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Tactics & Analysis

The Tactics Board – A win over the Black Cats and Cruel Fate

Manchester United came into this game needing help to retain the league title, but first they needed to win this game. The Red Devils came in with a strong attack, utilizing great passing and movement to open up a disorganized Sunderland defense. Young, Giggs and Rooney were able to link-up and combine well in the middle of the pitch to operate in gaps and get behind Sunderland’s defense. With United strong on the attack, getting numerous opportunities and moving through the Black Cats defense with ease, the Black Cats struggled to get any traction on the attack. Stephane Sessegnon struggled up front, frequently being forced out to the flanks to get any time on the ball and this left Sunderland with no attacking threat in the middle. The score line on this game was deceptive, as Manchester United could have easily scored more than 3 goals, but they thought it was enough for mere seconds after the game until the bad news filtered in from the Etihad Stadium.

Manchester United vs Sunderland AFC

Stadium of Light – May 13th, 2012

Starting Formation

Manchester United-
Sir Alex Ferguson made a change from his standard 4-4-1-1 formation and used a 4-2-3-1 instead. One of the main reasons for this was Danny Welbeck’s injury which meant that his only options to play up front with Wayne Rooney were Dimitar Berbatov or a struggling Javier Hernandez. So instead of using Rooney in a deeper lying number 10 role, he played him up front and used Ryan Giggs in the trequartista role.

David De Gea started the final game of the season for United, with this being his 29th league appearance and his 19th start in a row. Patrice Evra started at left-back, with Phil Jones getting another start at right-back. Jonny Evans ended up starting aside Rio Ferdinand at center-back, after questions regarding his problems with a foot injury that may end up requiring surgery. Starting in their usual deep midfield role was Michael Carrick partnering with Paul Scholes. The attacking line had Ashley Young starting on the left wing, and Antonio Valencia starting on the right wing with Ryan Giggs starting as the center attacking midfielder. Leading the line up front, Wayne Rooney started as the lone striker.

Starting Formation

for graphics explanation

Sunderland AFC-
Martin O’Neill’s squad came out in a 4-1-4-1 in the hopes of closing down the space between the lines that Wayne Rooney had exploited all season. The Belgian Simon Mignolet made his 29th league appearance of the season in goal. Both starting full-backs were former Manchester United players, with John O’Shea starting at left-back and Phil Bardsley getting the start at right-back. Michael Turner and Titus Bramble were the starting center-back pairing. Jack Colback started as the holding midfielder, given the responsibility of closing down the space ahead of the defensive line. Another former Red Devil, Fraizer Campbell, started on the right wing. James McClean started on the left-wing, having developed into one of the Black Cats standout players this season. In the central midfield, David Vaughan started alongside Craig Gardner. Alone up front, Frenchmen Stephane Sessegnon lead the line.

Key Points

  • Manchester United played with a dangerous fluid attack up front
  • Young, Giggs, and Rooney link up and play together well to open up Sunderland’s defense.
  • Sunderland struggle to get players forward on the attack
  • Poor finishing again leaves United missing goal opportunities
  • Red Devils seem destined for 20th league title until City scores 2 in stoppage time.


United come out attacking

Manchester United came out of the gate looking dangerous on the attack. With Danny Welbeck injured, and Javier Hernandez struggling for form, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to utilize a 4-2-3-1. Instead of using Wayne Rooney in a number 10 role, he played up front and Ryan Giggs played the trequartista role behind him. Ashley Young played very narrow on the left side, moving centrally to link-up and combine plays with Giggs and Rooney. Giggs and Young would frequently switch places, with Giggs drifting out wide on the left side and Young would drop in more centrally behind Rooney. Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, and Ashley Young would combine intricate passes with great movement to create chances through Sunderland’s defense. On the right side, Antonio Valencia stayed out wide to stretch Sunderland’s defense and this helped create gaps that United was able to exploit.

