Attacking balance holds key to United’s Euro fate

April 2, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments
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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.

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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.

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Rosanna Bruzzi - April 2, 2014 Reply

still say have to give the man a chance. This tie shows a lot of opportunity using players differently & better in cases.

MS Assefa - April 2, 2014 Reply

What are you people on? How can anyone say yesterday was a good result. We are in this position, playing like Everton against a top four side, defending at home with barely 30% possesion and drawing to plaudits of heroics.

For the sake of humiliating people like you, the delusional OT crowd, SAF, SBC and the board I hope Moyes stays wastes more money on other Fellaini like players (like the 37mill he reportedly going to pay for te unproven Carvallho in the summer) and completly ruins the club for the near future. I hope too hear what the idiots shouting give him time will say come next year when we will be 6th at best.

Ed - April 3, 2014 Reply

I made this point on twitter – well the one about it being embarrassing that we had 20 something % possession, drew at home and were dancing around like scousers on dole collection day. I was called a cunt. By United fans. Expectations have been lowered significantly.

Anthony Wong - April 2, 2014 Reply

Get Carlo or Pep. They don’t need “transitions” or “time” to challenge and win!

David Thomas Morse - April 2, 2014 Reply

Who writes this shit….

Dayus D red - April 2, 2014 Reply

People talk about United being an attacking team in Europe and ask when last did we play attacking football. This writer cited ’07/08 semis as the only time we played counter attacking football but i will like to remind him that same style was used against Porto away in the quater final and Arsenal in both legs of the semi of ’08/09 CL. The two finals(Rome’09 and Wembley ’11) we wanted to play “the United way” against Barca ended in humilation. Chelsea played the most negative football ever seen in the CL and were crowned champions. If J. Mourinho had used the same tactics he will be hailed as a genius.

Redkenyan - April 2, 2014 Reply

kagawa should play as a No10 in munich…Playing wthout a proper ball handler in old trafford allowed bayern to disposses utd the ball far too easily. If moyes can trust the japanese, i guess rooney and welbeck will be on the scoresheet in munich…

Denton Davey - April 2, 2014 Reply

” Munich is a dream opponent for Moyes.”

Exactly. Pep’s team – with Muller as a “false nine” – controls the ball like Barca but doesn’t have much penetration Messi/iniesta provided. Their principal attacking thrust is Robben/Ribery cutting inside. So, this essentially means that UTD’s central-four defenders – Rio/Vidic/Carrick and Fellaini all have the game played in front of them and don’t have to worry about getting-turned. The Robben/Ribery danger can be largely neutralized by ushering them outside/outside/outside – especially in the case of Robben who is very reluctant to use his right foot.

Furthermore, because Bayern control the ball possession – often to no effect – they also play a very high defensive line which makes them susceptible to long-balls-over-the-top which was why it made sense to use Welbeck in that role. Perhaps Chicharito might have scored on that one-on-keeper situation but one UTD striker kept three Bayern players occupied. Bayern’s discomfort with speedy counter-attacking might make sense to consider Nani/Januzaj/KagawaBunga instead of Valencia (and, of course, AshleyBloodyYoung should not get on the field !) – that’s how Borussia Dortmund beat them by speedy counter-attacking with ShinjiSan at the heart of it all.

My guess is that Pep is going to go against his usual game-plan in the re-match by trying to have his team play a more vertical game – hoping to catch UTD’s lumbering defenders in the open field. Moyes needs to resist the temptation of falling into this trap – “nine-parked-buses” is the way to go in my opinion.

The Rookie - April 3, 2014 Reply



If Nani was match fit I’d love to see him start in Munich. I wouldn’t Start Januzaj as I’m not sure he’s up to what will be required defensively at this point. I’d let him know I was going to bring him on in the second half and have him look to release Welbeck with the long ball.

Tom Parkinson - April 2, 2014 Reply

I actually think playing with the deep banks of 4 and hitting quick on the counter is the best way to play against Bayern. In the same way it was against Barca. The high pressing game might work if they have an off day, but normally their midfielders will ping passes around the high pressuring forwards and midfielders, and suddenly have Ribery or Robben running at the back four behind the midfield.

Bayern shat themselves at the pace and power of Welbeck. He’s got to play centrally upfront for Utd next week, and is our best hope of going through. They are ludicrously suspect at the back, and incredibly slow. Dante will be a big plus back for them as Martinez has never been a CB in my opinion. He’ll deal with more aerial balls as well.

Vital is it that Fellaini has a better game next week. He was dreadful. He’s a better player than what he’s shown at Utd, and it feels like he needs a goal to bounce in off his arse to get going. He’s never going to be top quality, but in games where we need to hit on the counter, he has a use, but it has to be further forward up the pitch.

I also thought Kagawa did reasonably well considering. Much more involved than Giggsy, who was never in the game. He should start next week for me.

My team would be:

DDG – Rafa – Rio – Vidic – Evra – Carrick – Fellaini – Tony V – Kagawa – Rooney – Welbeck

Cant see Januzaj starting, but it would be interesting to see how he got on at this level if given the opportunity.

The Rookie - April 3, 2014 Reply

I just noticed the picture up top of the Moyesiah.


mancmanme - April 3, 2014 Reply

I’m afraid the hoof it plan B option has to be the way to go. Playing Vidic and Rio gives us a defensive stability but their chronic lack of pace means that the line of defence cannot advance much beyond the penalty area. The combination of our technical deficiencies in midfield coupled with Guardiola pressing up the pitch means that an awful lot of pressure is applied in 30-40 yards of the pitch. The reason why players such as Fellaini looked so bad (apart from the fact he is an extremely limited footballer) is because we were playing so deep.
We have to load the forward positions with pace (not something we have in abundance) and get Carrick to pump balls forward. We have to try and stretch the game and see we can isolate individual defenders. Sophisticated? Absolutely not but we all know that we simply do not have the personnel to allow a game of football to break out.

Seán Webb - April 3, 2014 Reply

Fletcher over Fellaini on Wednesday please

Tom Parkinson - April 4, 2014 Reply

I sent that picture to my wife, and she made her greatest ever joke which was:

Plan C – Try

She knows as much as Moyes.

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