After a dramatic 3-2 comeback victory at Aston Villa a week earlier, Manchester United visited Carrow Road for a dangerous encounter with a Norwich City squad that is undefeated in their previous 5 games in all competitions, including games against Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. The Red Devils came into this game missing some key players, including their main playmakers, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa.
Norwich came with a sound strategy, incorporating things that Aston Villa did well against the Red Devils a week earlier. Opting not to sit back and defend, instead they applied pressure up the pitch and tried to hit on the counter-attack. The Canaries also used Grant Holt as a strong target man, similar to Marouane Fellaini of Everton and Christian Benteke of Aston Villa, who United struggled against. Without Rooney or Kagawa, the Red Devils lacked any invention or creativity in the middle of the pitch and were too dependent on the wingers to create chances, especially considering the poor game that Antonio Valencia put in. With Sir Alex Ferguson’s side looking flat and without fire, it seemed that once Norwich took a 1-0 lead that United was never going to get back into the game.
Manchester United vs. Norwich City
Carrow Road – November 17th, 2012
Manchester United (4-4-2)
The Red Devils made three changes over the team that lined up against Aston Villa a week earlier. In goal, Anders Lindegaard made his first league start since September 29th after David De Gea had two wisdom teeth pulled on Friday. The backline remained unchanged from the squad at Villa Park, with Chris Smalling starting his third consecutive fixture since returning from a broken metatarsal. In a surprise move, Ryan Giggs got the start in the central midfield alongside Michael Carrick, who has played every minute in the league so far this season.
Out wide, Antonio Valencia started on the right wing and Ashley Young started his fourth consecutive league fixture at left wing. Without Wayne Rooney or Shinji Kagawa, the Red Devils were left short of creative influences in the middle of the pitch. Instead of playing with a trequartista, Sir Alex Ferguson played a standard 4-4-2. After scoring 2 goals against Aston Villa, and creating the third goal, Javier Hernandez was rewarded with a starting spot. With Wayne Rooney unavailable for the game due to illness, Robin Van Persie played alongside the Mexican striker, even though he had his own fitness concerns. Hernandez played off the deepest defender, trying to stretch the opposing defense while Robin Van Persie was more willing to drop into deeper areas to receive the ball and contribute to the build-up.
Norwich City (4-4-1-1)
Chris Hughton’s squad came out in the same formation and lineup for the third league fixture in a row. Number 1 choice goalkeeper John Ruddy has played every league game so far. The defensive line consists of Steve Whittaker at right-back, Javier Garrido (on-loan from Lazio) at left-back, and Michael Turner and Sebastian Bassong at center-backs.
The Canaries preferred formation this season has been a 4-4-1-1. The central midfield consists of Bradley Johnson, who shields the center-backs by sitting deep to focus almost entirely on the defensive work, while Alexander Tettey plays higher up the pitch. With the wingers, in addition to Holt and Hoolahan playing so high up the pitch, Tettey is responsible for linking together the defense and attack for the Canaries. Anthony Pilkington started on the left midfield while Robert Snodgrass started on the right midfield, but neither player operates as a traditional winger. Both players prefer to come inside, playing into the channels between the opponent’s fullbacks and center-backs.
Playing a 4-4-1-1, Norwich uses Wesley Hoolahan in a free role behind the lead striker. Hoolahan has played this role well this season, providing the technique and speed to counter the strength and aerial ability of Grant Holt. Grant Holt started as the upfront striker, and he put in a strong performance as he was successful in the air, and holding the ball up before creating chances for Hoolahan, Snodgrass and Pilkington.
- Manchester United struggles for creativity and ideas in the middle of the pitch with both Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney out injured.
- Norwich played a very disciplined game, outworking Manchester United in every aspect of the game.
- A poor central midfield pairing of Carrick and Giggs causes United to struggle for energy and pace throughout the game.
- The Red Devils are too dependent on Antonio Valencia to create their scoring chances, and the Ecuadorian has a below par performance.
- The Canaries play well organized and methodical defense, and are quick in transition to catch United’s defense out of position.
Sluggish Red Devils
Manchester United came out in a standard 4-4-2 for the first time this season. Manchester United has a very potent attacking force this season, but they looked uninspired and tepid in this game. They lacked energy, or urgency, and struggled to create even basic scoring chances against the Canaries. One of the Red Devil’s biggest problems against Norwich was the lack of a creative influence in the middle of the pitch. With Wayne Rooney’s illness, and Shinji Kagawa’s knee injury, Manchester United is bereft of playmaking ability through the middle of the pitch.
Instead of playing a trequartista, Chicharito played up front alongside Robin Van Persie. Chicharito tried to play off the final defender, but he struggled for service and both he and Robin Van Persie were frequently forced to drop into the midfield to get touches on the ball. In most games this season Robin Van Persie has operated as a traditional number 9, attacking the center-backs and trying to get in behind the opponent’s defensive line. In this game, without Kagawa or Rooney operating in a trequartista role, playing between the opponent’s lines, it was left to the Dutchmen to drop between the lines and fill this role. He had some effect in this role, but it moves him away from the net where he is at his most dangerous.
Another issue that impeded United’s attack was their central midfield pairing. Sir Alex Ferguson played Ryan Giggs next to Michael Carrick, which left United’s midfield lacking for strength and pace. With Tom Cleverley and Anderson available, Ryan Giggs was an odd choice for this game. Ryan Giggs slack defending caused problems, while Giggs and Carrick’s slow tempo bringing the ball up the pitch caused United’s attack to bog down. Additionally, this pairing meant that the Red Devils were slow in transition, and unable to get forward quickly enough to take advantage of any disorganization in Norwich’s defense.
