Swansea victory offers insight into Moyes’ tactical plan

Swansea City v Manchester United

David Moyes has made a good start to his Manchester United career as the Reds solidly beat Swansea City on Saturday. The new United manager is notoriously reactive and one cannot assume that the Scot will continue with the tactics used in Wales, but  important details as to how Moyes will utilize the squad he inherited from Sir Alex Ferguson can be gleamed from the Premier League opener.

As expected, United came into the game with a very specific plan. There were some mistakes to be ironed out on the training ground, but the fact that the players stuck to Moyes’ ideas is a very good sign – some managers with clearly defined tactical ideal, such as Andre Villas-Boas, sometimes fail to control the playing staff and struggle to implement a strategy. It is a pitfall that the former Everton manager has clearly dodged.

Manchester United lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation as expected. When defending, two banks of four were quickly formed and Robin Van Persie stayed up top while Danny Welbeck or Ryan Giggs, who took turns playing in the hole, helped out as needed. Van Persie and Welbeck or Giggs pressed aggressively high up the pitch to allow United’s midfielders and defenders fall back into line.

Meanwhile, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand defended deep and the midfield bank of four refrained from pressing their Swansea counterparts lest the home side exploit the space between United’s defence and midfield.

Interestingly though the Red full-backs tucked inside quickly and allowed Swansea’s wingers to put in crosses. Swansea failed to capitalize on United’s deep-lying  defence, but it remains to be seen whether Moyes will allow an opposition with a proper target man to utilize the aerial route.

United’s offensive approach was much more interesting. As Moyes had done at Everton, the Glaswegian had the Reds draw Swansea in before launching long balls forward. David de Gea directed his goal kicks long – often aimed at Welbeck’s head – and United attacked only when forward players had some room ahead of them and numerical advantage over Swansea’s defence.

Attacks were direct and purposeful – the Reds rarely bothered with patiently prodding around the Swansea defence and midfield. Instead, United tried to create situations where forwards could hold up the ball upfield then turn or make quick passes to United players running from midfield.

United’s forwards repeatedly attempted to establish a numerical superiority either by running directly at the Swansea defence on the counter or by drawing Welsh defenders out then exploiting the gap left behind. van Persie’s first goal epitomizes this approach.

Surprisingly, United produced very few crosses. Phil Jones and Patrice Evra consistently motored forward while the Reds’ wingers cut inside quickly, but generally attacks took a more central route than down the flanks.

Still, pushing full-backs into advanced positions is advantageous since it forces the opposition to trade off the risk of a United break through the middle by committing men to mark wide areas. And since attacks are sporadic United full-backs should be able to handle the physical aspect of the task.

When attacking the front four often switched positions to create space. Decent runs were made, but the frequency with which United forwards got caught offside was alarming. The timing of runs will become sharper as the season goes on, but it is troubling that there were very few incisive through balls.

With attacks bypassing central midfield entirely, Michael Carrick was reduced to mostly screening the defence. With Tom Cleverley never a particularly creative player it is clear why Moyes has chased Cesc Fabregas this summer. With someone of the Spanish’s inventiveness partnering Carrick, United attacks will become more varied and, therefore, harder to defend.

But if United is going to be functional in midfield then spark must come from the front four. Van Persie can fill in the ‘number 10′ role if needed, but without the Dutcman up front the Reds might want for a good finisher. Ryan Giggs lacks the explosiveness needed in this plan, although he did provide moments of genius against Swansea that Welbeck and Antonio Valencia cannot reliably offer.

Meanwhile, Shinji Kagawa is tailor made for this approach and it remains a mystery as to why the Japanese didn’t even get on as a substitute. Kagawa saw little game time in pre-season either and it is very possible that the former Dortmund player is simply unfit.

Moreover, the Japanese has never played as a winger with an onus on defending in two banks of four; as things stand, Kagawa can only be deployed in the hole. And with no central midfielder bursting forward to offer creative support relying on the Kagawa at number 10 would likely render United predictable.

There is also a rationale in playing Giggs, who understands Moyes’ defensive system, and can also swap places with Welbeck. To fit Kagawa into the United side Moyes has to buy a midfielder who can share the creative burden.

There are implications for United’s wingers in Moyes set up too – they will be asked to cut inside rather than attack the byline. Moyes’ wide-men will also have to quickly retreat to form the first line of defence when Untied loses possession, and burst forward when the Reds attack. Pace will be in the front of Moyes’ mind when he selects his wide players.

Given the role, finishing and movement must also be considered, meaning that barring new additions, Ashley Young and Luis Nani will have a role in Moyes’ system – possibly ahead of Antonio Valencia.

Young is a limited player, but he has played at 10 and his ability to feature across attacking midfield may come in very handy. Despite his notoriously poor decision-making Nani remains the only Premier League tested player in the squad who can beat a man; the Portuguese’s productivity will tempt the United manager to pick him instead of the Ecuadorian.

Indeed, Valencia’s place is under threat from multiple angles, while the one player who can perhaps make the winger worth deploying – Danny Welbeck – might just end up taking the former Wigan Athletic player’s place.

Welbeck has always been physically impressive and diligent – and it comes as no surprise that Moyes has put the youngster in the first 11 ahead of more illustrious players on the bench. The English striker has a fine tactical brain and maintains possession well even though he lacks incision.

