It was not a ‘lucky’ win, it was not an ‘ugly’ win and it certainly was not a win that was a result of a ‘poor’ Manchester United performance – at least not entirely. Whilst all and sundry point to the failure of the Red Devils and new boss David Moyes, all the plaudits must go to Steve Clarke for his astute tactical designs which were, ultimately, hugely successful.
United dominated possession (59 per cent) but Clarke would have expected that at Old Trafford and he set his side up with that as a given. He also knew that there would likely be times when United completely dominated the midfield and central areas – we saw that Moyes had clearly instructed Nani and Shinji Kagawa to drift in off the flank in the first half, effectively making it five in midfield against Clarke’s two or three in Mulumbu and Yacob and, when they didn’t have the ball, Sessegnon tracking back in.
Rooney and Kagawa especially were given space in the channels but, ultimately, the majority of United’s shots were being struck from distance – they were crowded out by the Baggies defence.
Commentators pointed to the lack of fluency and accuracy in United’s passing – the through balls and one-two’s that didn’t come off but, conversely, I would put this down to Clarke’s clear intent to reduce the space in the final third for United’s flair players to manoeuvre in.
Where United found a little bit more joy was on the flanks – 73 per cent of United’s attacks came from the left or the right channel but that’s exactly where Clarke wanted them.
Having most of United’s more constructive play out wide meant the Baggies’ defence could isolate them out there, pick them off easily, block the crosses, harass them into losing possession, and, in the central areas where the likes of Rooney and Carrick awaited the ball, West Brom could simply man mark them so the widemen would be less inclined to attempt a ball through to reach them. Nani was energetic but he rarely had any end product and neither did Adnan Januzaj when he came on for Kagawa.
We saw that United’s passing was fairly slow, indirect and, ultimately benign but that was because the pass was rarely ever ‘on’ – when their creative players looked around for a runner or a teammate in space, they rarely found an optimum pass into a player with space. Only five of United’s 30 crosses found a man in a red shirt.
Meanwhile, West Brom had plenty of danger to their play – they used their 41 per cent possession with ambition, intelligence and efficiency. They maximized their threat even though they saw less of the ball and both of their goals came from open play counter-attacks. They were happy to absorb pressure from United and then pounce on any mistake or individual error which we saw on several occasions throughout the game – The Baggies could have scored three or four on the day.
Whilst Rooney, Kagawa and Robin van Persie had fairly quiet games – they were rendered irrelevant much of the time through isolation and lack of supply, as I mentioned – the likes of Amalfitano, Sessegnon, Anichebe and Berahino really enjoyed a hold over the opposition. They looked like they terrified the life out of Rio Ferdinand.
Amalfitano was given a lot of space by United’s Alex Buttner who seemed to think he was a winger for some reason, leaving an abundance of space in behind him and being caught out of position on numerous occasions, but Amalfitano was quick to capitalize on Buttner’s inexperience and use it his advantage.
Meanwhile fullbacks Jones and Ridgewell would push up when the Baggies had the ball to offer outlets out wide and doubling up on United’s fullbacks who were rarely supported by their wingers in terms of tracking back and keeping tabs on their responsibilities defensively.
We saw that in the Manchester derby and Clarke will have studied that game to see United’s obvious weaknesses defending the wide areas – it’s no coincidence whatsoever that’s where West Brom had there most fruitful phases of play.
Meanwhile, most of West Brom’s tackles and clearances came deep in their own penalty area – where were United’s tackles and clearances? They were in little pockets all over their defensive half – this shows that West Brom were finding pockets of space all over the place, attempting take-ons dribbles and moving into the channels where United couldn’t cope with them.
Berahino, interestingly, who came on after 13 minutes and ended up scoring the winning goal, had 5 shots in the game, two of which were from inside David De Gea’s area and three outside. His goal was an absolute stunner but he had made two other almost exact replicas in the game from almost exactly the same area as his goal came from. He had clearly been told that was where he needed to position himself because he continuously positioned himself inside the ‘D’.
Amalfitano’s goal just after half time was scored from around the penalty spot but his general play was on the flank. He provided the pass for Berahino’s winner and created two other clear-cut chances from set-pieces.
Overall Manchester United were reduced in their ability to create concrete opportunities to score – despite their vastly superior possession, they created just 11 chances compared to West Brom’s 9 which crucially the Baggies converted and Manchester United did not.
Clarke knew his side wouldn’t get gifted many opportunities by the champions and he knew his lads needed to be clinical and they were. United passed themselves to sleep in the end but rarely threatened Myhill’s goal convincingly.
image: © hisgett