality the formation for the final two thirds defied any real systemic label. Januzaj’s introduction created a flexible triumvirate that has little obvious resemblance to Moyes’ typical formation – one that history suggests the Scot is loathe to deploy.

Mata has become the perfect complement to Kagawa in the past month rather than, as popular perception might have it, the former Borussia Dortmund player’s replacement. “Its a pleasure to play with Shinji Kagawa, we connect very well,” said Mata of the growing partnership. In Januzaj the pair has a teammate very much cut from the same cloth.

And the Spaniard has certainly benefitted from the more central role proffered after van Persie’s latest injury. “I don’t see myself as a proper winger,” Mata told ESPN last month. “I love to play between the lines as a number 10, come inside, that is where I feel comfortable. I love to play in possession.”

He certainly did that at Newcastle, contributing 62 passes to United’s total of 531. Kagawa touched the ball 72 times, while the vital Darren Fletcher contributed 76 passes in the holding role. And while United remained direct – launching more than 15 per cent of balls long – the team played more passes in the attacking third than is often the case. In other words Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj are prepared to be more intricate in the build up than is typical when Ashley Young, Antonio Valenica or Nani are involved.

Kagawa, meanwhile, is still operating from the left, but as in the match at West Ham United last month, the Japanese is more likely to drift inside in Mata’s presence, seemingly stripped of – or simply ignoring – Moyes’ instructions to cover his full-back. It certainly aids the playmaker’s efficacy when United deploys two holding midfielders, with Fletcher and Marouane Fellaini starting against Alan Pardew’s side and covering as the visitors’ attack broke down.

Shinji Kagawa heatmap vs Newcastle United

Shinji Kagawa heatmap vs Newcastle United

“I played behind the main striker at Dortmund,” Kagawa told United Review last December. “I should be flexible enough to play in a number of roles, so I am a more attractive player to the team .” More pertinent still, Kagawa declared his desire to “play in the hole,” on signing in June 2012. “I feel like that’s where I play my best football.” Few will disagree.

But key also to United’s more dynamic approach at St. James’ was Javier Hernández’ presence. The Mexican is always on the move, whereas van Persie has become increasingly static this season as injuries and frustration bite. Rooney, meanwhile, has a tendency to slow United’s play down with long-range right-to-left passes into the space that Moyes venerates.

Hernández has been more frequently out of United’s first team than in it this season, but his ability to stretch the opposition and run in behind the back four proffered Mata, Kagawa and then Januzaj options for the final pass  – and, with some irony, far greater space in which to run. A similar observation could be made of Danny Welbeck, who is less explosive than Chicharito, but offers defenders a moving target. Life without Rooney or van Persie might strip United of goals, but a more flexible attacking approach is certainly the upside.

Yet, there is also a school of thought that says Moyes is unlikely to start any of United’s more creative players against Bayern Munich next Wednesday. Mata will be ineligible, Januzaj will surely drop to the bench, while Kagawa’s presence is far from guaranteed. After all in the home leg Moyes preferred the physical defensive presence of Fellaini together with Ryan Giggs’ experience in midfield.

Moreover, while the best offensive approach against Bayern is often to squeeze play, winning the ball back in higher areas of the pitch and then breaking quickly, Moyes tends to take a more traditional view of the defensive art. United dropped so deep against the Germans last week that Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić simply defended their own 18-yard-line. ‘Parking the bus’ may be an effective defensive tactic, but United needs to win or score at least twice in Munich.

Still, it would be strange indeed for the Scot to deviate from his typical pattern, and Moyes’ analysis of United’s away form this season hints at the Reds’ likely approach in the coming Champions League fixture. United will not be taking the game to Bayern in the Allianz Arena.

“Maybe there’s a big expectation at Old Trafford to go and be a bit gung-ho and play in a real attacking style,” suggested the Scot on Saturday. “We’ve lost a few games by narrow margins – 1-0 (to) Newcastle United, Everton. We’ve lost a few games like that, whereas maybe away from home there’s not as much expectancy to go and be like that.”

