Schalke 0-2 Manchester United: Schalke torn apart by United’s passing and movement

April 26, 2011

The starting line-ups

Manchester United were superior throughout the 90 minutes and could have won by a much greater margin.

Ralf Rangnick was without Benedikt Höwedes at the back, which meant Joel Matip had to play at centre-back. Other than that, it was the expected team in the expected formation.

Sir Alex Ferguson omitted Nani to play Antonio Valencia on the right, and played Fabio behind him. The side was the same as the XI that started against Chelsea, with the exception of one Brazilian twin in for the other.

Manchester United dominated the game from start to finish – better at the back, always in charge in midfield, and creative in the final third. The only poor aspect of their performance was their finishing – though credit is due to Manuel Neuer for a fine first half performance. He was only holding back the tide, however, and United’s goals duly arrived midway through the second period.

With little change in the pattern of play throughout the game (with the slight exception of when Rangnick replaced Alexander Baumjohann with Peer Kluge towards the beginning of the second half and Schalke briefly competed in midfield) there’s no real reason to review the game chronologically. Instead, here’s a look at what Schalke did badly, and what United did well.

Schalke errors

(a) Not compact enough

This was Schalke’s biggest problem. The concept of being ‘compact’ from back to front is widely established in top-level modern football. It doesn’t matter whether a team presses high up the pitch or uses a deep defensive line – the gap from the defence to attack shouldn’t be stretched. Arrigo Sacchi famously wanted a distance of no more than 25 metres in this respect, and Rafael Benitez – a self-confessed Sacchi disciple – is another who encourages his sides to be compact.

This idea seemed to completely escape Schalke in this match, however, as Kyriakos Papadopoulos would often become stranded in front of his own defence, with a huge distance between Schalke’s back five and the rest of the side. The three attacking midfielders tended to jog back, meaning United found gaps between the lines and were able to play.

(b) Allowing Carrick to play

Michael Carrick is a player who divides opinion, but it’s widely established that there’s a huge difference in his performance level when he’s left free, and when he’s closed down in possession. Carrick has a good passing range but needs time and space to pick his passes, and Schalke stood off him, allowing him (and Giggs) to dictate play in the midfield zone.

Carrick's passes

In previous games Raul had been very good at dropping onto the opposition holding midfielder and preventing them from passing, but Carrick moved slightly higher up the pitch into a position Raul didn’t want to drop into. He completed more passes than any other player, and also covered the furthest distance.

(c) Using only one holder

This was a good advert for the use of a ‘double pivot’ in midfield. Jurado was slack in his defensive duties – he didn’t drop in alongside Papadopoulos quickly enough (and nor did he press higher up the pitch). This meant that Wayne Rooney could move from side to side and drag Papadopoulos around the pitch, opening up space for midfield runners.

(d) Not patient enough in possession

Against Inter, Schalke could play the ball out wide to their full-backs, who were in space and could bring the ball forward. Here, they didn’t have the luxury of ‘free’ players, and so had to try to move up the pitch as a unit. Their passing meant that this wasn’t possible, though – they played forward passes too quickly and couldn’t retain the ball up top.

What Manchester United did well

(a) Pinning back the Schalke full-backs

It’s the usual Manchester United strategy in Europe, but Park and Valencia had excellent games defensively. Atsuto Uchida and Hans Sarpei tried to get forward to stretch the play and provide width, but were rarely in the game and Schalke had to try play forward passes, which were frequently unsuccessful.

(b) Exploiting space between the lines

Schalke were bad in this respect, but United still had to take advantage. Rooney’s movement dragged his marker around and this opened up space in front of the defence for Giggs and Park Ji-Sung to run into. Park spent much of the game coming inside, similar to his movement at the start of the season, whilst Giggs’ bursts forward were reserved but well-timed – particularly in the case of his goal, but he also had other goalscoring chances.

(c) Getting behind the ball quickly

A basic tenet of their game, but United’s (new?) 4-4-1-1 shape was particularly obvious here. The defence sat quite deep, Carrick and Giggs occupied space rather than individual players in front, and the wide players tracked the full-backs. With Rooney dropping in to pressure Schalke in the middle of the pitch, United were disciplined in the rare spells Schalke held onto the ball.

(d) Intelligent passing from midfield

Again, Schalke helped United hugely by standing off, but United used the ball intelligently. Carrick was clearly the main man – his passing was reliable, but also varied. He played short sideways passes, incisive forward balls, and long diagonals out to the flanks. Rooney was also impressive with his passing – he moved away from Papadopoulos to get time on the ball, and then moved play from flank to flank.


Schalke terrible or United fantastic? With such a one-sided performance it’s often hard to tell, but if we’re focusing on tactics – which, of course, we are – it has to be marked down as Schalke being woeful. It’s rare to see a top-level side leaving such huge space between the lines, even rarer to see such little defensive effort from half the outfield players. Losing 0-2 flattered Schalke.

That might seem harsh on United – and the obvious question would be, “If Schalke are so bad, how come Valencia and Inter didn’t carve them apart?” To which the answer is, “They did.” Inter scored two goals in the first leg as well (the Italians were just desperately awful at the back and managed to concede five goals), whilst Valencia created constant opportunities and managed to waste them – much like United did in the first half here. As Unai Emery said after that game, “We had four chances and we don’t take any. We’ve been knocked out unjustly, we’ve missed an opportunity with everything in our favour. It was a game where we had more chances and we lost.” It’s a long way back for Schalke.

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