Last season, Swansea proved to be a startlingly brisk team struggling to transcend the crowded middle of the Premier League table. Led by the sure feet of Wilfried Bony and Michu, the Swans consistently proved to be anything but the pushovers one expected they might have been. Manchester United, on the other hand, was the exact opposite. The defending champions were not only terrible (by their standards, of course) but were terrible in completely uninteresting ways. They played staid, bloated and lackadaisical football that would surely never have flown under Sir Alex Ferguson.
This is a new season though, and Michu is in Italy and Louis Van Gaal is in Manchester, so the expectation coming in to this game was that both sides would be playing differently than the last time we saw them. So much for that. The Red Devils played like a team unsure of what their identity is and Swansea played with all the self-assuredness of eleven Zlatan Ibrahimovics, and here we are looking at Swansea at the top of the table and Manchester at the bottom.
There will be much discussion of how this happened, and we will undoubtedly hear about how Manchester United was “nervous” or “timid” or “haunted by the specter of last season.” While these the things are true, the simple truth remains: This game was won by the feet of Swansea, not lost by the brains of Manchester. Swansea played an aggressive match that saw them constantly pressing into United’s third and exposing their defensive weaknesses, and in the end they were simply too much for a thin Manchester side.
The most important tactical realization from the match is the presence of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who proved a more than formidable replacement for the on-loan Michu. Sigurdsson, paired with Bony, consistently played balls over the top, and in turn put Manchester United on their heels. Twenty seven minutes in, this strategy paid off, as Swansea shattered the right side of the Manchester defense and Ki Sung-Yueng easily put home Swansea’s first goal.
The Red Devils responded well though mainly via their incredibly adept passing attack. They completed almost two thirds more passes than Swansea and tripled the Swans’ number passes in the attacking third. It was a brilliantly simple plan of attack by the shrewd Van Gaal: Keep the ball moving in the midfield, away from crashing Swans, and use chaos in the attacking third to open up shots for the side’s best assets, newly-minted captain Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata. It was, of course, Rooney who would ultimately take advantage of a lovely corner and draw his team equal just seven minutes into the second half.
While the score may have been even, the match never felt that way; it seemed as if Manchester United was always seconds from toppling over, and that is exactly what happened at the 70-minute mark. Van Gaal’s best decision of the day was to play the second half with a back four; it allowed them to simultaneously protect the net from several dangerous Swansea attacks and it negated their weaknesses in midfield. The back four’s strength also allowed Rooney and Mata to plunder and pillage up front. Matches are won and lost in the midfield, however, and this is where Swansea was most dominant. They used strength, skill and a fair amount of cynicism to build plays in the midfield that would result in severe attacks on the wing. They used that exact blueprint as Sigurdsson scored a glorious goal and sent Van Gaal to the locker room a loser in his first match.