Giggs and Carrick operated as a double pivot, taking turns going forward to try and help a struggling United attack, but they had little success. Ryan Giggs completed 82% of his passes, but his accuracy was less than 60% when passing into the final third. This led to needless turnovers, and caused United to struggle getting into a passing rhythm. Michael Carrick was more successful, attempting the most passes of the game (112), with his passes frequently used to switch the point of attack, playing the ball out to the wingers.
Overall, Manchester United struggled throughout the game with a lack of effort. They were slow in transitions, their ball movement was glacial and their movement off the ball was minimal. United was out worked by Norwich all over the pitch. The slow ball movement gave Norwich the time to get their defense organized, and denied United any speed or fluidity to their attack.
Beware of Birds
Norwich presented a very solid defense, and this was the basis of their entire strategy. Chris Hughton took notice of the strategies that worked well for Aston Villa a week earlier against United, and improved on them. He deployed his squad in a 4-4-1-1, with the same lineup that he has used in the last 3 league games. His backline has been very solid this season at home, only allowing 6 goals. His fullbacks had instructions to stay fairly deep, and it wasn’t until the second half that they started to get forward to help on the attack. In the central midfield, Bradley Johnson sat deep and shielded the center-backs. In this position, he also denied the space between the lines that Robin Van Persie tried to drop into several times.
The Canaries defense sat back in 2 lines of 4, with very little space between the lines. The forward players, Wes Hoolahan and Grant Holt, dropped deep alongside each other and applied pressure on United’s central midfielders instead of trying to press United’s center-backs. This meant that Norwich had a very tight defensive shape, which didn’t allow United much space to operate in. They allowed Manchester United to have the ball uncontested in their own zone, but once they played the ball up to the midfielders, the Canaries immediately put pressure on the ball.
From a very solid defensive base, Norwich City was able to launch successful attacks. Like Aston Villa a week earlier, they focused most of their effort on quick counter-attacks. Grant Holt provided a decent aerial threat up front, in addition to being strong enough to hold up the ball for additional attackers. Behind Holt was Wesley Hoolahan, and he roamed from touchline to touchline to help linkup Norwich’s attack. He provided much of the invention for Norwich’s attack, drifting into the wide areas to provide the width for the Canaries attack, in addition to creating overloads with the wingers and the Red Devils struggled against these overloads.
Neither of Norwich’s wide players, Anthony Pilkington or Robert Snodgrass provided much width to the Canaries attack as they both were looking to come inside on the attack. It was frequently left to Hoolahan, or overlapping fullbacks, to provide width to Norwich’s attacks.
The speed of Norwich City’s counter-attacks was frequently able to catch United’s fullbacks forward. In a situation similar to Aston Villa’s first goal a week ago, the assist for Norwich’s goal came from the Rafael’s defensive area.
Norwich was able to take the lead after getting forward on the attack. It wasn’t a quick counter-attack, but the advantage of getting the ball forward before the defense could setup was obvious in this run of play, compared to the painfully slow build-up that Manchester United played all game long. Hoolahan combined near the left touchline with Javier Garrido. Garrido, given too much space by Rafael, placed a well-targeted cross at the near post where Anthony Pilkington got up in front of Chris Smalling, redirecting the ball inside the far post.
Valencia and Young
Struggling to create any chances through the middle, Manchester United became increasingly dependent on their wingers to try and get goals. The ball was constantly moved out wide, with Antonio Valencia the first choice target. Unfortunately for Manchester United, Antonio Valencia put in a poor performance. His attacks were dismal throughout the game, as he had a very low success rate with his crosses, completing only 2 of 11 attempted crosses. In addition, he also doesn’t show the same willingness to run at the opposing fullback as he did last season, when he won the award as Manchester United’s Player of the Season.
On the Red Devil’s left side, Ashley Young functioned in a similar fashion to how he typically plays. He played very narrow, frequently looking to combine and link-up with the central players and he proved to be a much more effective attacking option than Valencia was.
With less than 30 minutes left in the game, Norwich had the lead. Most people were now patiently waiting to see Manchester United snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but it wasn’t to be in this game. Against Aston Villa, Sir Alex Ferguson made excellent substitutions, but his changes didn’t have the same effect in this game. He took out a largely ineffective Antonio Valencia, and replaced him with Paul Scholes. Ashley Young moved to the right wing, where he was more effective than Valencia had been. Ryan Giggs was moved to the left wing and Scholes slotted in next to Michael Carrick. Fergie then took off Javier Hernandez and replaced him with Danny Welbeck. With United now dominating possession, and Norwich defending deeper, would it not have been better to remove Ryan Giggs for Danny Welbeck?
Norwich put in another excellent performance, as they are now unbeaten in their last 6 games in all competitions. Manchester United has now lost their 3rd league game of the season. Missing the creativity of Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney was noticeable throughout the game, as the Red Devils had no invention through the middle. In addition, playing Ryan Giggs alongside Michael Carrick as part of a central midfield 2 doesn’t work. Now 1 point behind Manchester City, hopefully the Red Devils can recover from this tepid performance as they are entering a congested fixture schedule.
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By RangeRooney Follow @RangeRooney