Sunderland played in a 4-1-4-1, so they had Jack Colback playing as the holding midfielder ahead of their back four. The center-back pairing of Turner and Bramble were unwilling to track Rooney when he dropped deep, and this left Colback overloaded trying to deal with the movement of Giggs and Rooney in his zone. Sunderland’s defensive shape was poor at the back, leaving numerous gaps and space between the lines that the Red Devils were able to exploit.

As the Black Cats struggled to deal with United’s movement up front, their defense dropped deep and applied minimal pressure up the field. This allowed Scholes and Carrick time on the ball to pick their passes, and this was shown as Scholes completed 95% of his passes and Carrick completed 94% of his. Instead of his usual accurate long diagonal passes up to the wingers, Scholes played mostly short passes to recycle possession and switch the play laterally, attempting only 8 passes in the final third. Carrick was responsible for the more incisive passes of the game, completing 21/24 passes in Sunderland’s final third of the pitch.

Black Cats lack bite

Sunderland struggled most of the game to retain any possession. Stephane Sessegnon has been played in several positions this year, both up front as a striker and across the midfield, but against United he started as the lone striker up front. He struggled to get touches early on, and was frequently forced out wide to get any touches which left Sunderland with no real attacking options in the middle of the pitch as neither Gardner or Vaughan were willing to make driving runs into United’s penalty area.

The only support that Sessegnon got early in the game came from Fraizer Campbell on the right wing, as he would often come forward and centrally trying to exploit the space behind Patrice Evra. The right side was Sunderland’s main avenue of attack for the first half. Sunderland defended so deep that they struggled to counter-attack. They were slow to transition and were slow to get forward. Campbell and Sessegnon struggled as they would receive the ball, but got no support and United was quickly able to shut them down and get the ball back.

United’s fullbacks excel

United’s attack troubled Sunderland all game long. While the main avenue of attack came in the middle of the pitch with Young, Giggs, and Rooney, United posed an equally dangerous attack out wide. With Young playing narrow on the left side, it was left to Patrice Evra to provide the width on this side. He had good success coming down the left side, as Fraizer Campbell was lax in tracking back on defense.

On the other side of the field, Phil Jones’ game improved on his performances from the past few weeks. Jones was responsible for dealing with Irishman James McClean, who scored 5 goals and 2 assists in 23 league appearances this year. Jones played well the entire game on McClean, limiting most of his touches and influence to Sunderland’s own half of the pitch. In addition to his strong defense, he also grew more confident joining in on United’s attacks. He picked up the assist on United’s only goal of the game.

With Sunderland playing very deep, United was easily able to control possession. The goal in the 20th minute came after a long period of control and at the end of 20 completed passes in a row. United moved the ball laterally from touchline to touchline, probing the Wearsiders defense several times. Eventually Carrick moved the ball back to the right side for Phil Jones. With no defender within 10 yards, he was able to measure up a picture perfect diagonal cross into the box. It cleared both center-backs before bouncing in front of Simon Mignolet and going to the back post for a waiting Wayne Rooney, at the end of a great run, to easily nod home.

Dangerous attacking front four

After falling behind 1-0, Sunderland started to press higher up the field in an effort to limit Scholes and Carrick’s influence on the game. While they started to press higher up the field, their defensive line stayed very deep and this spread out their defense, increasing the gaps United was exploiting.

Rooney's Heat Map (Attacking left)

Even though he was the lone striker, Rooney would frequently drop into the midfield on the build-up. By dropping off deep, and the increased vertical spread of Sunderland’s defense, Rooney was able to link-up play more effectively with Giggs and Young. They would frequently form triangles, utilizing quick passes, wall passes and well-time through balls to exploit a poorly organized Sunderland back-line. This allowed United to repeatedly get behind the Black Cats defense.

