Alex Ferguson made a host of changes to the side that beat Newcastle United 4-3 on Wednesday. Danny Welbeck led the attack with Shinji Kagawa, back from a knee injury, playing in the hole. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia provided width while Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley marshaled the midfield of United's 4-2-3-1.
West Brom made some changes as well. Shane Long stepped in as the main striker as Romelu Lukaku was rotated to the bench. Markus Rosenberg would play in the central attacking midfield role with Peter Odemwingie and Graham Dorrans on the wings.
Both teams had very similar shapes, but they would take turn dominating one another on the different sides of the break.
The home side started the game brighter. They controlled the ball well and pressed quickly when they lost possession. Carrick and Cleverley dictated the midfield with very little pressure from the West Brom. However, it's pretty clear from the passing chart above that United built their attack mainly down the flanks. With help from their overlapping fullbacks, Young and Valencia were lively on the wings: they found space to run into, time to cross and were able to connect Kagawa who moved across the attacking third.
Therefore, it was not surprising that the two best chances United had in the first half involved Young, Kagawa and Valencia. First was the goal. Young and Kagawa played a neat little one-two on the left side which got the English man through the West Brom defense. Young's cross was deflected into his own net from Gareth MaAuley. Next, Kagawa lobbed a pass down the right for Valencia to chase. Young would unleash a powerful shot after Valencia had crossed, but Ben Foster did well to tip it onto the crossbar.
Three key points from the first half: (1) West Brom sitting back and allowing United to dominate (e.g. very little tackles, interceptions and fouls); (2) United's attack down the flanks; (3) Kagawa's link up play with his wide players.
Steve Clark's side improved after the break, not as a result of any obvious tactical tweaks but because his team played a better passing game and pressed harder off the ball. West Brom completed about twice as many attacking third passes in the second half than they did in the first and forced United to defend deep. During this dominant period, the away side were able to create a flurry of shooting chances but very few (in fact only one shot on target from eleven attempts in the second half) tested United keeper David de Gea. This was mostly down to the solid defensive shield that Johnny Evans and Nemenja Vidic provided.
Eight of the eleven shots by West Brom in the second half were blocked and Vidic and Evans were responsible for five of those blocks. Nemenja Vidic in particular was outstanding. The defender finished this game as the top tackler (3), top interceptor (4), and top blocker (3). He also made the most clearances (19) and won the most aerial duels (7). The Serbian's excellent performance played a big role in securing his team's only 4th Premier League clean sheet of the season.
Despite being rotated to the bench, Robin van Persie still made a positive difference when he came on for Kagawa at the 66th minute. Yes, he would go on to score the second goal to wrap up the victory, but more than that, the Dutch man allowed United to play a good counter-attacking game.
With his team pinned back by West Brom attack, van Persie's movement, passing and dribbles facilitated the transition from defense to attack. Pressed hard by defenders? He held them off and made the right pass to the wings. Outnumbered by opposition? He dribbled past them and made a through ball. What he did made an impact on both ends: (a) took pressure off his defense and (b) threatened the opposition's goal. And of course being who he is, the striker went on to score a delightful goal, cutting onto his favorite left foot from the right and curling the shot into the far post. That goal took van Persie's league goal telly in 2012 to 27 goals (14 for Arsenal and 13 for United).
Three key points from the second half: (1) West Brom's improvement; (2) United's staunch defense; (3) van Persie making a positive contribution off the bench.