Yet, the Reds’ victory at Newcastle was the first time this season that Moyes’ side had actually beaten an opponent in the Premier League’s top nine away from home. Defeat at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge, came alongside draws with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in north London. Fixtures with Everton at Goodison Park and Southampton at St. Mary’s will test United in the weeks to come.

In contradiction to the Scot’s analysis, Moyes’ tendency to approach difficult away fixtures with a defensive mindset may well contribute to United conceding impetus and possession to the opposition. In similar fashion the injured Rooney is likely to return in Germany, where Welbeck will be asked to  reprise his role on the left, and Valencia is favourite to offer defensive cover from the right.

As such, while it was a pleasure witnessing Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj in tandem on Saturday, it is an approach unlikely to be repeated next week.

Data attribution: Opta/ESPN


ⒿⓄⓃⓎ ⒷⒶⓁⓁ - April 6, 2014 Reply

Nice to see our players close enough together to be able to have a short passing game where options available……

Guy Savage - April 6, 2014 Reply

It’s a shame Moyes only makes these changes when injury forces him, I don’t think he’s got the balls to drop RVP or Rooney.

Jonathan Walker - April 6, 2014 Reply

You’d have to be a conservative, blind, one-dimensional, tactically inept moron not to start Shinji against Bayern….oh shit!

peter darwin - April 6, 2014 Reply

What can I tell you……..Moyes is a dope. Anyone who has a football brain..or just a brain………..can see that Kagawa is the man……and two 10’s …..kag with Mata just take the steam out of opposition…….Rooney should be sold Van P can be brilliant…………Chicharito’s sharpness last two games is a telling factor…………..Moyes should go…………..or Moyes should be on the substitute bench and learn from a really good manager

Andrew - April 6, 2014 Reply

Its obvious that Moyes has an opportunity here to create one of our most exciting teams ever. In Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj we have three fabulous playmakers, who are all capable of interchanging and playing quick fluid football.

It does need to be worked on and Moyes needs to add a touch of his own style. If we want Mata, Kagawa, Januzaj to have creative freedom, behind either Rooney or Welbeck, then we need a solid base to work from. I believe this is where Moyes can be successful.

We need two central midfielder’s to be the shield, and a stronger defence to make us a harder team to beat. William Carvalho would be a terrific signing, but we need another similar player alongside him. I really like the idea of Morgan Schneiderlin. The lad is intelligent, a good passer of the ball and also had great experience in England for a 24 year old.

Dave 'Bassett' Moyes Fan clubDeluded Dave Moyes Fan Club - April 6, 2014 Reply

Kagawa and Mata, along with Chico were brilliant yesterday, and Yes, only a football dunce would not play Kagawa, but in his rightful position.
Moyes mentioned yesterday that Fellaini is finding his feet, I believe he could be on to something there.As soon as he locates them (They are on the bottom of his legs), see if Moyes and Round and Fellaini can find their heads and then the “EXIT SIGN” and clear off.
Fot this joke Moyes to consider selling Kagawa and Chico, then keep Fellaini and Young beggars belief.

Dave 'Bassett' Moyes Fan clubDeluded Dave Moyes Fan Club - April 6, 2014 Reply

Should have read “For”

United1961 - April 6, 2014 Reply

Never underestimate the stupidity and cowardice of this guy

Jonathan Allen - April 6, 2014 Reply

United should be playing a 3-2-3-2 formation

mongoletsi - April 7, 2014 Reply

Really? Care to explain?

Tom Parkinson - April 6, 2014 Reply

Well it was a great performance that highlighted how Wayne Rooney has been such a significant problem for Utd all season. A player proven to blow so incredibly hot and cold, you just can’t build your team around him. He’s not had the consistency required for that for many years. For me, that has been one of Moyes’ biggest failings. It is clear Rooney is a supporter of Moyes, and I think Moyes has made allowances to align himself alongside a big player in the dressing room to save his bacon when so many other senior players were turning against him.

