Ahead of this seasons opening match, away to WBA, Manchester United will no doubt be reminded that despite a vast difference in pedigree the upstart Baggies proved a thorn in the side. In the Premier League last season West Bromwich Albion cause The Reds as many problems as any other team, earning a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford and narrowly losing the corresponding fixture at The Hawthorns 1-2 where only a Peter Odemwingie missed penalty saved United’s blushes and earned the vital 2 points. This match was also the final bow for former Captain Gary Neville, with his retirement to follow just weeks later.
Manchester United supporters will need little prompting to recall the 2-2 home draw, with Patrice Evra scoring an own goal, and an Edwin van der Sar gaff gifting the point to the visitors. Chicharito and Nani had put the home side ahead 2-0 going into the second half before United’s second half collapse. A little bit of prompting from Sir Alex is perhaps in order for Wayne Rooney. A carefully placed barb reminding the English hitman that he was left on the substitutes bench to start the first WBA match, or an attaboy to remind him that he broke his 9 month league duck with a goal in the New Years Day game could be the proper motivation. United will be without Javier Hernandez as the Mexican player is still in recovery following his training gound concussion suffered while on tour in America. Chicharito scored in both matches against The Baggies last term, while Rooney and Nani bagged the other two. United are riding high following the spectacular second half comeback against City in the Community Shield and will want to ride that emotional high into the weekend.
The keys to this game will likely be the goalkeepers. Both Ben Foster, in on loan from Birmingham City, and the newly arrived David de Gea will be of vital importance as these two fixtures last season saw a combined 56 shots. The home side took the initiative in either match, United taking 20 shots to WBA’s 9 at Old Trafford and WBA taking 21 shots to United’s 6 at The Hawthorns. Interestingly, Opta Sports Data shows that, despite the shots, there were only 2 recorded saves. Both saves were recorded by Scott Carson in the 1-2 Baggies loss.
Following the long range effort in the Community Shield, OptaJose tweeted this little fact. It is of particular relevance here as West Brom was quick to take long range shots in their meetings with Manchester United last season. Interestingly, Edwin van der Sar did not get the New Years Day match, rather Tomasz Kuszczak played. In the corresponding fixture last season (the match played 1/1/11), WBA took 21 shots. Of those, 15 shots were taken from outside the box. Fortunately for United, accuracy was a bit of a problem, and quality defending was also on display as 5 shots were blocked and another 7 were off target. However, the lone goal the hosts scored came on a shot from outside the box, from WBA midfielder James Morrison. In fact, WBA took a huge percentage of their total shots on the season from outside the box. A full 284 shots were taken outside the box, of their total 597 shots in the EPL (or 47.5% of all their shots came from outside the box). This was, perhaps, mostly a wasted endeavor as just 6 of their 56 goals resulted from these shots. From the Guardian.co.uk:
On the other side of the pitch Manchester will be dealing with Ben Foster. The Birmingham City man is spending the year on loan and will be between the sticks for WBA on opening day. While Scott Carson performed decently in the two matches v. Manchester United, United were ultimately able to score enough to earn a win and a draw. The Reds earned 4 points in their two matches against Foster’s parent club as well, though in drastically different form, pounding 5 past Foster in the fixture at Old Trafford, while being held to a single goal on the travels to St. Andrew’s. Foster did even post 3 saves in the 5-0 drubbing and WBA will be hopeful that his play at the back keeps them in the match long enough to earn at least a point.
The two areas where United will be looking to exert their influence will be in possession and final third entries. From the two matches last season it is clear that United was sitting back a bit, relying on their superior passing and reliance on their defensive ability, allowing WBA into the final third frequently. It will be important for United to take a “home” mentality into this match at The Hawthorns.
While United did manage to earn the win away, while taking a certain win at home and muddling it into a draw, their approach to each match was markedly different in what they allowed West Bromwich. West Brom had more pass attempts, better passing accuracy, more final third entries and twice as many chances created when playing at The Hawthorns. United needs to assert midfield control, shutting down WBA before they are able to get their attack into position.
Last season’s match at The Hawthorn’s saw United make only 7 interceptions in West Brom’s half of the field, and they won only 7 of 13 challenges in that half. From the above chalkboards it is evident that United allowed WBA entrance into their half of the field before making challenges. This resulted in 93 final third entries and 13 chances created. United was, in fact, fortunate that West Brom only a single goal from those 13 chances. That is a 1/13 ratio. On the season West Brom scored 53 goals (and benefited from 3 own goals) on 447 chances created – a ratio of 1/8.4. Those 13 chances should have resulted in another Baggies goal, another draw for United and another 2 points dropped. With a difficult opening road to navigate at The Red Devil’s defend their 19th Title (and chance down #20), a slip up on opening day would be an unfortunate bump and one that can be avoided by simply approaching this match as a home fixture.