Manchester United 3-2 Bayern Munich: Arjen Robben does it again

April 7, 2010

Bayern do it again. Their victory in the last round against Fiorentina featured a last-minute goal at home to win the first leg 2-1, and then a 2-3 defeat away from home, with a brilliant Arjen Robben ‘winner’ near the end. It seemed inevitable when Bayern pulled a goal back before half-time that the same would happen here.

Bayern set out as expected – two deep midfielders, attacking wingers and Thomas Muller behind Ivica Olic. No suprises there, but a big surprise for United – Wayne Rooney started. This didn’t change United’s shape as such – it was always going to be a straight choice between him and Dimitar Berbatov, although there can be little doubt that United play better with Rooney in the side. Sir Alex Ferguson dropped his three veterans – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, with the fresher legs of Nani, Darron Gibson and Rafael in to replace them.

If this was a deliberate tactic because Ferguson wanted United to press aggressively from the outset, it worked brilliantly. United blitzed Bayern in the first ten minutes and went 2-0 up. Whereas United’s full-backs stood off in the first game, allowing Bayern’s wingers time to turn and run at them, tonight they pushed high up the pitch, confronting Ribery and Robben as soon as they received the ball.

Gibson was deployed as the furthest forward midfielder, and this paid dividends immediately when one of his trademark long-range strikes evaded Hans-Jorg Butt to give United the lead.

The second and third goals came from the same source – Valencia running at Badstuber, who was exposed horribly throughout the first half, then crossing for Nani. The second goal in particular was almost painful to watch, as Valencia held the ball for so long before actually beating the German left-back. Mark van Bommel could have helped double up on Valencia, but instead was concerned about midfield runners (perhaps as a result of United having a spare man in the centre) and so a simple shift allowed Valencia to get the ball in.

The sending-off of Rafael changed everything. United were forced to revert to a 4-4-1 system with Nani upfront alone – not the player you want to try and hold the ball up,  and Bayern just kept coming because they dominated possession so much. But United were actually relatively comfortable for much of the second half; playing with ten men against a 4-4-2 isn’t that difficult if you go 4-4-1 – you simply get two banks of four infront of your goalkeeper, and unless the opposition are brave enough to push a centre-back forward, you defend in much the same way you would with a 4-4-2. Of course, Bayern are a side that have a centre-back step up into the midfield anyway, in Martin Demichelis, and so Bayern dominated possession even more than they would have been expected to.

It took a set-piece – and a wonderful strike – to put Bayern into the lead in the tie. The ultimate irony was that Robben smashed the ball right into the bottom-left of the goal, which had been the near post from Ribery’s corner. The man who had been charged with the responsibility of marking that post was Rafael, now watching the game from the dressing room.

Having pressed so strongly in the first half, and chased the ball with a man less for much of the second, United were simply in no fit state to go looking for another goal, and barely threatened for the 17 minutes after Robben’s strike. Indeed it’s interesting that in the three games in this round where a side have really made a point of pressing aggressively in the opening 15 minutes, and therefore dominated the opening period (Barcelona away at Arsenal, Arsenal away at Barcelona and Manchester United at home to Bayern Munich) have tired noticeably as the game went on, and lost their lead. An interesting feature in a week where Jonathan Wilson wrote a great piece about pressing.

Just as Cesare Prandelli felt after Fiorentina’s defeat to Bayern, Ferguson was insistent that he got it tactically right, and (again like with Fiorentina) Bayern’s advantage came only when they had an extra man.

Ferguson can’t be faulted on tonight’s display alone, but United perhaps suffered because of more long-term concerns. In losing Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez – and replacing them with Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia, they are less tactically able. Not necessarily because of a lack of quality, because it is arguable that the likes of Wayne Rooney and Nani have improved their game well enough to compensate for the loss of two star players, but because United have fewer options in an attacking sense. Ronaldo could play on the right or the left, upfront alone or just behind a striker, whilst Tevez could play upfront or on the wing. But Owen is a fairly one-dimensional forward (and has been injured for the entire knockout stages) and Valencia is handicapped by the fact (as acknowledged by Ferguson ahead of the first leg) that he can only play on the right.

And therefore in the past fortnight, United have suddenly seemed quite lacking going forward when Rooney has been off the pitch. Ferguson did everything he could tonight with the players available to him – but maybe that is the problem, that he just doesn’t have enough options available to him.

That said, this was a game of two legs – we must look to Munich to consider where United actually lost the tie. Ferguson’s removal of Michael Carrick for Dimitar Berbatov seemed strang at the time and it seemed foolish at the end of the first game, but it seems an absolute disaster now.

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