It has become painfully obvious we need to play one striker upfront, with Mata in behind, and either both Kagawa and Januzaj, or one of those plus Tony V/Young/Nani in a wide position. Moyes is never going to play this unless forced, as has been seen all season. The benefits of it are clear, as was seen against Newcastle.

However lets not get too excited. We won against a very poor Newcastle team devoid of motivation and confidence, and with a manager at the helm who is completely off his head.

With regards to Wednesday, it comes as no surprise that we will set up defensively. Given the players we have, the confidence they are playing with, and the tactical ability of the manager to implement an attacking style, setting up like that is frankly our only opportunity to get through. Danny Welbeck on the break probably our only chance of any semblance of a chance.

Raphael C - April 6, 2014 Reply

The sad thing for Moyes is that confidence is so shot where he is concerned, that one is inclined to write off the Newcastle win simply because by all accounts, Newcastle themselves are in a mini meltdown and not the team that managed to beat us 1-0 at Old Trafford.

Nonetheless, a win is a win and as someone who criticized Moyes on account of his failing to win any matches against top nine opposition (save Arsenal), this is better than nothing and hopefully a good omen for the Bayern game.

Michael Walsh - April 6, 2014 Reply


Rawat - April 6, 2014 Reply

I hope so, but dont think so not with “Longball Moyes” in charge

Subterranean Steve - April 7, 2014 Reply

United should build around the Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj connection.

Moyes of course will ‘build’ around Rooney and Fellaini.

The man has to go!

MS Assefa - April 7, 2014 Reply

Much ado about nothing.
Moyes Out.

Lucas - April 7, 2014 Reply

You can’t equate Moyes to dynamic approach, unfortunately. And that’s the very reason I am very afraid for our title chances next season, irrespective of who we buy IF Moyes remains in charge.

This season’s Everton makes you realize Moyes was in fact not doing a great job there, but was holding back a good team. Everton has been refreshingly dynamic under Martinez, who has exhibited a tactical nous that has not been seen in Moyes.

I really feel that our away game at Everton will distinctly show the gulf in class between Moyes and Martinez. Maybe then, the Glazers will realize Moyes is not as good as Fergie and the media hyped him up to be, and replace him with a manager who has the right credentials to manage ManUtd.


JD - April 7, 2014 Reply

kagawa, mata, januszaj better than young, valencia, nani. Heresy.

Twisted blood - April 7, 2014 Reply

We have our own three amigos, with one of them one of the original three amigos! Why would we screw that up? RVP is almost 31, right? Play him up front behind Kags, Adnan and Mata and if he fluffs his lines, Chico or Welbs start instead. As for Roon, he’s signed and also sniffing 30. How about the Scholes role next to a holding mid. Carvahlo perhaps? Sign up a world class center back, Shaw at LB and we are set. Oh yeah, maybe Klopp should coach too…..

joe jordans missing teeth - April 7, 2014 Reply

Bayern will come out storming and try to take us out of it, even if Pep instructs them to be cautious the crowd will spur them on.I like 4-2-3-1with Welbeck kagawa valencia as the three. welbz and valencia can help out defensively while also providing blinding speed on the counter. wold love to see chico get a chance in a big game but that will openly happen if Rooney can’t go. also I am very nervous about Robben winning a penalty off Evra. Ithink Buttner ought to play again as he did so well last week. either way that is going to be the danger zone. their mid is depleted so if our wingers can help out the fullbacks allowing our two kids to stay in the middle we might even be able to control the midfield a bit (for once). What do you guys think?

MS Assefa - April 7, 2014 Reply

I think Wrong One Moyes Out.

joe jordans missing teeth - April 7, 2014 Reply

only for openly, mids for kids, would for wold. Proof read son!

Denton Davey - April 7, 2014 Reply

Joe Jordans missing teeth @ 2:55: “I like 4-2-3-1with Welbeck kagawa valencia as the three. welbz and valencia can help out defensively while also providing blinding speed on the counter. wold love to see chico get a chance in a big game but that will openly happen if Rooney can’t go.”

