Manchester United ended their winless run by recording a 2-1 victory over Swansea after Louis van Gaal adopted a series of changes. Swansea, under caretaker manager Alan Curtis, came close to snatching a point but were clearly denied by the home team. United dominated Swansea in many aspects, but it was the superiority in the wings that helped them score both the goals and win the game.

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Starting line-ups.

Van Gaal starts with back three

Although the team sheet mentioned that Manchester United were playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, it was soon found out that the back four were changing to back three with Ashley Young acting as the right wingback. Anthony Martial was staying out wide as the left wingback but with a higher degree of attacking freedom in comparison to Young.Juan Mata played as an attacking carrier, behind the striker, and was floating around in the attacking midfield region helping in attacking transitions.

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Morgan Schneiderlin played at the tip of the midfield trio. Bastian Schweinsteiger played on the left side and Ander Herrera on the right side of Schneiderlin. In the back, Daley Blind, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones formed a three-man chain.

The home team looked as if they were playing in a 3-1-4-1-1 formation with swift and situational changes to 3-6-1, 3-3-3-1, and 3-4-3 diamond. The three-man defensive chain was occasionally changing to four as United were changing to 4-2-3-1.

Curtis’s Swansea start with a 4-4-2 diamond

Curtis line up his players in 4-4-2 diamond formation. Andre Ayew and Wayne Routledge played as the strikers and were moving sideways when Swansea was defending, as expected from a 4-4-2 diamond system.

At the tip of the diamond was Gylfi Sigurdsson. Behind him were Jack Cork and Ki Sung Yueng as the shuttling midfielders. At the base was the defensive midfielder Leon Britton.

Neil Taylor played at left back position and Angel Rangel played as the right back. Ashley Williams and Federico Fernandez formed the central defensive pair of Swansea. Lukasz Fabianski was between the sticks.

United’s attacks

United’s attacking was based on pattern:

  • A) Through the left side, build up involving the sequence of passes to unlock half-space for Martial and Mata to move into. Schweinsteiger was playing a crucial role here. He was often swapping positions with Martial on the wings and Mata in the central areas.
  • B) Through the right where Jones was trying to free Young by pumping the ball to him.
  • C) Smalling acting as a libero and providing attacking passes to both the wingbacks and central  midfielders.

Smalling the libero

Smalling, with extra freedom, was moving through the central areas and towards the midfield acting like a libero. A libero is a sweeper who storms into the midfield while in possession.

Although he made a few mistakes at times, he played a crucial part along with Schneiderlin in bringing the ball out of the back smoothly. In attacking build-ups if the first step, that is, bringing the ball out of the back is done properly then subsequent steps can be carried out easily.

Manchester United in M-M.

Manchester United were changing to 3-2-3-2 (or M-M) to provide Smalling with a variety of passing options at different angles to evade Swansea’s pressing forwards. Herrera and Schweinsteiger were moving outwards while Schneiderlin was moving sideways to allow Smalling the room. Against Swansea’s diamonds, due to Smalling acting like a libero, Manchester United were having five players in the midfield for small instances. Here’s a video of Smalling as the libero.

Swansea change to front three occasionally

Swansea were changing to front three depending on the situation many times in the game. Sigurdsson was stepping forward to slip in between Ayew and Routledge. Given that Manchester United were preferring a back three during build-ups this was a good strategy. At the back, Swansea were cancelling out United’s 3v2 superiority.

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Flat front three of Swansea

This was helping the visiting team in pressing high and covering the width up front while pressing.

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High press.

But behind the line of press of the forwards, United had Martial and Young in the wings, and the three central midfielders were roaming and spreading out to receive long balls from David de Gea. So unless a proper backing was provided by the midfielders of Swansea, the high pressing forwards were not completely fulfilling their aim of cutting out the home team in their defensive third itself.

Here’s an instance of Swansea’s high pressing. The midfielders – Cork, Britton, and Ki also pressed in unison as a backup for the first line of press (I call it second line press or backup press).

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Swansea’s high-press. The midfield line executes the backup press perfectly.

Rooney’s movements –  opening gaps in Swansea’s defence, Swansea “PSEUDOCOMPACTNESS” in the center, and Young getting 1v1 opportunities against Taylor.

Throughout the game, Mata was floating around in the attacking midfield region, connecting the play and making space for other players to pass and play. As he was drifting sideways to provide passing options for Martial on the left and Young on the right, he was opening space in the No.10 position. Rooney, to receive passes, was moving into this space. Not to let him free and jeopardise the midfield structure of the team, Swansea’s central defenders were tracking him. This was creating a hole in the defensive line of Swansea. This was a classic false-9 move but Rooney never did it intentionally. The space left behind could’ve been fatal to the visitors had Manchester United players spotted it (Mata being the exception).

Mata ran into the space but Schweinsteiger failed to pick the correct passing outlet. The former Bayern Munich player should have passes along the dotted line, a lofted pass to Mata (yes, Mata had reached the onside position when Schweinsteiger received the pass from Rooney), instead of the diagonal pass to Young. However, Schweinsteiger’s pass targeted the underloaded side of the pitch, allowing Young to run at the left-back Taylor.

Rooney creating space.
Young in the overloaded side. The green region shows how United players have drawn Swansea players towards them.

It can be said that Rooney’s backward movements were forcing Swansea to overload the central areas in order to deny a clean passage of play in that zone.

Another point is, with a diamond in the midfield Swansea were able to squeeze the pass receiver on the central areas and isolate him from passing options leading to the entry of the ball to dangerous areas of the field (the areas closer to Swansea goal). Swansea maintained a compact shape in the midfield, but it was leaving open the half-spaces and the wide regions. This is Pseudocompactness or false-compactness. Swansea are compact in a region and it has been achieved at the cost of losing equality in some important spaces.

The narrow yellow region shows Swansea’s control of the central areas. The right half-space is open. The wings are under loaded and half-spaces are open. Pseudocompactness.

Rooney again opened the space but it was unexploitable (picture below). Note that Young is again in the underloaded side.

Mata is wide and no other player is close to Rooney. So the space left by Fernandez is not attacked.

In the second half…

In the second half, van Gaal replaced Jones with Matteo Darmian. There were some moments when Blind and Smalling partnered in the central defence as Darmian played as the left-back. Curtis substituted Britton, whose positioning, ability to read the game, and ball control was pretty awful, with Madou Barrow who offered pace and energy in the right side of the pitch. Due to his introduction, Swansea played with a bit lopsided variation of their first-half formation with more emphasis on attacking their right flank.

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Swansea between Britton’s and Routledge’s substitutions.


It was a hard-earned victory for Manchester United. They outplayed Swansea in many tactical aspects of the game – like forcing Curtis’ team to be pseudo-compact, the use of back three against two strikers, the constant switching between different systems to deceive the visiting team.

United are back to the winning way and have played well in two consecutive games. So the question is – can they improve from here? or will they continue to be the reflection of what they were a few weeks ago.

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