Attacking balance holds key to United’s Euro fate
David Moyes should still be replaced as Manchester United manager despite the Reds hard-earned draw against Bayern Munich on Tuesday night. After all, United’s decent run in the Champions League this season is pointless if the club is not in it at all next year. Still, the Reds defended efficiently in this season’s quarter-final first leg, and had a more lenient referee been in place, United could have won the tie. Danny Welbeck’s disallowed first half goal was tough on the striker and United.
Living up to his reputation as a defensive-minded manager, Moyes has always included at least one dedicated holding midfielder in Europe. Michael Carrick was key at Old Trafford. As has become typical, United defended in two banks of four, but it was Carrick who often pressured the Bayern player in possession. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder filled the gap between defence and midfield admirably and organised United’s back-four well.
Carrick’s performance was in stark contrast to his midfield partner Marouanne Fellaini. The £27.5 million fee spent on Fellaini continues to defy any justification. The Belgian midfielder was no more than functional in defence and his rare forays into more attacking areas also failed to bear fruit.
The role given to Fellaini was clear; hold up clearances and establish a foothold in enemy territory. And while Munich is not as physically frail as Josep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, the fact that 6’4″ Fellaini won just a single attempted headed duel in the German half is hugely disappointing. That’s to mention little of Fellaini’s passing, lack of pace, or absence of goal threat.
Indeed, Antonio Valencia could have provided more attacking support had the former Everton midfielder been able to outmuscle the Germans and retain the ball in the attacking third. With Arjen Robben dictating that Valencia choose his moments to attack with circumspection Fellaini simply must do better in the return tie.
It may be that Darren Fletcher is the better choice in Munich. The Scot may never again be fully match fit, but he has played in enough games this season to warrant consideration for the return in the Allianz Arena. In the Premier League, the Scot has boasted better passing statistics than Fellaini – Moyes would surely appreciate the fact that Fletcher has made, on average, longer passes than Fellaini while matching the Belgian’s accuracy.
There is an opportunity for United in midfield, with Bastian Schweinsteiger’s last-minute dismissal removing some steel from Bayern’s engine room. Perhaps due to having occasionally played out wide, Fletcher has always been extremely efficient in supporting the flanks. United had some joy in the channels on Tuesday, and the returning Rafael da Silva together with Valencia’s direct running could be key with Fletcher in a supporting role.
The 30-year-old midfielder’s experience in European away games could also count, especially given Fellaini’s questionable disciplinary record. Fletcher, however, carries a crucial weakness in the air, possibly due to the lingering effects of his illness. The Scot has attempted only six headed duels in eight Premier League appearances. Although this limitation may not be a problem defensively, with Bayern preferring to play on the ground, one suspects that Moyes will take this statistic very seriously.
Things were rosier upfront. Despite nominally starting on the left, Danny Welbeck was often the most advanced United player and used his pace to stretch Bayern. Manuel Neuer did well sweeping up United’s hopeful long balls, but the ‘keeper was often harried into poor clearances and the Germans were clearly troubled by United’s incessant attempts to exploit the space behind the backline. Welbeck has the legs to carry United into the semi-finals if given the right service.
Ryan Giggs was again charged with the now familiar role of instigating United’s attacks, although the Welshman was quiet for the duration of first half.
Whether through injury or a tactical switch Giggs was unceremoniously dumped for Shinji Kagawa. Yet, the Kagawa couldn’t replicate the kind of form that terrorised Bayern during his Borussia Dortmund tenure because both the Japanese playmaker and Giggs were largely pinned down by the Germans’ superiority. Neither is naturally not suited to launching long balls from a standing position.
Wayne Rooney, however, can make the sweeping passes that define Moyes’ template. It’s an asset that should be considered for the left flank in a week’s time, especially given the Scouser’s fitness is a question this season. While Rooney has never been a paragon of virtue, his fitness is increasingly inconsistent. The 28-year-old was visibly exhausted by the 70th minute on Tuesday and the left-sided role is far less demanding physically in the current system than is being deployed as a lone forward.
Another issue is Rooney’s inability to hold up the ball. United’s number 10 was frequently dispossessed by the swarming Bayern midfield, which put far too much emphasis on Fellaini as United’s lone out ball. Rooney’s influence was severely limited with Fellaini unable to make much of sparse possession.
Despite sitting out United’s victory over Aston Villa, Adnan Januzaj was left on the bench against Munich. In contrast to Fellaini’s brawn, which is not particularly useful against Bayern’s greater midfield numbers, the 19-year-old’s exquisite touch, turn and balance might fare better in Germany.
In addition to nimbly escaping makers Januzaj is likely to offer a better out ball than any other United player. The Belgian’s ability to dribble his way out of trouble is useful on the road.
In fact while some off-the-ball runs were made dribbling was conspicuously absent. With Carrick anchoring United’s defence, Giggs or Kagawa could have run their way into the Bayern half, and on another day Rooney might have directly dribbled at the Germans’ defence.
That neither happened put additional pressure on United.
While comparison to the 2008 semi-final victory against Barcelona is apt, United of 2014 is missing a figure, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, who has the tricks to carry the ball forward.
Seven years ago it was Paul Scholes who settled the tie with a long-range goal – Januzaj could be the man to earn Rooney the space to line up that vital shot in Munich.
In a sense though Munich is a dream opponent for Moyes. Few supporters realistically expect United to beat the Bundesliga champions. Yet, whether by design or accident, Moyes’ side is now in a decent position to progress. Having mastered the art of defending against the Germans the manager must now look at United’s attack.
Diagram by lineupbuilder.com