Blackburn 0-2 Manchester United: United win it late
United recorded their seventh league win in a row to take another step towards retaining their Premier League crown, thanks to two late goals over a stubborn Blackburn side.
Blackburn set out in their regular 4-4-1-1 formation, with the livewire Junior Hoilett playing off Yakubu Aiyegbeni up front and Morten Gamst Pedersen playing a right-sided role he has become relatively familiar with this season. Jason Lowe and Steven N’Zonzi stayed close together in central midfield in order to shield a defence that concedes on average 16 shots per game. Sir Alex Ferguson, on the other hand, changed up United’s usual 4-2-3-1, adding a midfielder in place of a winger and moving Wayne Rooney left to compensate. The result was a skewed 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 cross that often had United struggling to play with their usual fluency, and saw Antonio Valencia as the highest-up player by average position. Phil Jones was the most attacking player in a workmanlike United central midfield.
The match was more about United in tactical terms, as Blackburn played reactive, counterattacking football that nevertheless worked relatively well. This wasn’t to say that they were inherently negative, merely that Steve Kean had realised that attempting to attack an in-form United would result in a slaughter, particularly with two central midfielders (and a half, if you count Hoilett, who played more as a support striker).
Rooney as a left-sided attacker
Wayne Rooney has had another stellar season for United, generally playing in behind the intelligent Danny Welbeck. He’s been scoring and creating – 24 goals and 41 key passes in the Prem – at a huge rate, and is now managing to replicate his own brand of the ‘nine and a half’ role whilst also playing alongside another forward. He is aided in this by Welbeck’s maturity and decision-making skills, with his young compatriot’s forages deep and Rooney’s subsequent moves into the resulting space regularly creating a false nine and false ten tandem unlike any in Europe.
Against Blackburn, however, Rooney was moved left (albeit with a licence to come inside) and Welbeck was rotated out of the team to allow Javier Hernandez a start. When Hernandez starts, United are often less flexible and more direct with their play. Without Welbeck coming deep to link play and create intricate passing patterns with Rooney (and when he plays, Ashley Young, who cuts into the centre onto his stronger foot) United often try to play to Hernandez’s strengths, releasing him with early balls from midfield to utilise his raw pace. With Blackburn sitting deep to deny Hernandez space, this method was unavailable to United on a regular basis, but it is possible that Ferguson played Hernandez, a far better penalty-box finisher than Welbeck, in order to try and poach a goal when Blackburn withdrew into their penalty area.
This, coupled with his withdrawn left-sided berth, meant that Rooney had trouble influencing the game as much as he would have liked. He was hardly helped by individual errors, losing the ball to the opposition as a result of his own mistake on four separate occasions as well as being dispossessed once. He still put in a decent performance, taking three shots and winning two dribbles, but wasn’t at his indomitable best.
Scholes, Valencia and Blackburn narrowness
By contrast, two other United players had superb games. Firstly, Paul Scholes put in a masterful performance. His stats for the game are scarcely-believable: 97% passing accuracy from 78 passes attempted, two key passes, 24 accurate long balls from 26 attempted and 80 touches taken. This means that he completed all of his passes apart from two, both of which were long passes, and all but two of his attempted passes were one-touch. It was with a display like this that Scholes controlled the midfield, consistently spreading the ball to widen play and also keeping it short to retain possession.
Antonio Valencia also had an excellent game, taking full advantage of the constant supply from his midfield to construct attacks down the right and run at the two Olssons. He was a constant threat throughout the match, attempting 21 crosses and putting in four key passes, two more than anyone else on the pitch. He also contributed defensively, winning four tackles. Blackburn left back Martin Olsson could only manage one tackle on Valencia in the entire match, and looked uncomfortable with having to play such a defensive game.
This was actually quite pivotal to the match, as Blackburn’s 4-4-1-1 at times ended up looking like a 4-2-2-2. Yakubu and Hoilett played very close together and looked to work combinations, and the two wingers often came inside to try and combine with their strikers. The right-footed Morten Gamst Pedersen, in particular, came inside onto his stronger foot, whereas Marcus Olsson on the left moved inside in order to escape the constant attention of the watchful Valencia as well as United right-back Rafael, who made six tackles and had an excellent game. With the Olssons tied up and Bradley Orr not particularly inclined to get forward (and tracked by the hard work of Rooney), Blackburn’s play was often very narrow and predictable; 73% of their shots came from central positions. United, by contrast, attacked from all areas of the pitch, though much of their play came down the right flank, where they held an obvious supremacy.
Substitutes change game
With United on top but struggling to break down Blackburn, Ferguson made two changes to change up United’s style of play. Firstly, Danny Welbeck replaced Hernandez in a straight swap, and Ryan Giggs came on for Phil Jones. United then switched to their regular 4-2-3-1 shape, with Rooney playing off Welbeck and Giggs on the left. This did one major thing, bringing back the Rooney-Welbeck axis that works so well for United and allowing United to try another style of attacking Blackburn. With Welbeck’s intelligent movement, United could try and exploit the space in front of Blackburn’s deep defence by overloading it. United immediately looked better and more at home in their regular style, and when Ashley Young arrived for the tiring Scholes they went ahead almost immediately. Ryan Giggs had shifted back to the centre and Young slotted in on the left, with the England winger playing higher up than Rooney did. He looked to drift into the space that Welbeck and Rooney were creating, whilst Valencia stretched the United play on the right. This newfound variety and subtlety was evidenced by United’s second goal: they strung together 37 passes before Welbeck dropped deep, pulling a Blackburn defender with him. This left space for Young to exploit, and Valencia found him to allow him to finish from the edge of the box.
Blackburn weren’t bad – indeed, their deep defending and combination play on the counter meant they were in with a shout until United’s second went in – but there was a certain inevitability to the victory once United switched their shape. United played well as a team, and certain players – Scholes, Valencia and Rafael – had brilliant games. Special mention in a non-tactical sense must go to David De Gea: one fumbled Gamst Pedersen freekick aside, he was a colossus in goal, a far cry from the nervous and error-strewn keeper of a few months ago. Whilst Blackburn’s play was predictable and narrow, United’s changed completely once Ferguson changed the style of attack. It is, therefore, all the more confusing as to why Steve Kean didn’t even use one sub during the game. Perhaps he was happy with his team, which were denying the league leaders, but Jason Lowe and Morten Gamst Pedersen both had bad games, and with a bench containing game-changers like David Dunn, Mauro Formica and Ruben Rochina, it is fair to debate to wisdom of Kean’s decision. Still, United take another step towards a 20th league title, and Blackburn can take some pride from a game they had mostly written off as a loss beforehand.