Sir Alex Ferguson only won twice in Spain in his more than a quarter century tenure at Old Trafford; Sir Matt Busby never did. The game against Real Sociedad in Basque country had an allure of ambush – Barcelona lost and Real Madrid failed to win there last season. While United is far better than Real Sociedad on paper, it was still a game on the road and Moyes had to take all the necessary precautions to make sure his men didn’t come out of the contest losers.
Unlike the game against Shakhtar where United played a 4-3-3 formation, against Sociedad, Moyes played it more orthodox with a 4-2-3-1 formation that featured Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra and Smaling in defense, Giggs and Fellaini in midfield, Valencia and Kagawa as wingers, Hernandez upfront with Rooney providing a supporting cast. In defense, this formation is similar to either the 4-5-1 or the 4-4-1-1, depending on the spot of the ball, and constitutes an efficient strategy to stop the opponent’s attack by controlling the midfield. Let’s look at how United stuffed Real Sociedad’s attempts towards goal by jamming the midfield and forcing them to proceed through long balls.
Game Situation – 1:12: Fellaini loses the ball which is recovered by de la Bella. de la Bella then passes it to Pardo but Rooney stands in his passing lane delaying the delivery to Carlos Martinez which allows Kagawa to close in. Upon receiving the ball, Martinez is pressured by Kagawa and passes it back to Mikel Gonzalez who is in turned pressured by Rooney.
Gonzalez runs towards Sociedad’s left flank and passes the ball to de la Bella who attempts a long pass to Griezmann after some pressure from Valencia. Ferdinand steps up and intercepts the ball and Fellaini drops back to recover it. As the green portion of the image below demonstrates, United players parked themselves in the midfield making hard for Real Sociedad to advance.
Summary: United occupied the midfield and cut the bridge between Real Sociedad’s defense and offense forcing them to proceed through long balls often to a double teamed player that were easy to intercept and recover.
Real Sociedad’s three man midfield was out of sync with the rest of the team and overshadowed by the United midfield. Outnumbered in midfield, Real Sociedad was under constant pressure and quickly ran out of options.
Game Situation – 3:40: Rooney intends to pass the ball to Valencia but is intercepted by Zurutuza who then passes it back to Inigo Martinez. Rooney pressures Martinez who makes a pass to Pardo, and cuts the bridge between the midfield and the defense forcing Pardo to pass the ball to de la Bella (pressured by Valencia) who delivers a pass back to Martinez.
However, Rooney is only within a stone’s throw and forces Inigo Martinez to attempt a pass to Zurutuza that is intercepted by Fellaini.
Summary: This is a great example of closing up the space and anticipating a pass. Rooney and Valencia kept the pressure alive, allowing Fellaini to hold and eventually intercept a pass.
While it seems defensive to the eye, the 4-2-3-1 is quite a flexible formation, as both the wide players and the full-backs join the attack. Let’s look at some of United’s missed opportunities.
Game Situation – Xavier Hernandez inexplicably misses: Fellaini passes the ball to Valencia who draws the attention of Larranaga and de le Bella. In the meantime, both Hernandez and Rooney start runs towards the box, expecting a cross from Valencia.
However, Valencia delivers a perfect cross to Kagawa who started a run from midfield and lurks just outside of the box, unmarked. Kagawa attracts Carlos Martinez and Mikel Gonzalez who try to block his cross and delivers a low cross to Hernandez who inexplicably fails to tap it home.
Summary: The most obvious feature of David Moyes’s coaching philosophy is his emphasis upon width – asking his central midfielders to spread the play, and encouraging the full-backs forward to create overloads with the wide midfielders. On this great opportunity, Valencia’s position, Rooney and Hernandez’s runs made the defense slide allowing Kagawa to be wide open.
As the game neared the end, Real Sociedad were launching forward more often in a hope to find the back of net and keep themselves in the running for a spot in the round of sixteen. These efforts created space at the back that were ripe for some counter attacks.
Game Situation – Van Persie Rings the post: Smalling recovers the ball and passes it to Fellaini, who in turn gives it to Kagawa. Giggs runs towards goal in an attempt to stretch the defense while Young runs forwards unaccounted for.
Kagawa cuts towards midfield, shifting the defense towards the left side. After a few more steps, he passes the ball to Young who is wide open. This further makes the defense slide left allowing Van Persie to be unmarked. Young realizes it and delivers a cross to Van Persie which he belts against the post.
Summary: This was yet another great scoring opportunity which proves how efficient United is at counter attacking. Here, Young’s speed combined with Kagawa’s playmaking ability and Giggs’s savvy almost proved to be the difference.
With seven points accumulated already, Moyes could even afford to leave Van Persie on the bench, allowing Hernandez an unexpected start, with two more men on the fringes, Kagawa and Fellaini joining the Mexican. The Kagawa-Evra partnership was one of the positives from United’s performance. By the time Kagawa was moved centrally, the game’s two most frequent passing combinations were Evra to Kagawa (16 times) and vice-versa (12 times).
Though David Moyes insisted in his pre-match briefing there was nothing different in his side’s approach to their European and domestic engagements, progress at this elite level has been achieved far more comfortably than it has in the Premier League, despite the many missed opportunities against Real Sociedad. Hopefully Van Persie and the rest of the United offense will get their sharpness back on time for the vital game against Arsenal.