As is so often the case, a big European night at Old Trafford delivered. Drawing the reigning European champions was always going to be a difficult task for a United side struggling domestically, but the Reds held their own and put in a performance littered with the kind of passion, hunger and desire that’s been so painfully absent at times this season.
Out-classed in many regards and certainly out-possessed, but the Red Devils maintained a compact and disciplined shape throughout with a tactical plan clearly predicated on stifling the opposition and counter-attacking incisively with pace in transition.
It speaks volumes that despite conceding the majority of possession, the away side were restricted respectably in regards to clear-cut chances and many were disappointed not to walk away with the victory. Had the otherwise excellent Danny Welbeck seized the moment when clean through in the first half, the Reds may well have gone on to secure a famous win.
As it transpired, a superb Nemanja Vidic header after the break was cancelled out by an unstoppable Schweinsteiger finish just 8 minutes later. The German international was later sent off for a second bookable offence following a lunge on Wayne Rooney, but a stalemate ensued leaving the tie finely poised heading to Munich next week.
Bayern remain favourites for progression, but United can take heart from a performance that, if uninspiring to the purists, at least demonstrated that the club not only belongs, but is still capable of performing on the biggest stage. The German side unquestionably played the better football, but United’s own improvement may prove a long and slow process in that regard. Nevertheless, there were positives on show on Tuesday evening, here are five things we learned from the Old Trafford outfit’s draw with Pep Guardiola’s men.
1. A Captain’s Performance
Much was said following Nemanja Vidic’s announcement that he would leave the club for Inter Milan in the summer. For many, with departure inevitable the captaincy should have been moved along to whoever deemed most worthy. There is certainly a further argument that others, particularly those considered to be the future of the club, should be afforded more opportunities ahead of the Serb for the remainder of the campaign.
That said, the uncompromising centre half’s selection against Bayern Munich may well have been enforced by injuries, but any concerns regarding Vidic’s attitude in his final days with the club were surely dampened by his performance. Experience can often prove invaluable in the truly big games and Vidic, along with his excellent partner Rio Ferdinand, seemingly rolled back the years with a strong performance of control and organisation.
In truth, United’s designed tendency to sit deep and compact aided two centre halves who lack the pace they may once have had. But just like John Terry at Chelsea, Vidic illustrated that he still has a lot to offer in the right system, where the emphasis is on reading the game and competing as opposed to a high line with recovery pace essential.
Moreover, on top of a convincing defensive display, United’s captain netted a sublime header which sent Old Trafford into hysteria. Rooney’s excellent delivery from the corner was met by Vidic, who produced a powerful yet deft header past Manuel Neuer. The Germans’ unforgivable marking aside, moving backwards and with the ball slightly behind him, it was a header of the highest quality from the Serb.
With the likes of Smalling and Evans close to a return, Vidic’s continued presence in the side will form an interesting debate. But for all the concerns, there can be no doubt that the club’s captain still has plenty to offer as his career at Old Trafford draws to a close.
2. Buttner the Back-Up?
Alexander Buttner has enjoyed an odd United career to date in many respects. He was bought by Sir Alex Ferguson more as cover at left-back than as a future star and with Patrice Evra usually a mainstay, the Dutchman has found his opportunities limited.
For many, the tattooed full-back is simply not of the required standard for a club like Manchester United, certainly not in a starting role. But with Evra suspended, Buttner was given the unenviable task of marking Arjen Robben on Tuesday night, and before an unfortunate injury, performed admirably on the biggest stage.
It was an assured and tenacious performance from the Dutchman and his usual positional frailties were rarely in evidence. A number of times Buttner sniffed the danger and covered right across United’s penalty area.
The left-back’s performance was even more impressive in light of the fact that with Welbeck clearly having licence to stay high up the field, he was often exposed with little help.
What’s more, it was not an isolated performance. Having been afforded more playing time than perhaps expected in recent weeks the Dutchman has taken his chance with both hands and shown himself a more than capable full-back with solid displays against West Ham United and Aston Villa.
With Evra close to a return and United likely to invest in a left-back in the summer, it is unlikely that Buttner will maintain a regular place in the side. Nevertheless, the full-back showed against Bayern Munich that despite a lack of opportunities, he does possess the quality to provide capable back up in the position if required, and for that he deserves great credit.
3. Is Welbz ‘Dat Guy’ for the Big Game?
Not for the first time on the big stage, Danny Welbeck made an impression on an important game against the Germans. Just over 12 months ago Ferguson’s faith in the local lad was repaid with a goal against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and the athletic striker was preferred to a disillusioned Wayne Rooney in the return leg.
The plan was obvious, try to release Welbeck and use his pace against Bayern’s high defensive line. The striker had already demonstrated he could play a potent role on the counter-attack in the Bernabeu and he looked similarly dangerous on Tuesday evening.
The striker had the ball in the net early on, only to be ruled out for a contentious high-boot. Further dangerous moments followed and there is no doubt that Welbeck’s physical attributes render him a perfect candidate to attempt to expose teams on the break, and had the striker taken his golden opportunity the eventual result may have been different.
Clean through and one-on-one with the goalkeeper are the kind of chances that simply must be taken in ties at this level, but Welbeck almost had too much time. It was obvious that he didn’t have a clear direction in his mind as to what he wanted to do and in the end the attempted chip was a weak effort.
Nevertheless, composure and decision making both come with experience and it is hoped that Welbeck will learn from that moment. In truth, finishing has always been Welbeck’s biggest weakness and many would argue that goals are the missing piece of his jigsaw, but the England international is still young and his overall play was very encouraging.