On the right side, Antonio Valencia played near the touchline and Sunderland’s left-back, John O’Shea, was given the task of trying to mark him. The former United player struggled dealing with the Ecuadorian’s strength and pace. A good example of this came in the 34th minute, when United played the ball back to De Gea to stretch Sunderland’s defense vertically and then move the ball forward quickly. De Gea played the ball up to Jonny Evans, who played a 50-yard long pass forward to Ryan Giggs, who knocked it down to Valencia on the touchline. Valencia played the ball back into Giggs, who released the ball up the touchline for Valencia to run onto. Valencia was easily able to beat O’Shea to the byline. Valencia pulled the ball back into the box for a wide open Ashley Young, as both Sunderland center-backs tracked Rooney’s run in front. Young mishit the shot towards the far post, and it passed in front of Rooney who barely touched it while off-balance. The ball rolled just wide of giving United a 2-0 lead.

Injury and change

Second Half Formation

On the 42nd minute, Martin O’Neill brought off an injured John O’Shea and put on Ahmed El-Mohamady. Sunderland changed their shape to a 4-4-2, with Fraizer Campbell going up front to support Stephane Sessegnon. Phil Bardsley moved from right-back to left-back, with Craig Gardner taking up at right-back. El-Mohamady played as the right midfielder, and Vaughan and Colback played in the central midfield. With this move, Colback now moved up the field which left Sunderland with no holding midfielder to screen the center-backs.

United attacking through the middle

With the formation change, and removing the holding midfielder, United immediately took advantage of this, focusing more of their attack through Rooney, Giggs, and Young. With no holding midfielder, it was now up to Sunderland’s center-backs to track Wayne Rooney. Rooney used great movement off the ball to frequently drag the center-backs out of position, which Ashley Young and Ryan Giggs were able to play through.

With the addition of Fraizer Campbell up front, the Black Cats started to show more teeth on the attack. Sessegnon continued to frequently drift to the flanks, but with Campbell up front too, they now kept an attacking threat in the middle of the pitch. They struggled all game to play with any width on the attack. The full-backs were tentative to get forward, and James McClean was largely kept quiet by Phil Jones.

Sunderland struggled in the second half to link their defense with the attack. Vaughan and Colback were mostly anonymous in the middle of the pitch for Sunderland, and Martin O’Neill’s team became increasingly reliant on El-Mohamady to get the ball forward on the right side, or Stephane Sessegnon to drop deep to pick up the ball.

Close but not close enough

As the second half wore on, Scholes and Carrick started making more aggressive forward runs. With United controlling possession, they made frequent late runs into the box during most of the game but as the second half wore on, they started playing farther up the field to pressure Sunderland’s defense.

A great example of this came in the 76th minute, when Jones brought the ball into the box in the right channel before playing a one-two-three pass with Ryan Giggs just inside the box. Giggs than chipped the ball across for Rooney, but Michael Turner headed the ball out of the box into the path of an on-rushing Paul Scholes. The 37 year old midfielder hit a powerful half-volley from inside the penalty arc which bounced off the left post. The ball bounced straight back to Ryan Giggs, who took a powerful shot that Mignolet just managed to deflect over the post.

With a 1-0 lead, and Sunderland presenting a minimal threat, United was content to just run out the clock and wait to see the results from the Etihad Stadium.


The game ended with a 1-0 score line, but it was never a close affair. Sunderland struggled to make any meaningful attack, with only 2 shots on target and they both came from outside the 18 yard box. Manchester United could have easily won this game 4-0 if they had managed to finish some of their chances better. Three shots bounced off the post, out of 7 shots on target.

This game was a dominant performance from Manchester United, with an energetic and dangerous attack that was able to tear apart Sunderland’s defense at will. On the other end of the pitch, United’s defense was not troubled by a Black Cats attack lacked bite. To end the season, it proved to be a decent game by United and a disappointing performance by Sunderland.

One of the more important points of the game proved to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to play a 4-2-3-1. Could this be a glimpse into United’s future next year?

By RangeRooney –