United’s dynamics in possession
In possession United showed some interesting rotations between a 3-2-4-1, 3-1-3-3 and a 3-1-4-2 shape. In the build-up phase Schneiderlin acted as the sole defensive midfielder dropping to assist progression, while Schweinsteiger moved to the left wing and Martial supported Rooney up front to create a structure like shown below.
When building United were up against Swansea’s narrow 4-3-3 which was aimed at forcing United to build in wide areas. Van Gaal’s men had a number of mechanisms to beat this front line. At times they would play short passes into Schneiderlin which would draw Swansea’s front three into the centre before switching to the wide centre backs who would then have a lot of space to move forward into. At other times Schneiderlin would drop into the defensive line attracting Sigurdsson’s attention and creating space for Smalling to advance with the ball. They also used simple horizontal circulation by playing the ball to one wide centre back before quickly switching the ball to other far side centre back who would be able to progress unopposed. The roaming of central players also meant United could progress by playing the ball to the flanks with overloads helping to stabilise possession in these areas.
Overall United had quite a high ball-orientation which had some positive effects on all phases of the game. In possession it created greater possibilities for quick combination play to alter the circulation rhythm, this was particularly evident when Martial moved inside diagonally from the left wing and his interactions with Rooney and Mata created a number of openings throughout the match.
When the ball moved to the final 3rd United rotated quite cohesively from their build-up shape; Schweinsteiger moved to a left central attacking midfield position, with Mata moving across to the right side, Herrera would drop or stay in line with Schneiderlin (Herrera and Schweinsteiger frequently swapped roles) while Martial would move the left wing. They also used vertical runs off the ball to open certain spaces for the ball carrier to dribble diagonally, Mata and Herrera were particularly successful in doing this. Despite this several attacking moves broke down, particularly in the first half, due to poor decision making which has been a trademark of United’s season. This was a big factor behind their failure to score in the first half despite dominating territory and getting into some good positions in attack.
United were still quite cross-oriented in attack and often tended to isolate players on the flank and wait in the box for a cross, rather than moving towards the ball and working it inside towards more dangerous areas. This was particularly obvious when United used the “overload and switch to isolate” strategy to create space for Ashley Young to cross.
United’s behaviour and positioning out of possession
United pressed quite intensely in a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 (which depended heavily on the positioning of Swansea’s midfielders) man-oriented block, which worked well to destabilise Swansea’s possession game and build-up in particular, although it did make United vulnerable to manipulation. As always United were man-oriented in midfield during Swansea’s build-up (see image below) where the marking scheme would be Mata-Britton, Schweinsteiger-Cork and Herrera-Ki. Schneiderlin would patrol the space between the lines also checking his shoulders wary of Sigurdsson’s position.
Young, Martial and Mata (when he moved to the right wing) showed a tendency to detach from the midfield line particularly on the right flank where Neil Taylor was man-marked quite heavily (as shown below). This created opportunities for Swansea to exploit the open half spaces (although United’s side backs were quite active in pushing up to prevent this), fortunately for United Swansea were often too slow or poorly positioned to take advantage.
In all defensive phases United keenly pressed the ball carrier which hastened Swansea but on one or two occasions allowed them to manipulate United’s defensive shape quite easily which created some dangerous situations.
The increased collective ball-orientation in possession also had a naturally positive effect on United’s counterpressing as it meant there were higher numbers around the ball thus making quick possession regains easier. United swarmed the ball and the surrounding players in a ball/man-oriented counterpress which forced frequent turnovers through interceptions and tackles.
Van Gaal reacted to Swansea bringing on Barrow and moving to 4-3-3 by moving to a 4-5-1 perhaps to ensure United had maintained a numerical advantage in defence against Swansea’s front line; Young moved to right-back, Darmian to left-back and Mata to the right wing.