Sunday's early kick off sees top of the table Manchester United travel to Swansea for the pick of the weekend’s games. United go into this fixture as favourites (1.68) having won their last five games on the spin, including that impressive victory over rivals Manchester City a fortnight ago. Meanwhile, Swansea have lost their last two games, but prior to that had not lost in six, have relatively long odds at 5.00, with the draw at 3.75.
The big team news for United is that captain Nemanja Vidic should return to the starting line-up, having appeared as a sub against Sunderland last weekend. The return of their leader will be a huge boost for United, who have been leaking goals this season, only keeping three clean sheets in the Premier League.
The Serb's return couldn't be more timely given that the Red Devils face a busy Christmas period and that Swansea’s Michu is in such fine goal scoring form. Michael Carrick is a doubt with a hamstring problem, which means Paul Scholes could slot in comfortably to play alongside Tom Cleverley at the base of United's midfield.
For Swansea, Tremmel will continue to deputise for the injured Vorm in goal. Boss Laudrup should opt for Michu as the lone striker, with Danny Graham on the bench. Against a tough United sidem, the Danish tactician will probably prefer the three more controlling midfielders in Britton, De Guzman and Ki. Allowing Michu to hold the ball up and operate as a lone striker, something the Spaniard has been proven more than capable of.
United have been less dominant in the midfield in recent seasons, mainly due to the fact they no longer possess a regular ball-winning midfielder. Swansea, on the other hand, tend to defend via possession; keeping control of the ball in tight areas, knocking it about between the midfielders and the centre-backs to control the game, rather than jumping into crunching tackles.
On Sunday this approach will be difficult to uphold, but given United's weaknesses here they could have a bit of joy, which will likely prompt Laudrup to put Michu up front and go for Ki Sung-Yeung, De Guzman and Britton in centre midfield, who average 60 passes per game each this season, compared to Michu who averages 39 passes and is less technical in the middle third.
That being said, United have their own pass masters in Scholes, Cleverley and Rooney. It might even suit the visitors to deploy a mentality more concerned with keeping the ball than winning it. Swansea's three centre midfielders seldom chase down opponents - barely completing more than a tackle and one interception per game, quite low for centre midfielders.
As we can see from his heat map below, Wayne Rooney's role could thus be essential to United's dominance on Sunday. He will likely drop off Robin van Persie to make it a midfield three at times, linking the play and creating transitions between defence and attack:
Rooney drops into his own half to collect the ball and link the play, something that he could do quite freely if he is not pressed sufficiently by Swansea's three central midfielders. Resultantly we could also see Michu dropping back behind the ball when Swansea are not in possession to make up numbers and help quell United’s possession tactics.
Rooney has been in fantastic form of late, scoring five goals in his last three league games, compared to just two in his previous 10 league appearances. Rooney will occupy almost exactly the same areas as Swansea's deepest midfielder, whose heat-map from the Spurs game is below:
Rooney will not only attack this area but also sit on Britton to prevent him from passing it out from the back, which in turn could force Swansea to adopt a more direct approach and disrupt their passing rhythm.
Battle out wide
The wide areas will certainly be ones to watch on Sunday as both teams tend to attack with width and pace. Dyer and Routledge do this in high areas for Swansea, while Young and Valencia provide the width from slightly deeper for United. With both teams opting for a possession style of play it is essential for these players to provide wide outlets.
This is done by both sets of full-backs as well as the wingers. United flirted with a diamond in midfield but lately have reverted to width with Valencia and Young regaining their places in the team, after impressive showings against City a fortnight ago.
Swansea could be particularly vulnerable defensively in these wide areas. Manchester United put in the fourth highest number of crosses per game, 27, than any other side in the league. This means that the home full-backs can expect to be directly attacked by Young and Valencia and will also mean that Swansea’s centre-backs will have to be alert to oncoming runners in the form of RVP and Rooney, who will be breaking into the box to meet such deliveries.
Swansea, too, may feel they can get at United in these areas, especially if Young and Valencia don’t track back readily. Swansea’s full-backs will attack aggressively, often moving wide to act as outlets for possession. That being said, they’ll have to move forward cautiously seeing as they are facing a direct wide threat that can be lethal in transition. Below are the average positions of Swansea from their last home game versus Norwich.
As you can see, the full backs (no.33) and (no.22) are both in the opposition half. Against United they won’t be able to maraud forward so easily and might have to check their runs as a result of the threat in behind. Any foray forward and United’s centre-midfielders will look to hit balls in behind to exploit, as they did so well against City, particularly for Rooney’s first goal.
Swansea's Liberty Stadium is by no means an easy place to go, and Micahel Laudrup's fresh side will certainly not roll over this Sunday. Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have all found this out already, while Man City grinded their way to a 1-0 win over the Swans at the Etihad.
That being said, United are purring at the moment and the imminent return of Vidic will likely solidify what has been a leaky back four of late. Vidic should also be more than prepared for what could inevitably be an interesting battle between him and the Swans' in-form forward Michu, who is a physical and astute cutsomer.
Swansea’s ability to play out from the back and get balls into Michu will be their main area of strength, but I expect United will jus shade it, turning the ball over quickly in transition, moving the ball wide at speed, stretching the game and relying on the devastating finishing of Messrs Van Persie and Rooney.
Amit Singh is editor of Thinkfootball.co.uk