Basel 2-1 Manchester United: United into the Europa League

December 8, 2011

The starting line-ups - Basel's wide midfielders frequently switched

Manchester United are out of the Champions League after a 2-1 defeat away in Switzerland.

Hieko Vogel was without his veteran central midfielder Benjamin Huggel because of a calf strain, so played Cabral instead.

Sir Alex Ferguson played Wayne Rooney upfront, supported by Park Ji-Sung, with Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones in the midfield.

United dominated possession and created more goalscoring chances – but Basel’s tactics were clever, and although they rode their luck on occasion, weren’t entirely flattered by the victory.

United dominate possession

Despite fielding a side with no recognised central midfielder, United were in control of the ball for long periods in the first half. Park played a deep role, coming short to get the ball from United’s other midfielders – which isolated Rooney, but meant United had a man extra in the midfield zone.

Jones stayed deep and to the right, Giggs was higher up to the left – either one was usually free, and United had 60% of possession in the first half.

Basel attack v United defence

Despite that dominance of possession, it was Basel who took the lead. Considering a 0-0 would have suited United and they started in a conservative fashion, it’s fair to look at the defensive side of United’s game first.

Despite having to hard-working players in Rooney and Park high up the pitch, United didn’t press. They let Basel have time on the ball at the back and in the midfield, and although this wasn’t a huge problem at the start of the game, it’s often difficult for sides to go from playing cautiously out of possession, to closing down and winning the ball back more quickly.

That was exactly what United needed to do having conceded the first goal, and after that Basel were excellent at slowing the tempo and cooling things down by passing calmly in midfield – although they had opportunities to break, they often turned down those opportunities and played keep-ball instead. Even Vogel denied his own side the chance to break quickly by delaying a Xherdan Shaqiri throw-in.

It seems likely that Vogel watched the tape of Manchester City’s 1-6 win over United – in that game, David Silva and James Milner caused problems by moving into the centre and switching flanks, movement replicated by Shaqiri and Fabian Frei here. They moved inside to combine and help Basel keep the ball, and a couple of times looked to overload United on either side with diagonal runs from one flank to another. Shaqiri moved from the right all the way over to the left early on, meaning both Basel’s wingers were on the same flank – this produced the early cross that David De Gea flapped at.

The first goal came when Shaqiri crossed from wide – although he had to move out there to retrieve the ball having found himself in a central position – again, De Gea didn’t look comfortable.

After United lost Nemanja Vidic to injury, they looked increasingly worried by the good hold-up play shown by Marco Streller, and didn’t have anyone to challenge him physically. Evans often stood off and allowed Basel to build attacks – another time he tried to get in front, fouled Streller, and conceded the free-kick which indirectly resulted in the second goal.

United attack v Basel defence

Streller and Alex Frei didn’t really seem to know what their job was defensively – they casually picked up Giggs and Jones but not strictly enough to prevent United having the ball. Jones still doesn’t look comfortable in midfield – certainly not when his side are in control of the ball (he did a fine job when England played ultra-defensively against Spain, but his job in that game was essentially the job of a centre-back) – he’s not silky enough on the ball, moving it too slowly. When Vidic got injured, Ferguson ought to have considered pushing Jones back to centre-back (he might have dealt well with Streller) in order to introduce a true midfielder.

Giggs, however, had a fine game. The above diagram shows he generally had no-one looking to pressure him in deep positions, which contributed to him completing more passes than any other player, and also creating more chances than any other player. There have been some claims United missed a Wesley Sneijder figure in this match – he was allegedly a target in the summer – but even without considering Sneijder’s extremely average form in the past 18 months, that was not the problem here.

Instead, the problem was three-fold. Basel were able to sit very deep, and United didn’t have the individuals to break them down. They lacked

(a) A target man who could provide a physical presence in the box, challenge for crosses, and dissuade Basel from sitting deep – that, in turn, would provide more space in behind for United’s other players.

(b) Quality attacking play from full-back. The movement of Basel’s wide midfielders meant they were often vulnerable to quick breaks down the flanks, and the narrowness of their side meant United needed to get their full-backs forward to stretch the play. Smalling is a willing runner but not a natural full-back, whilst Evra’s delivery was poor. Note the lack of balls in from wide areas below.

(c) A regista, or deep-lying playmaker. This is possibly the most vital component of a modern attacking football side – someone who can create from deep and provoke the opposition midfield out of position, switch the play from flank to flank, or provide a sudden forward pass into feet. Jones wasn’t particularly poor individually, he was just the wrong man for the occasion – a tackler when United needed a passer.

United changed in the second half, bringing on Danny Welbeck for Ashley Young, moving Park to the left and going 4-4-2. They suffered long spells without the ball, though, were still uncomfortable at pressing, and Basel were good at slowing the tempo.


Vogel’s tactics unquestionably worked well – Basel completed excellently with a side significantly superior on paper. They defended deep to prevent United getting space, knowing they had little ability to get around a packed defence, and attacked intelligently – bringing the wide players inside.

United defended poorly and (aside from Giggs) lacked quality with the ball. Their main tactical problem in Europe, like City’s, has been the lack of quality deep-lying midfielder, and that should be their next transfer target.

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