The FA Cup Final: Tactical Analysis
Somewhere before we were hit with the craziness of LvG becoming the former manager of Manchester United, he and his boys won us the first trophy of the post-Ferguson era!They did it by largely doing nothing new on their end, besides some swift interplay that saw two shots hit the woodwork and a near-classic United comeback. Let’s dive in:
United set up in a 4-1-4-1, David De Gea between the sticks, Antonio Valencia bombing down the right hand side from the fullback position, the Chris Smalling and Daley Blind duo in central defense, and Marcos Rojo providing his athleticism on the left hand side of the defensive four. In the midfield, Michael Carrick offered his calming presence in front of the defense while Wayne Rooney wandered all over the park and Marouane Fellaini marauded around the final third. Juan Mata played in an inverted forward position on the right hand side, and Anthony Martial cut in from the left, with the ever dangerous Marcus Rashford linking up play and stretching the defense as the lone striker.
United’s shape morphs to fit the stage of play they’re in, sometimes into more of a 4-2-3-1 when in a particularly defensive period and stretching out to resemble more of a 4-3-3, or, considering how far up the pitch Rojo and Valencia wandered, a 2-3-5. Why does that matter? First, it allows United to get players into better positions to defend and attack, stretching Palace’s defensive lines while keeping ours intact. Second, it’s confuses the opponent until they figure out what role(s) each player is playing. Is Rooney going to make one of his ‘Hollywood’ crossfield passes to a roaming Valencia or is he going to try and get around me? Where the hell is Juan Mata? Is Martial going to burn me or play Rojo in behind? These are the kind of questions defenses haven’t been forced to ask enough this season, but Palace were certainly asking them during this game. Let’s see how they setup to handle this.
Crystal Palace set up in a very, very defensive 4-2-3-1, with forwards Yannick Bolasie, Connor Wickham, and Wilfried Zaha essentially the only players who got forward in the first half, with Yohan Cabaye and James MacArthur occasionally ditching their defensive duties to get forward from midfield. Mile Jedinak was almost singlehandedly tasked with marking Fellaini as he made runs in the final third, and Joel Ward and Pape Souare pinned into position for the majority of the game by United’s attack on their flanks. Scott Dan and Damien Delaney defended well into Palace’s own box in front of Wayne Hennessy. Palace’s game plan was simple and obvious, - defend with 9 or 10 players and play on the counter attack. If the counter attack doesn’t go off, try to get a set piece to score from with their size and height. They wanted to press Carrick with Cabaye and Blind with MacArthur and Wickham, but they never ended up getting any joy from that.
The point of playing this wonderful game is goals, and Palace struck first through substitute Puncheon’s super effort. Crystal Palace had already threatened off of set pieces, with Bolasie’s flicked header swatted away by David De Gea in the 17th minute. In fact, their first real extended spell of possession was after Zaha nicked the ball off of Martial and Martial fouled Zaha trying to re-win possession in the 26th. This allowed Palace to move out of their defensive shell and led to two shots at goal and somewhat turned the tide back even after United started brightly. Puncheon’s sub in the 72nd minute proved a good move, as he followed up on a set piece and blasted a shot into De Gea’s near post. Martial kept the Crystal Palace players onside as the rest of the team pushed out, leaving Puncheon free to attack the six-yard box unopposed. This disorganized set piece defense is what they had been waiting on, and finally had someone with the quality to capitalize on a United mistake. They also saw some joy when their counter attack led to Smalling’s sending off through his take down of Bolasie. Fortunately it galvanized Manchester United and Crystal Palace was too tired from defending for the better part of 110 minutes to break through their defense again.
A strong feature of United’s play was the interchanging of players, particularly Rooney, Carrick, Blind. Rooney was left mostly unmarked in the midfield while MacArthur tracked Carrick and the rest of Crystal Palace sat in their defensive shell. This allowed Rooney, at one time or another, to roam forward, all over the midfield, but also Rooney did some great defensive work, showing up to snuff out danger in the box and even down our own defensive week. He was a midfield warrior on Saturday. Carrick slotted into the defense nicely allowing Blind and Smalling to take the space in front of them when the opportunity arose. But it was Rooney’s freedom to roam that led to his winding run forward from the midfield and eventually the chip over the Fellaini who knocked it down for Mata to equalize through Joel Ward’s legs.
The decisive goal was a scrappy chance that was well finished by Jesse Lingard, but came as a result of all the work the Rojo and especially Valencia had been doing the entire game. Valencia bombing down the right let Mata have positional freedom for the first, but the second he created all his own. Breaking through Bolasie and firing a cross into a dangerous area created the half chance that Lingard buried. Sometimes tactics can only get you so far and then all you need is a little luck. Jesse had just enough to get a rebound at just the right moment.
THE FA CUP IS OURS!!!