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Tactics & Analysis

The Tactics Board – United struggles until Rovers roll over

After watching Manchester City drop points at home the day before to Sunderland, Manchester United came into this game with an opportunity to go 5 points clear at the top of the table. For the Blackburn Rovers, they had managed to claw their way out of the relegation zone after a stretch of good results in the previous 4 games. Blackburn was hoping to repeat the type of performance that allowed them to claim 3 points from United at Old Trafford in December, but Wayne Rooney and Jonny Evans would both be playing in this game. In the reverse fixture, Sir Alex Ferguson sat Wayne Rooney and Jonny Evans out after they disobeyed team rules to have a late night dinner with their partners.


Manchester United-
Sir Alex Ferguson made several changes in personnel and formation over the lineup that started a week earlier in the 1-0 win over Fulham. Ryan Giggs started the game on the bench after an extremely poor performance while Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young started on the bench with Javier Hernandez and Phil Jones getting the start in their place. Instead of sticking with the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 that Manchester United has used all season in the Premier League, he went with a more attacking 4-3-3 in hopes that the team would have an easier time breaking down the defense then they had a week earlier. United really struggled to beat an extremely well-organized Fulham defense that kept 10 players behind the ball almost all game long.

Manchester United went with the same back 5 that they’ve used in the previous 4 games, starting with David De Gea in goal. At right-back, Rafael got another start after putting in a very good shift last week. At center-back, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans got the start while Patrice Evra stayed at left-back with the captain’s armband. In the middle of the pitch, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes started as deep lying midfielders with Phil Jones starting ahead of them as the more advanced midfielder. Sir Alex Ferguson made an interesting change, with the front line consisting of Antonio Valencia on the right side, Wayne Rooney on the left, and Chicharito starting up front.

Starting Formation

Blackburn Rovers-
Steve Kean opted to go with a 4-4-1-1 instead of a 4-1-4-1. He made a few changes over the side that had lost a week earlier away to Bolton. Team Captain Paul Robinson started again in goal, with his 28th league appearance of the season. At right-back he started Bradley Orr instead Jason Lowe, who he started in his more natural position of center midfield. Blackburn has had a bit of turnover at center-back, after Chris Samba left for Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia and Gael Givet has been sidelined for several weeks with a hamstring injury. This meant that Steve Kean started Scott Dann and Grant Hanley in the middle of his defense. On the left side, Martin Olssen was given the tough task of dealing with Antonio Valencia. Starting at left wing in front of Martin Olssen was his twin brother, Marcus Olssen. In the center of the midfield, Steven N’Zonzi and Jason Lowe got the start while Morten Pedersen started on the right side of the midfield. Up front, Yukubu started with David Hoilett playing behind him in support.


Key Points-

  • United’s chances early in game to get behind Blackburn’s defense
  • Blackburn defend deeper and fill the box and shut United down.
  • Valencia and Rafael continue a growing attacking partnership on the right-side
  • David De Gea makes some exceptional saves to erase memories of reverse fixture
  • United have problems unlock a tight, well-organized defense
  • Change of shape and personnel give United’s attack more bite
  • Valencia and Young give United 3 points



Early United Chances-

The game started well for United, as they tried to take advantage of Chicharito’s pace against Blackburn’s backline. In the first 10 minutes of the game, they twice tried to play balls over top to the Mexican striker. United got their first attempt of the game from an exceptional pass by Wayne Rooney, who hit a beautiful 60-yard diagonal pass from the centerfield line to Chicharito. Grant Hanley was able to just get his head on the ball, but the ball falls nicely for Hernandez who wasted the chance with a shot wide of the mark as he was pressured by Martin Olssen.

Blackburn turn defensive-

After the first 10 minutes, and United’s attempts to get behind their back line, Blackburn opted to drop deeper in defense and stack the box. In defense, they would drop 8 men into the box and allow United to control possession. They applied no pressure on United’s midfield, and invited United onto them. For long periods of the first half, they had 10 men behind the ball and even Yukubu was in their end of the field. Blackburn seemed to hope that by stacking the box with a well-organized defense, they could hold off United and steal a late goal to get the points.

United controlled possession during for most of the game, but they had problems dealing with Blackburn’s defense. They were able to control the ball in the midfield, as Blackburn never really applied any pressure to United’s midfield when they had the ball. United would move the ball around, from wing to wing, trying to find an opening in Blackburn’s defense but they struggled to unlock a very solid defensive unit.

