Olympiakos 2-0 Manchester United: Olympiakos brave with positioning and pressing

February 26, 2014

The starting line-ups

Manchester United produced their worst performance of David Moyes’ reign so far, and Olympiakos fully deserved their two-goal victory.

Michel was without Javier Saviola upfront, so Michael Olaitan led the line.

David Moyes selected his two most cautious options on the flanks, in an otherwise unsurprising team selection.

Olympiakos weren’t outstanding on the night, but their overall gameplan worked effectively.

Olympiakos play with one holder

Olympiakos have generally played a 4-2-3-1 formation this season. It was a slight surprise, therefore, to see Michel instead use a 4-3-3, which involved him tilting his midfield trio.

This subtle move was slightly risky, but proved extremely effective. The risk involved Delvin N’Dinga having to cope with Wayne Rooney solo, rather than receiving help from Giannis Maniatis, the club captain. However, it’s difficult to remember Rooney finding space between the lines, or a pocket of space either side of N’Dinga, and therefore the potential drawback didn’t prove costly.

More importantly, the intention behind the switch worked superbly. Maniatis, an energetic box-to-box midfielder, was able to push forward alongside Chori Dominguez to pressure Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, and this was one of the zones where Olympiakos did particularly well, by matching United 2 v 2. Neither Manchester United midfielder settled on the ball, and the Greek champions forced mistakes high up the pitch.

Olymapiakos pressure

This pressing was a key part of Olympiakos’ performance, and while they dropped back into a decent defensive shape when United crossed halfway, they never truly ‘accepted’ this until the final 15 minutes. Even when United had a moment of pressure, Olympiakos would still advance to press the next time around, never cowed into defending deep.

While United’s passing was shocking, it’s worth remembering their centre-backs and central midfielders were forced into these errors, often in areas where other sides wouldn’t be applying any pressure. It’s interesting how many of Manchester United’s passes came in their own half, because they couldn’t work the ball forward (and also how Olympiakos barely passed into the final 18 yards, generally shooting from range instead).


A crucial part of the pressing was lone striker Olaitan. In possession he did little: some of his link-up play was OK, when he came short into positions Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand didn’t want to be drawn into, although he probably could have provided more of a threat by running in behind.

The key was the Nigerian’s work rate. He spent much of the game relentlessly running from side to side, always making sure he was close to the Manchester United centre-back closest to the ball – so when United attacked down one flank and found that path blocked, they found it difficult to go back to the centre-backs and switch play. Instead, they often attempted shorter, neat passes which resulted in a loss of possession.

It’s significant that Olaitan always won the ball towards Ferdinand’s side.

Dominguez and Campbell

Olympiakos’s best attacks came through two direct attacking midfielders.

Dominguez was the game’s best player, and he constantly surprised Manchester United by collecting the ball in deep positions before roaring forward in possession, dribbling immediately at the heart of the United defence. He nearly opened the scoring after a mazy dribble that was halted by Nemanja Vidic, who was United’s only good performer on the night, and consistently varied his positioning to receive the ball in different zones and launch quick attacks.

The other outlet was Joel Campbell on the right flank. He got Patrice Evra booked after two minutes, and therefore the Frenchman was scared of making any tackles, which meant Campbell could collect the ball in space. In truth, he could have done more to break past Evra, but he remained a useful outlet on the flank – he was lively, rather than impressive.


In truth, Olympiakos barely created a clear-cut chance in the game, but had multiple attempts from 20-25 yards, the majority of which were tame, feeble efforts that trickled wide.

United appeared very open between the lines, however, and two long-range efforts did the damage. Maniatis’ effort was deflected in by Dominguez’s clever flick, before Campbell scored a fine curled effort in the second half.

Man Utd problems

United were simply dreadful. Aside from Vidic, frequently called into action because his teammates were failing to stop midfield runners, it’s difficult to think of anything that went right for Moyes’ side.

Without the ball United didn’t press, even when chasing the game, and made a succession of feeble tackles – best epitomised by the way Campbell outwitted Carrick for the second goal. With possession, there were a succession of misplaced passes and poor first touches. Wayne Rooney came deep for the ball but Robin van Persie had little support, and made little attempt to vary his position to cause the centre-backs problems – he complained about his teammates’ positioning after the game.

Rio Ferdinand was probably United’s worst performer, however. He made mistakes both positionally and in possession, and in the final minutes managed to take a dreadful first touch, realise he was vulnerable to the pace of substitute David Fuster (now 32 years old, and no longer as quick as at his peak) so committed a cynical foul near the touchline. It summed up his evening.


Manchester United’s only promising zone was down the left flank, where Ashley Young darted inside from the flank and took up some good positions to overload N’Dinga in front of the back four – he also played an excellent reverse pass towards Van Persie, which was slightly overhit yet arguably United’s best moment of creativity.

This allowed Evra forward on the overlap into some dangerous positions, with Campbell not the most reliable winger in a defensive sense. Evra is United’s second-most prolific creator of chances this season, behind Rooney, but couldn’t quite provide the right deliveries here.

Man Utd changes

Moyes made a double substitution after an hour, bringing on Danny Welbeck for Antonio Valencia, with Young switching to the right, plus Shinji Kagawa for Cleverley, with Rooney moving back into an orthodox midfield role.

This was a slight improvement, because Welbeck offered pace in behind the defence and Kagawa was lively on the rare occasions he received the ball in a dangerous position.

Olympiakos changes

The real game-changing substitutions were from Michel – in an entirely negative sense, from the home side’s point of view. He brought on Fuster for Campbell, and switched Perez to the opposite side, which was probably to help contain Evra as Campbell’s energy levels dropped. This was understandable, but gave Olympiakos less of an outlet on the break.

The real problem, however, was removing Dominguez and bringing on Paolo Machado, a much more functional, disciplined player. At the same time, Michel shifted Maniatis to a deeper position alongside N’Dinga, and now Olympiakos weren’t pressing at all.

The below diagram from UEFA.com depicts Olympiakos’ first half shape, compared to their shape in the final 15 minutes – number 2, Maniatis, shifted deeper to change the home side from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1.

Having been so admirably brave with their pressure high up the pitch, now Olympiakos dropped deep and United had sustained spells inside the Olympiakos half. Van Persie wasted a fine chance and there were three or four other nervous moments. In the end, Olympiakos weren’t punished, but there wasn’t any need to become so defensive.


Olympiakos aren’t a particularly talented side, and therefore attention will inevitably be upon Manchester United’s shocking all-round performance. Moyes’ team were second-best all over the pitch: nervous at the back, careless in midfield, impotent upfront.

However, great credit should go to Michel and his players, who performed beyond all expectations. The shape of the midfield pressured United from the start, Dominguez’s forward bursts provided excitement and a clear goal threat, and some of the passing down the flanks was impressive too.

The problem was the final 15 minutes, when they played too defensively, and if they replicate that strategy at Old Trafford, United will have a decent chance of turning this tie around.

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