Manchester United 3-0 Olympiakos: United exploit the space in the inside-right channel

March 19, 2014

The starting line-ups

Manchester United qualified for the European Cup quarter-finals, becoming only the second side to recover from a 2-0 first leg deficit.

David Moyes surprisingly brought Ryan Giggs into the centre of his midfield, used more direct options on the flanks than in the weekend defeat to Liverpool (Juan Mata was cup-tied) and Rio Ferdinand started alongside Phil Jones.

Michel was without Michael Olaitan – who is thankfully OK after collapsing in a recent league game – upfront and therefore played Joel Campbell as the lone striker and used Diego Fuster on the right. Otherwise the side was unchanged from the first leg.

The match itself wasn’t particularly interesting – tension came from the fact Manchester United had lost the first leg 2-0, and a late ‘consolation’ goal (on the night) would have sent Olympiakos through on away goals. But on the night, the reality is that Manchester United were comfortably the better side in a standard 3-0 win.


The major point of interest was the fact the opening two goals came in exactly the same situation, and it’s worth outlining why. The first came from a Giggs diagonal ball into the path of Robin van Persie, who was bundled over by Jose Holebas for a penalty the Dutchman converted himself.

The second came from a Giggs pass to Rooney in a similar inside-right position – he then squared for Van Persie, who finished.

Olympiakos press

This pattern had the same cause, and was a result of Olympiakos’ overall approach. Like in the first game, they decided to play a high defensive line and press Manchester United, rather than sit deep close to their own goal.

The midfield, for example, was aligned perfectly to ‘match’ United’s trio – Chori Dominguez on Michael Carrick, Giannis Maniatis on Ryan Giggs, and Delvin N’Dinga on Wayne Rooney.

Olympiakos attempted to replicate this press in the full-back positions, too. Right-back Leandro Salino was against Danny Welbeck, which was a tricky task because Welbeck continually moved towards play to offer a short passing option, but then spun in behind quickly, providing a threat in behind the defence.

Holebas aggressive

The greater problem, however, was Holebas against Antonio Valencia. Holebas is a very aggressive left-back that is much better attacking than defending, which creates problems with his crossing but causes problems behind. There was an obvious example after just four minutes – he whipped in a superb near post cross that Maniatis was inches away from converting.

United broke quickly, however, and both Olympiakos centre-backs were dragged into the left-back zone, so Van Persie was left in a colossal amount of space in the centre – but Valencia didn’t spot him. The Old Trafford crowd did, and audibly moaned that the pass wasn’t forthcoming.

Holebas sticks tight, players run in beind

Holebas’ usual defensive approach is to stick very tight to opponents, often being dragged out of position easily. With Olympiakos’ pressing instructions, that’s exactly what happened here. With Valencia hugging the touchline, Holebas was always located much wider than Salino on the opposite flank, and United could find space between Holebas and Ivan Marcano.

This was obvious at various points, but the nature of the penalty decision summed it up nicely. It was helpful, of course, to have a left-footed central midfielder like Giggs in the side – someone capable of hitting long diagonal passes into that zone. Van Persie pulled right into space on the outside of Marcano, received the pass from Giggs, and Holebas desperately darted back into position – and in a poor attempt to stop Van Persie, barged him in the back.

The second goal is an even better example. This time, Holebas is concerned by Rooney’s inside-right position and points towards Marcano to pick him up – but Marcano actually moves slightly towards Welbeck, who has drifted inside into a central position. This allows space for Rooney to move into in the outside – he receives a Giggs pass, then crosses for a simple finish from Van Persie, who manages to evade the attentions of both Kostas Manolas and Salino on the right of the defence – they both simply switch off.

United played quite a few long passes into a right-wing position, compared to none towards the left. They also created most of their chances from the right.

ZM usually looks at the tactical battle as a whole rather than looking at defensive mistakes for goals, but it’s rare for a game to be shaped by two such similar incidents. Olympiakos weren’t that much inferior to United across the pitch, they simply made errors because of the positional tendencies of their left-back, and their insistence on pressing in midfield and on the flanks, which exposed their centre-backs go good movement into the channels.

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