Paul Scholes was key for United, as he spent most of the game moving the ball from wing to wing with accurate cross-field passes, the type of passes that United desperately missed the week before with Ryan Giggs playing in his place, against a very similar defense from Fulham. He was able to use his accurate cross-field passing as a way of changing the angles on Blackburn’s defense, and trying to create alleys for through balls that might open up the defense.

After Blackburn switched into such a defensive posture, United’s few chances dried up. They were unable to really unlock the defense, and get good chances that had a chance of success. One of their few chances came from a set piece, a corner taken by Antonio Valencia in the 30th minute which Evans headed over to Evra in the center of the box. Patrice Evra passed it straight back to Evans, who took a weak side foot shot that Paul Robinson was easily able to save.

United’s strength from the wings-

United’s best chances always seemed to come from their right side, where Rafael and Antonio Valencia continued their growing partnership. To deal with the threat, Blackburn had Martin Olssen at left-back and Marcus Olssen just ahead of him at left wing. They struggled all game dealing with the overlapping runs, and cuts inside, which United used to create several offensive chances later in the game. United was able to take advantage of the gap between the left-back and left-wing, as Rafael repeatedly made runs into this gap and drove into the box to try and create offensive chances.

Blackburn defend deep

With his form of late, Blackburn tried to double-team Valencia for much of the game. The problem with this strategy was it left Rafael with open space to deliver crosses, so it proved to be a dangerous strategy for Blackburn.

On the left side of the field, Sir Alex Ferguson opted to play Wayne Rooney at left wing, but as the game went along he started to play narrower and came inside. By playing on the left wing instead of up front like he normally plays, Rooney got much more involved in the buildup of play for United but offered very little sting on offense as he spent most of his time too far from the box.

With Wayne Rooney playing so narrow on the left side, it left Patrice Evra as the only person to provide width on the left side of the pitch, and as the first half went along, he was getting forward more to provide some attack on the left side for United. He managed to stay near the touchline, leaving Rooney to go inside while he stayed out wide to put crosses into the box.

Blackburn gets chances on the counter

Manchester United controlled possession for the first half, but it was Blackburn that had the more credible chances on goal. Blackburn had a couple decent chances early, but their best chances of the game came just before halftime. United frequently brought many players forward to try and get through Blackburn’s defense, but this left them vulnerable to quick counter-attacks by Blackburn. Most of their chances came on the right side, as Evra struggled on defense to deal with both Hoilett and Pedersen. Wayne Rooney was playing narrow on the left side on the attack, but he struggled to get back fast enough on defense and this created gaps that Blackburn were occasionally able to take advantage of.

While Blackburn were able to get decent chances on the right side, Yukubu was largely kept quiet all day by Ferdinand and Evans. Blackburn tried to search him out with long balls, but United’s center-backs did a great job at giving him no space to operate. He had very few touches in the game, and only had one chance from a dangerous position. With Yukubu shut down, Blackburn’s best chances came from David Hoilett.

Just into stoppage time at the end of the first half, Marcus Olssen took a stinging shot on goal from the top of the box. The chance originated from a poorly cleared corner, that dropped for Olssen to take a shot that made De Gea stretch out to knock it away. De Gea followed that save with another great save, to knock the ball over the bar from the resulting corner. With saves like these, David De Gea continued to show his class and shot-stopping abilities, but he also did well to erase the memories of the reverse fixture by dealing well with Blackburn’s corners and set pieces.

Blackburn’s best chances came on the break, as United brought players forward to try and breakdown Blackburn’s defense. By sitting back on defense, they were unable to get their players forward fast enough to challenge United’s defense. This meant that on the counter, they would often have to pass the ball backwards and this allowed United’s defense to regroup, and then it wasn’t long before United were able to win the ball back.

United struggle to breakdown Blackburn’s well-disciplined defense

Early in the second half, United had a couple of counter-attacking opportunities against Blackburn but they struggled to get people into the box. With Rooney playing on the left wing, it was often just Chicharito in the box. In the 49th minute, during a counter-attack, Valencia was able to get by Martin Olssen and whipped a decent cross into the box from the right side, but it went just behind Chicharito and the nearest United player was 5 yards outside the box, so Blackburn was easily able to head the ball away and breakup United’s attack.

First 70 minutes for Rooney

As the game went along, Manchester United was able to completely control possession. By controlling possession so completely, they didn’t really need the 3rd midfielder, and the 3 central midfielders meant that Javier Hernandez was alone up front with no help. After the initial attacks in the first 10 minutes, Chicharito struggled to make an impact and needed the help of Wayne Rooney more centrally instead of out on the left wing.

