Louis Van Gaal's reign in charge at Old Trafford got off to a poor start as Manchester United were beaten 2-1 by an organized Swansea side.
Van Gaal was without Michael Carrick, Luke Shaw, Johnny Evans, Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck through injury while Robin Van Persie was not yet fit. Van Gaal was therefore forced to field a bit of a makeshift side in the 3-4-1-2 formation he favored with Holland at the World Cup and with United in preseason. Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard were given their United debuts at left center back and right wing back respectively. Lingard however was forced off early with an injury and replaced by Adnan Januzaj. Javier Hernandez started alongside Wayne Rooney at forward with Juan Mata just behind in the #10 role. Ander Herrera and Darren Fletcher played deeper in midfield.
Gary Monk opted for a 4-2-3-1. Wilfried Bony was given the nod up front ahead of new signing Bafetimbi Gomis after his excellent second half of last season. Jonjo Shelvey and Ki Sung-Yueng anchored the midfield. Wayne Routledge, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Nathan Dyer took up the attacking midfield positions. Angel Rangel, Jordi Amat, Ashley Williams and Niel Taylor made up the back four.
United attack down right
Swansea defended with Shelvey and Ki sitting deep in front of the back four. When United's back three had the ball, Swansea's ball side wide midfielder would step forward to apply pressure along with Sigurdsson and Bony while the opposite side wide midfielder tucked back into a narrow position alongside Ki and Shelvey to form a narrow bank of three. Swansea's fullbacks moved into very wide positions to pick up United's wing backs. This tactical feature should have provided a bigger advantage for United than it did. With Taylor moving all the way towards the touch line to pick up Januzaj, a large gap was left between Taylor and Williams in Swansea's defense. With United playing two center forwards, Williams and Amat both had direct opponents to mark and therefore Swansea didn't have a spare center back to pick up midfield runners. Any runs United midfielders made into that gap of space would have forced Williams to leave Rooney in order to pick up the runner (Figures 1 and 2). However, Herrera and Fletcher kept deeper positions and Mata didn't make those penetrating runs into the corner of the penalty area. United attacked continuously down the right, and Januzaj looked a genuine threat running past Taylor, but LVG's side couldn't take advantage of the space between Taylor and Williams that was there to be exploited.
Manchester United man marked in the middle of midfield. Mata picked up one of the Swansea holding midfielders, Herrera stepped out to get tight to the other and Fletcher sat in the hole on Sigurdsson. United are without wide midfielders in their 3-5-2 shape and therefore Swansea's fullbacks didn't have a direct opponent in possession. For Swansea's opener Fletcher was pushed into a position wide on the left of United's defense to pressure Rangel on the ball. Rangel looped a ball in behind left wing back Ashley Young into Dyer. This forced Blackett to shift wide to the right channel to close down Dyer. With Fletcher high up the pitch after picking up Rangel, Sigurdsson was unmarked in the middle of the pitch. He was spotted by Dyer. Herrera and Mata did a poor job tracking the Swansea midfield runners- they were up near midfield when Ki burst forward, collected a pass from Sigurdsson and slotted home to give Swansea the lead.
United lack ball playing center back
One of the keys to playing three at the back is having one of those central defenders possess the vision to step out of the back and play forward passes into midfield. Smalling, Jones and Blackett did not show that vision. They were unable to channel passes into Fletcher and Herrera in midfield and simply passed sideways to one another at the back. United's top three passing combinations in the first half involved the three center backs. Their top seven pass combinations involved either passes between the three center backs, a center back and a wing back or de Gea and a center back. United need to sign a center back with more vision if they wish to continue playing three at the back. Ideally that player would be Mats Hummels who offers excellent composure on the ball and good passing vision.
United switch to 4-2-3-1
Van Gaal switched formations at halftime bringing on Nani to replace the woefully ineffective Hernandez. Nani played wide on the left, Young slipped back to left back, Jones slid over to a traditional right back role and Januzaj played a more advanced right midfield position. The change in shape prompted United's most dangerous attacking spell of the contest and resulted in more attacks through the middle of the pitch, as opposed to attacking mostly wide on the right in the first half. Although it seems counterintuitive, the main reason for the increased pressure through the middle was the change to playing with two wide players on each side of the pitch- a wide midfielder and fullback- rather than just one as they had with the 3-4-1-2 shape- the wing back. The reason being that with Jones and Young providing width from the full back position, Nani and Januzaj were able to tuck inside giving United more passing options in central areas. Now, rather than having only Juan Mata working the space between Swansea's defensive and midfield lines, they had Nani and Januzaj who could also move into those dangerous areas. With Nani and Januzaj tucking in at times, Swansea's fullbacks had to take up narrower positions closer to their center backs. This meant that when United did get the ball into wide areas there was more space. Januzaj continued to cause trouble when he tucked out into the channels and won the corner that ultimately resulted in Rooney's equalizer. The graphic below shows United's more varied and central attacking in the second half compared to their reliance on attacking the right channel in the first half.
Swansea go ahead
Bony was isolated up front for Swansea for much of the game but did well to hold the ball up and earn the foul that led to his side's winner. United were guilty of switching off immediately after the whistle was blown and Bony was alert enough to release Sigurdsson towards the left. He played the ball down the left channel for freshly introduced Jefferson Montero. Montero's lofted pass to the back post was mishit by Routledge but fell kindly for Sigurdsson to smash home.
The bulk of this post has focused on Manchester United's performance however Gary Monk and Swansea deserve plenty of credit for their excellent organization. United never really threatened from open play and the Swans' organization was particularly admirable after retaking the lead. It's a dream start for Monk after some questioned whether he was too inexperienced to be up for the task of managing in the Premier League. This was certainly a performance Swansea can build on.
Van Gaal will need to strengthen his squad. Injuries didn't help today but at present this isn't a side with enough depth or quality to contest for the title or even a top four position.