Despite the rather meager goalscoring return in 2012/13 Welbeck has all the tools to consistently score. Crucially, he can compete in the air and will provide a very good target for de Gea’s long clearances if that is a key part of the plan.

Moyes used a well defined system with little variation at Everton. The Scot now has a variety of players at his disposal meaning there is no guarantee that the tactics deployed against Swansea will become the template.

That said Moyes’ has a tactical history – and the embarrassing chase for two Barcelona midfielders suggests that a facsimile of the Swansea plan will feature prominently this season.

The half-hearted bid for Marouane Fellaini is another sign that Moyes will go down this route as there is little need to compete physically in central midfield under the system deployed last weekend. And with United’s defence rather immobile, a pressing game is very dangerous; Moyes seems at least smart enough to react to his own team’s weaknesses.

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  1. MarkHawes says:

    I can’t ever remember a time when I felt like this. Perhaps maybe during a relationship break-up or two in my youth, however this feels different to a broken heart which can be mended by listen to a couple of Roxette songs and then trying to nick your best friends girlfriend who you’ve secretly fancied for ages.
    I talk about my dissociation from football. Don’t get me wrong, I love United, I always have since the early 80′s when I was given a Manchester United mirror by a neighbour which had sketchy pictures of George Best & Charlton. I’ve been so fanatical at times that after a United loss I couldn’t talk to anyone or look at any media whatsoever for the whole day, such was my depression.
    That all changed this year. I put part of it down to how far removed the ordinary man has become from a footballer. I remember as a child one of my first experiences of football wages was hearing Cantona could possibly be given a 10k a week contract, roughly the same amount as my Dad earned a year. Looking at wages now I’d be luck to earn a year what some average footballers earn a day; and I’m supposed to stand in the rain and cheer for these men?. Talking of men, where have they gone? Real men were Bryan Robson, Brian McClair, Mark Hughes, Dennis Irwin etc, men who would live and die on the pitch and not roll around like little girls every time they got tackled. Or feel ‘angry and confused’ like Rooney and then sulk when you don’t get your own way. Who wouldn’t swap the fiery talisman Keane for ‘Brand Cleverly’ in a heartbeat.
    I just want the people on the pitch to love United as much as i do, not just turn up for the money, or to promote their latest commercial product.
    I’ll always love United, perhaps unfortunately just not like I used to.

    • Mark I second that! I felt lile I was reading my own thoughts! There is no loyalty in football anymore, the new kid Januzaj is fantastic, but I’m not even confident he’ll commit to us. Thats crazy! Young kids holding man utd to ransom. I’ve felt like this for a few years now though…

  2. nice article, i think adnan januzaj abd zaha will have a pllace in the team this season.

  3. Excellent points. I wonder whether Januzaj will get enough game time this year, though.

    • It will be criminal if he doesn’t. The kid is undoubtedly good enough to feature regularly in the first team and yet he wasn’t even on the bench at Swansea. Moyes will rely more on experience until he finds his feet. Hopefully after a string of decent results we’ll see Giggsy spending more time in his new coaching role and less on the pitch. This will make room for Kagawa and possibly Januzaj to come in. The latter should in the meantime be featuring regularly on the bench. He has all the attributes to become a great player, including that important ingredient – self belief.

  4. samunited says:

    well, then I think a midfield partnerships between petrucci and carrick with kagawa as no 10, will be just fine in a cup game, petrucci can burst forward, shoot from range and good passer, he shouldn’t go on loan and should do just fine in cup games

  5. My view of this whole issue is that first giving kagawa chance 2 place will be a very nice move, also I would have prefared going fully for willian or modric or ozil. Any of this three can provide a nice creativity with kagawa. United is still as formidable as ever, disturbing the four backs now is what I see as unnecessary, this I say because I don’t know the necessity in buying banies, evra is back to his form so no need for baines. Let’s focus on our midfield. Look at spurs squad, they are the team that fear me most this season, and they still have plans to recruit eric lamela and willian. United were are we going this season?

  6. Denton Davey says:

    Tottenham have spent upwards of 100,000,000 so far this off-season – with a chance that they might spunk another 20,000,000 for Erik Lamela from Roma.


    Being a conspiracy theorist, I can help but wonder if Ed Woodward’s midnight flight from Bangkok to London last month has any relevance to Spurs’ spending and the (to date) non-transfer of Gareth Bale to RM.

    Connect the dots and what do you get ? UTD’s statement that “the king is dead, long live the king” ????????

  7. Damian Garside says:

    The upside of the Moyes regime:
    (a) players, especially young players like Pogba, now worth 20 million plus it appears, won’t get transferred because their haircut or their pronunciation of the word “hairdryer’ is disapproved of
    (b) a truly evil form playing players completely out of position is less likely to occur
    (c) the word “midfield player” is no longer synonymous with “no value in the market”. Someday, somewhere over the rainboiw, we might even buy a new one, or two, or three
    (d) the media will be treated as human beings not as Evil Sith who are central to the great universal conspiracy to make our team not look as good as we think it should and therefore must be stonewalled when present and pilloried when not
    (e) the destination of the league title is not likely to be influenced by shennanigans involving a racehorse

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