Robin van Persie’s hat-trick was enough to seal all three points, but United’s central midfield made the job tougher than it was.
Southampton, in the end, were very unfortunate to leave the match empty-handed. Despite giving their all, they found themselves in the same situation they were in on the season’s opening day versus Manchester City, where they got nothing to show for their efforts despite leading the league champions at one point.
On this day, the Saints were disciplined in defense, using their 5-man midfield in the 4-1-4-1 formation they employed to stifle the space in and around their penalty area. Fortunately, Manchester United had some natural width to help change the dimension of their attack — something they lacked at Everton when in a somewhat similar situation — in Antonio Valencia, who incidentally provided the cross for van Persie’s equalising goal in the 23rd minute.
That cross was 1 of 7 attempted by Valencia on the day — the most attempted during that game by any player on the pitch. And interestingly, that was the only cross of his that found its target. Danny Welbeck, meanwhile, deployed on the left wing on the day, spent his time cutting inside — albeit naturally — onto his stronger right foot and getting into central positions either just behind or alongside Robin van Persie. He offered no width at all, not even attempting a cross.
With space through the middle severely limited by Southampton, Valencia proved a crucial outlet on the right wing. Had he not played there, Manchester United would’ve struggled a lot more than they did. That said, it makes one wonder how he would’ve impacted the game away to Everton on opening day had he played on the wing — where Nani was utterly disappointing that day — instead of at full-back.
But even though Southampton sought to shut down United’s attacks, they were eventually split open by one Paul Scholes. Sir Alex Ferguson praised the evergreen playmaker’s decisive impact coming off the bench, acknowledging that United were “well and truly out of the game before he came on.”
Hat-trick hero Robin van Persie was also appreciative of the diminutive Englishman’s influence: “…Everything started to tick when he came on,” he said in an interview with Sky Sports.
Indeed, Scholes made a huge difference when introduced on 61 minutes, but the worry is that Manchester United ‘were well and truly out of the game’ prior to that substitution. Let’s take a close look at the performances of Manchester United’s midfield players in a bid to get to the bottom of the club’s problems in that area.
As was the case in their previous two fixtures, Manchester United dominated possession in this game (55%). However, as is often said, possession doesn’t win games. United needed to be ruthless with their lion’s share of the ball. However, prior to Scholes’ introduction, they weren’t. Far from it.
Before Scholes came on, the tempo of United’s build-up play was slow and movement up front lacked urgency. Combine the latter with the fact that Shinji Kagawa was forced backwards by the Saints’ tight, resilient defence and one can understand why he failed to make a difference on this day. As the heat map below shows, he spent much of his time deep in midfield, even in his own half; he had little room to work with higher up the pitch.
He created 0 goal-scoring opportunities during this game as the stats chart below shows, despite completing 91% of his passes, proving that there is more to pass completion stats than the mere numbers let on. It came as little surprise when his number went up on 61 minutes to be subbed off (for Nani). Off went Tom Cleverley as well (for Scholes) as Ferguson opted for a double substitution and a formation change to a more direct 4-4-2.
But it’s not as though Cleverley had a bad game. He kept possession quite well, completing 94% of his passes. As good as that sounds, though, the problem, as was the case with Kagawa, was that there was no end product — just completed passes. The vast majority of his passes were short, contributing to the lack of directness United suffered from for much of the game. The way Southampton defended, this suited them right down to the ground.
The above table highlights a few things: The majority of Kagawa’s passes were backward, adding further proof to the already mentioned fact that Southampton’s 5-man midfield squeezed him out of the game. With the Saints not letting him play through them, he had to go backwards in order to help United retain possession. He could do nothing else on this day, apart from have two efforts at goal, one of which was on target.
As for Cleverley, the fact that the majority of his passes were made to his right while the majority of Carrick’s were made to the left indicates that both exchanged many passes, contributing to United’s dominance in possession. Carrick, who sat deeper than Cleverley at the base of central midfield, had the most of the ball for United. And, as the second and third stats charts show, he too was neat in possession.