In addition, Phil Jones played poorly. He played as the most advanced midfielder, but he contributed very little for United’s attack. He frequently misplaced passes in attacks, and wasn’t able to contribute much in the middle of United’s attack. His only real contribution came as he headed wide a cross from Valencia. He has struggled in his last two starts in midfield to show the form that made him so deadly in December. He showed great form in December with Michael Carrick, but his recent performances have been poor.

Sir Alex Ferguson changes personnel and formation

To deal with the problems on offense, Sir Alex Ferguson made 2 changes around the 60minute mark. He first brought Danny Welbeck on to replace Javier Hernandez. While Chicharito has been dangerous getting behind defenses, he has struggled to deal with the type of compact defense that he confronted with Blackburn. Danny Welbeck has been better this year at dealing in these tight spaces, and tracking back to get the ball on the attack.

The manager also brought Ryan Giggs on for a largely ineffective Phil Jones. This allowed Ryan Giggs to slot out on the left side and Wayne Rooney came up front to help Danny Welbeck.

These substitutions allowed Manchester United to switch from 4-3-3 into their more comfortable 4-4-2. These changes had an immediate effect as United looked more dangerous. This allowed the Red Devil’s attack to even out, as almost all of their attacks from this point came from the right side. After these changes, United were able to mount a much more effective and even attack, and Blackburn had no meaningful periods of possession for the rest of the game. United pinned them back deep in their own half of the field, and probed the defense from every angle looking for their goal.

Change to 4-4-2

In the 79th minute, Ashley Young was subbed on for Paul Scholes, who had done a masterful job of controlling possession and transitioning the attack from side to side as United tried to find an opening. With Ashley Young on, Ryan Giggs was moved into the central midfield and Ashley Young took up the left wing.

With Ashley Young on the left side, this greatly improved United’s attack from this side. This meant that Blackburn weren’t able to concentrate their defense just on Antonio Valencia on the right side. Ryan Giggs had helped generate attacks from the left side, but Ashley Young proved to be a far more dangerous option out wide on the left side, with Patrice Evra.

Even thought he’d been dealing with heavy defensive pressure for the entire game, by the 80th minute Valencia had already put 21 crosses into the box. Valencia caused problems for Blackburn’s left-back nightmares all game with driving runs straight at him, as he was never afraid to take him on and it was a play like this that gave United their first goal.

United's Right Side

Manchester United continued to control the ball, and moved the ball around the midfield from the left side back over to the right side, through a sequence of 5 passes before Rafael passed it out to Valencia. The on-form Ecuadorian took it right at Martin Olssen and drove into the box before putting in a shot with the outside of his right boot that curled into the net right in front of Paul Robinson.

Blackburn collapse and United ensure victory

After United’s first goal, Blackburn’s defense seemed to collapse and struggled to close out the game. With only 5 minutes left in the game, Valencia drove in on the right side again and passed the ball to the top of the box for Ashley Young. United’s left-winger, with his back to the ball, was able to gather the ball and spin around and put a shot past Robinson that was just able to curl inside the right post to give United a 2-0 lead.

Blackburn played well for 80 minutes of the game, staying very well disciplined in defense and denying United chances in the box. This defense caused United problems all game long, as they had difficulty finding the key to unlock this tight defense. Manchester United could have easily dropped points in this game, as Blackburn had several chances going forward on the counter-attack, but David De Gea made several great saves to keep the clean sheet.

Player Positions - ManUtd Right

The Red Devils struggled to deal with how deep Blackburn sat, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s change in formation and personnel in the second half changed the game in United’s favor. For most of the game, the only avenue of attack for United was the right side with Valencia and Rafael, but with the changes, United offered a more balanced attack which stretched out Blackburn’s defense, and this gave Valencia the space necessary to put in that first goal.

After that first goal, Blackburn’s defense lost heart and a few minutes later Ashley Young was able to put in a goal that ensured the 3 points for United. With these points, Manchester United has gone 5 points clear at the top of the table over Manchester City. While this game had a good result for United, Sir Alex Ferguson has to be worried with how his team has struggled the last two weeks to deal with deep lying defenses. Dealing with defenses like this is one of the primary reasons why many United fans are calling for a new playmaker in central midfield, a player who can confront defenses like this, and make the play necessary to create goal scoring opportunity for the team. At present, the only option has come from Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young out wide, but United needs another option in case playing through the wingers doesn’t work.