It was a very straightforward match at the Madejski Stadium. It was also one of the most exciting matches of the season thus far, if not the most.
Both teams looked set to score at any point during the match. After the full 90 minutes there were 18 scoring chances created between the teams. Manchester United slumped at the back and conceded three goals after finally getting a clean-sheet against West Ham last weekend.
Reading for their part looked deadly on set pieces, and worked hard throughout the match to put Sir Alex Ferguson’s side under pressure.
Possession was split at roughly 42% to 58% favoring Manchester United.
Reading’s direct style led to many long balls into the box. Their 34 crosses and long balls forward forced United into making 41 defensive clearances over the course of the match.
United’s style was for more clinical. They had 87% pass completion across the pitch, and 75% completion in the final third. In open play, they created twice the chances of Reading with 8.
Player Influence and Positioning
Reading lined up in a standard 4-4-2 system. Jason Roberts partnered Adam La Fondre up top. The two formed a classic target man/goal poacher combination. The towering Roberts partnered the small and speedy La Fondre.
In attack, Reading focused their passing down the flanks. Hal Robson-Kanu and Jobi AcAnuff looked to whip in crosses to Roberts for knockdowns to La Fondre.
Manchester United used a 4-3-3 formation. Carrack and Fletch mainly operated in the midfield third, acting as pivot points for attack. Both had over 100 touches Anderson stayed slightly advanced, looking to provide an extra attacking threat or act as a link in final third to Robin van Persie. Fletcher and Carrick dominated the midfield as usually occurs in United’s ties.
However, Fletcher remained highly susceptible to pressure throughout the match. He had more unsuccessful touches than any other United player, and lost possession a total of 18 times. This was in part due to Tabb’s midfield defensive presence. Tabb ended the match winning all of the 4 tackles he attempted and 5 interceptions, the most for any midfield player.
Manchester United: Goals
United’s goals all resulted from intricate passing. There were few long passes in the buildup of their attacks. Most moves relied on short, quick passing that built from the defensive third. With the exception of Wayne Rooney’s penalty goal, every goal resulted from more than 8 passes.
Robin van Persie enjoyed a significant amount of space up top. While he ended with only one goal, he missed one open goal chance, and had another incorrectly ruled out by the officials.
Reading’s Adrian Mariappa and Sean Morrison were clearly over stretched when their fullbacks pushed up the field. The space allowed Rooney and Ashley Young to created chances for themselves or van Persie in the center of the attacking third.
The first goal was a simple case of an over taxed defense. Young’s through ball to Anderson took Cummings out of the equation. Anderson had enough space to calmly measure up a powerful shot to the near post. Morrison, perhaps reluctant to leave his central marking position, was far too late to pressure the first touch.
The other two open play goals all mirrored this same situation. Reading’s two centrebacks were simply overran by United’s superior numbers in attack. There was almost always a man open to pass to and space to run into in Reading’s defensive third.
United’s Weak Width
Manchester United’s Achilles heel in open play was undoubtedly their weak defense along the flanks.
Rafeal da Silva had difficult containing McAnuff in the first half, giving away too many fouls and earning an early yellow card in the 28th minute. Ferguson was keenly aware of this issue. The Brazalian was substituted in the 31st minute after committing 3 fouls. Despite his limited time on the pitch, this was still the greatest foul tally of any United player.
The first goal of this match directly mirrored goals scored against United by Norwich and Aston Villa. All three of these goals came down United’s right flank before being crossed into the box.
Reading had a low completion rate for crosses, but managed to find the space to place in 34 of them. Regardless of their quality, crosses will inevitably find dangerous space if an amount such as this are allowed to be played into the penalty area. United will need to focus on cutting down on crossing opportunities if they wish to protect their goalkeeper better.
Reading’s Set Pieces
The Red Devils were shockingly poor at defending set pieces during the match. Reading’s two last goals both came from corners. In total, Reading created 8 chances from set plays.
Lindegaard seemed incapable of claiming balls in the air. During corners, the Dane was too easily dominated by Roberts marking up on him. There seemed to be a clear lack of communication between the centrebacks and Lindegaard, and it only through a fortuitously placed hand that Reading didn’t score an extra goal.
Shorey’s delivery was laudable. The fullback completed 4 out of his 5 set piece delivery, creating. Each of these were considered scoring chances, and 2 of them did end up finding the back of the net.
It was a thrilling game, but hardly a complicated one; both teams simply failed to contain the other’s attacking style.
Reading were stretched by United’s quick and crisp close passing. Conversely, United were undone by Shorey’s delivery and Reading’s overall physical presence during set pieces.
Manchester City will surely be looking for three points next weekend against a United defense that looks quite porous. Roberto Mancini is usually reluctant to employ anything but a narrow system, but United’s inability to defend wide attacks could easily be exploited.