Welbeck is a player who thrives on space and his relative attacking freedom coupled with United’s compact and resolute defensive and midfield lines played to his strengths. He was one of few United players who demonstrated composure on the ball and was a threat in behind the defence all evening.
The striker will only improve further and while United attempt to re-build he could prove an invaluable option in games where United must accept a minority share of possession. Most would admit that the Old Trafford outfit are some way off competing right at the top on all fronts, but while a new team emerges, Welbeck’s energy, pace and industry could hold the key to a few hard fought results on the big occasion.
4. Talking Tactics
In reality, United were never going to be able to go toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich on a pure football-ing level. It surely has to be accepted that at present the Red’s squad is inferior to the Germans’ in terms of quality, particularly in the centre of midfield.
Moans and Groans were prevalent as the team sheet slowly filtered through to the masses as on paper, the team selection appeared negative. It is the United way to play with bravery and courage and to have a real go at the opposition, particularly at Old Trafford. But David Moyes deserves a lot of credit for the way in which his side set up.
At first glance it looked to be a typical 4-5-1 in defence, with three in the midfield and Danny Welbeck asked to do a job wide left. Shinji Kagawa had drawn a lot of positive support before the game and many were disappointed not to see the Japanese magician occupying the supporting role behind Wayne Rooney.
In truth, however, it was obvious that Welbeck had been given licence to remain high up the field and had been relieved of any over-arduous defensive duties. Giggs in the first half and Kagawa in the second were often tasked with pulling to the left to provide cover for the excellent Alexander Buttner, freeing both Welbeck and Rooney to be in better positions to counter-attack should United win the ball.
Whilst this system allowed Rafinha a lot of room down United’s left hand side (ultimately to their cost as his cross found Mandzukic who nodded the ball down for Bayern’s goal), it highlighted that Moyes was perhaps more adventurous and brave than some gave him credit for.
Of course there were moments in prolonged periods of Bayern possession when both Rooney and Welbeck had to drop back into shape, but by and large Moyes was happy for Bayern to have the ball in wide areas, particularly as they possessed no real aerial threat until Mandzukic’s introduction.
In turn, the Red Devil’s solidity through the centre was obvious with the Germans able to create very little despite the obvious quality of their passing. It was far from pretty, but there was a clear and coherent plan for all to see and Moyes’ men posed a tangible threat on the break. Some may argue that United should never sit back at Old Trafford, but the tactics were a tacit expression and, quite frankly, an honest admission that at present the side is not of the same quality as other European giants.
Sitting back, staying compact and playing on the break was absolutely the right thing to do and on the balance of the game, for a side so desperately struggling domestically against a side who have already wrapped up their own domestic league, United can be proud of their performance. What’s more, it has set an encouraging blueprint for the second leg and having coped admirably, the players will surely have belief that a positive result is possible in Germany.
5. Some way to go
Many before the tie predicted an absolute massacre. It was not disrespectful, simply common sense based on the evidence of this season so far. But Manchester United are a special club and they invariably turn up on the big occasion. Credit must go to the fans too, who once more were absolutely outstanding in their support.
It was not the adventurous, cavalier display of attacking football that so many have become accustomed to in recent years, but it was a performance full of heart, fight and desire. The hard truth of the matter is that United still have a long way to go before they will be able to compete and go toe-to-toe with many of the better sides.
Football has changed and adapted in recent years and for the most part Ferguson evolved with it. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the great man’s preferred style of play was in tension with the contemporary direction of the modern game.
Ferguson believed in width, in making the pitch as big as possible, with large distances between players creating space for individuals to shine. Conversely, the modern trend is to get players closer together, to pass and move forwards in zones, almost splitting the pitch up into a number of smaller five-a-side pitches and moving forwards gradually and patiently from zone to zone.
Guardiola pioneered it with Barcelona and now with Bayern. The passing is quick, sharp and incisive, the ball constantly on the move and players forming triangles and affording as many options as possible for the man on the ball. The threat of a striker in behind is not considered necessary as players will drop deep to out-number the opposition and then move up the pitch as a unit.
It was obvious that every single Bayern Munich player was comfortable in possession even in tight areas, and the typical phrase of ‘lending each other the ball’ was certainly apt.
In contrast, United were much more direct in their play, often seeking out a long ball towards Danny Welbeck or Wayne Rooney. It was only when Shinji Kagawa (who was excellent) came on that United began to look more comfortable and composed in possession.
At times United were far too wasteful, whether through over-eagerness to try and release one of the strikers or through the pressure imparted by the pressing game of Bayern Munich. There were problems out of possession too, as often a few players would press while others behind them would drop off. Pressing is only ever effective if the whole team to a man do their job, and a lot of energy was wasted pressing a Bayern side who comfortably passed their way out of trouble on numerous occasions.
There is nothing to say that adopting a more fluid style in the mould of Guardiola’s sides is the right way to go, but for the past few years now United have struggled against sides with good patient possession and an effective high pressing game. It was a weakness pertinently exploited by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League a few seasons back, as well as so brutally by Barcelona in two Champions League finals.
Whatever system and style of play Moyes chooses to adopt, United need to improve in their ability to keep possession under pressure and need to have a clear directive in regard to pressing or dropping off. New players of a higher quality have been promised in the summer and it will be fascinating to see the direction in which Moyes’ United will go.
For now though, one thing is certain, a team expected to be competing toe-to-toe with Europe’s giants is currently having to scrap against them. Manchester United should be striking fear into the opposition and making them worry about how to set up to stop them. In this regard there is still a long way to go and progression will require patience. But on Tuesday night it was great to see that even in adversity the character of this great club still remains.
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