Bayern 2-1 Manchester Utd: Ferguson loses the game with a strange substitution

March 30, 2010

0-70 mins

How on earth did Manchester United manage to lose this game? On top after twenty seconds of playing time, Rooney causing the Bayern centre-backs no end of trouble, and a spare man in the centre of the pitch, it really is quite remarkable that Bayern will go to Old Trafford with the advantage. Sir Alex Ferguson has been constantly praised on ZM for his tactics so far this season, but he might have to take the blame here.

He went with Nani ahead of Antonio Valencia – a slight surprise considering the latter is considered to be the more tactically-aware player, but perhaps not such a surprise considering Nani’s recent good run of form. Ferguson revealed in his pre-match interview that the main reason he selected Nani was his ability to play on either side of the pitch – allowing Ferguson to switch him with Park, if need be. With Park a definite starter for United in Champions League games, Nani’s versatility may be very damaging to Valencia’s hopes of starting major games for the rest of the season. His decision paid off after just one minute – Nani’s pace won a free-kick in the corner, and United were in front.

And it’s not just in wide positions that Ferguson has the ability to switch things around; in the centre of midfield he has a similar situation. Initially, Carrick started deepest, behind Fletcher right and Scholes left. With Bayern playing two deep central midfielders, it was Fletcher and Scholes in close proximity to Bayern’s midfield two – whilst Carrick was the free player. But Carrick struggled to exert any influence upon the game and his passing was poor, whilst Scholes wasn’t getting tight enough to van Bommel, so Ferguson switched things around late in the first half. Unlike in the game against Arsenal in January, where Ferguson’s switch was crucial to how the game developred, today’s change probably had little impact, for United’s ball retention didn’t get any better.

Bayern were a man light in midfield, but dominated possession in the first half. Demichelis was key in this, as he was happy to step up from the centre of defence, but equally important was the fact that Bayern’s wide midfielders play as old-style wide midfielders in a four-man midfield, rather than high wingers in a 4-3-3. This meant they generally received the ball in space, with the United full-backs 15 yards deeper, and the United wide players mainly concerned with tracking the Bayern full-backs. Ribery saw a lot of the ball but struggled to create anything meaningful (on more than one occasion his passing was dreadful) and Bayern tended to focus on that side of the pitch, with Altintop rather than Robben on the right. With Bayern posing only one major wing threat, it was slightly surprising that Nani and Park weren’t switched (since Park is better defensively) and that Fletcher was brought out of his rightish position to cover, but ultimately it wasn’t crucial.

70-90 mins

The turning point in the match was surely Ferguson’s decision to take off Carrick and Park, and replace them with Berbatov and Valencia on 70 minutes. Park for Valencia was a straight(ish) swap – Park wasn’t having his best game, but Carrick off and Berbatov on is a bizarre move. It’s easy to criticize a manager after a game when a substitution doesn’t work out, but even at the time, the most casual football fan would be able to tell you that if you’re 0-1 up away from home in a first leg, taking a midfielder off for a forward player is not the best recipe to try and defend a lead.

Perhaps Ferguson was trying to force Bayern back – United looked nervous throughout at the back and in those situations, sometimes attack is the best form of defence – especially considering Bayern’s own problems at centre-back. But the move simply gave the initiative to Bayern. They had the majority of possession throughout the game, but the effect of the substitution was simply that United had one less man behind the ball - they defended with one fewer player. That meant Bayern were able to pass their way around United, and despite their main threat usually coming from the wings, tonight their two goals came from the centre.

It might have made sense had Rooney dropped deeper, or to the wing – he’s obviously been superb upfront this season but 20 minutes tracking back in a wide role wouldn’t have hurt, and Park could have returned to the central position he played so well against Milan, but no – it was just a switch to a 4-4-1-1. And as good as Berbatov is, he was never going to be spending his 20 minutes closing van Bommel down or hassling the Bayern players. Again, Berbatov behind Rooney is the tried-and-tested tactic when United play 4-4-1-1, but this wasn’t a situation where Ferguson needed to lay his players out with the intention to get a goal, it was a situation where he needed to lay them out principally to shut up shop.

The first goal could be considered unfortunate, but the second summed up United’s problem – Scholes and Giggs couldn’t get close to the Bayern midfielders, whereas Carrick (admittedly not having his best game) is generally very good at pressing. In his post-match interview, Ferguson commented that United struggled to keep possession in the whole game, something he said his side ‘had been based around for the past two or three seasons’. Given that he acknowledged this problem, it’s difficult to see how Carrick being removed at the expense of Berbatov could have helped things. United’s only central midfield option from the bench was Darron Gibson – Ferguson surely would have introduced Anderson had he been amongst the seven – but even so, the decision will be talked about for the rest of the season unless United beat Bayern in eight days time.