Carrick did his job by keeping things tight and ticking in midfield — in his own half, in the attacking half, and in the final third, as the chart just above shows — and, typically, he even looked for the odd long ball over the top in hope of releasing his more advanced team-mates. He needed his partner Cleverley to do his bit to be more incisive, though.
And that’s the difference between Tom Cleverley and the man who replaced him, Paul Scholes — their general decision-making on the ball, which affects their incisiveness and influence on games.
Scholes knows when to keep things simple and when to be direct, when to slow the game’s tempo and when to speed it up. Looking at the second stats chart, Scholes, like Cleverley, exchanged a high percentage of passes with Carrick, indicating that he too helped United retain possession. But, unlike Cleverley, that wasn’t all he did, as the third stats chart shows.
His passing entering the attacking half dipped in accuracy, not merely because he was sloppy, but because he took risks in order to unlock Southampton’s tight defence. Further evidence of this is the fact that he attempted more passes in the final third than Cleverley, despite playing around 30 minutes less than the youngster. In fact, Scholes’ thirst to produce perfect final balls led to the creation of 3 goal-scoring opportunities in this game — equal the amount Cleverley has created in the three games he has played thus far this season! Even Scholes’ first touch after being subbed on was a defence-splitting pass that released Robin van Persie up top. The Dutchman certainly appreciated the range of Scholes’ passing.
“Every single pass he hit was the right one. Everyone felt that – I certainly did. He hit a couple of unbelievable passes over thirty or forty metres. With him you are always on your toes because anything can happen with his quality. For me, he was man of the match,” he gushed in his post-game interview with Sky Sports.
After hearing that from van Persie, one would get the impression that he has played with Scholes for years; but the Dutchman only joined the club just this summer. Yet, already he enjoys playing with Scholes because he knows he will always get good service up top. It’s interesting how a player can not only positively affect things tactically, but also mentally as far as his team-mates are concerned. People not only respect Scholes as a person, but they respect the influence he has on games simply because he makes a huge difference.
It’s still early days, but Cleverley is yet to command that level of respect. On this day, unlike Scholes, he played things much too safely. Such short passing didn’t give the likes of Welbeck and van Persie encouragement to find space. Rather, it contributed to United’s slow tempo and lack of penetration. It also made Kagawa’s inability to influence the game more pronounced as, before Scholes came on, no one stepped up to cover for him.
But this isn’t something new about Cleverley; this is the player’s general style of passing. Not only that, but he likes getting into advanced positions and playing one-two’s as well. These are the traits of a player who normally plays higher up the pitch — something Cleverley is quite familiar with, incidentally.
As things stand, he either needs time to adjust to this central midfield role and the broad, imaginative passing range it requires or he needs to be moved to a position — preferably advanced — in which he is more comfortable and where he can fully utilise his clever movement and link-up play.
It should be very worrying for all concerned with Manchester United that 37-year-old Paul Scholes, who will retire at the end of the current season, had to come off the bench to spare the club’s blushes. Not for the first time either.
United’s central midfield has been heavily criticised for quite some time, but Ferguson has thus far refused to buy an established player to help improve the quality of that aspect of his squad.
Instead, he has very high hopes for Tom Cleverley. He believes that in Cleverley, he has a long-term replacement for Paul Scholes. This is evidenced by the fact that he was prepared to let the likes of Joao Moutinho, Nuri Sahin, Milan Badelj, etc. transfer to other clubs this summer without interference. All of these players are central midfielders who do what Paul Scholes does — hit unbelievable passes over thirty or forty metres and keep team-mates on their toes, always motivated to get into space in eager anticipation of a well-weighted, searching ball.
Thus far, his appearances last season considered, Cleverley doesn’t seem to be that type of player. He will be given time, of course, but if he doesn’t adjust to this role and soon and if no one else at the club steps up to command the role, then Manchester United’s central midfield problems are sure to continue — not just in the league, but in the Champions League as well.
**Stats courtesy of Whoscored
**Stats charts courtesy of EPL Index
**Heat maps courtesy of ESPN FC