Not for me – I want three in midfield: Carrick and Jones and DarrenFletcherinho although I realize that MrBlowJob will get the nod (so to speak) ahead of either/both Jones and Fletcherinho.

I reckon that TheWayneBoy’s toe will make a miraculous recovery so I doubt that Chicharito/Januzaj will get a chance.

It’s hard to under-estimate AgentMoyes’ natural caution – it was only when AshleyBloodyYoung was taken off against Newcastle that he was forced to bring on AdnanJ and the players responded by doing their thing rather than the following his orders to stick with the usual touch-line hugging winger/aimless cross crap that this year’s team has been instructed to play.

I also think that Pep might NOT have his guys play all gung-ho from the get-go but, rather, they might be instructed to play a less pressing style which will try to lure UTD out of the “turtle” and open up the field for Bayern’s fast one-twos. Remember, they hold the trump-card – the away goal – so it’s incumbent on TheLads to neutralize that advantage. Missing Schweini/Martinez weakens their midfield since these guys are the primary ball-winners, playing alongside Kroos. Also, it seems obvious to me that he will play Mandzukic as a “regular9” rather than Muller as a “false9”

Mongoletsi - April 7, 2014 Reply

“MrBlowJob”. That took me a minute…

I think a lot depends on our defence, who’s available….

Moyes has spent the whole season being more concerned with weaknesses rather than strengths.

Rooney Kagawa Januzaj
Fletcher Carrick
Evra Rio Jones Rafael
De Gea

That’ll conceed goals, but it’ll also score us some too. We basically have to score 2 goals.

Denton Davey - April 7, 2014 Reply

Mongoletsi @ 5:32: ”

Rooney Kagawa Januzaj
Fletcher Carrick
Evra Rio Jones Rafael
De Gea”

THAT would be good with me – especially the front six, although I’d like to see Jones in midfield and that means Januzaj gets replaced in a 4-3-3.

BUT, in what alternative universe do you think that Agent Moyes will not pick either Welbeck and/or Valencia ahead of Chicharito and/or DannyTheLad ?

So, my choice would be a 4–3-2-1 (“Christmas Tree”):

Chicharito (or DannyTheLad)

My heart would sink to see Valencia or Cleverley or MrBlowJob.

Thankfully, it would appear that AshleyBloodyYoung is crocked. Imagine that ? The poor guy hurt his hand while trying to fall over ! KosmicKarma.

joe jordans missing teeth - April 9, 2014 Reply

I don’t want to see fellaini, clevz or young, I’m not sure about Rooney, he wasn’t all that effective last week and with a bad toe and on pain killers just don’t know. Also Evra scares the shit out of me he been getting beaten by inside cut ins for two years now and I just think he is going to need help. Also, can’t get Rafa’s red out of my mind, with one striker and a depleted midfield I think the Germans would be crazy not to attack our fullbacks. Welbeck and valencia as wingers would help, so would a mid 3 as you suggest since Jones could help out rafa, and fletch could help out evra, leaving our front three to concentrate on attacking. Last chance for Moyes to do something impressive this season.

Ian - April 8, 2014 Reply

“Juan Mata, the rejuvenated Shinji Kagawa and teenage sensation Adnan Januzaj. Each man has a legitimate claim, and talent, to be United’s ‘number 10′; each seemingly lies behind Rooney in the pecking order for the role.”

There’s a promising young lad on loan at Wigan who also plays in that role.

Mongoletsi - April 8, 2014 Reply

Let’s hope he doesn’t shag Mopes daughter then!!

swampash - April 8, 2014 Reply

Good article. You could also add that Valencia should be played at full back – he gives us some good options in that position. The modern game is no longer about wingers, it’s about pushing full backs way up field and getting the wide players tucked in. IMHO it works best with so-called ‘inverted wingers’ – right footer on the left, left footer on the right, like Bayern and Real Madrid seem to be doing.

Add your comment