Manchester United 1-1 Bayern Munich: Welbeck causes problems upfront but Bayern attack down the right

April 4, 2014

The starting line-ups

Bayern started as overwhelming favourites and dominated for the majority of the game, but Manchester United caused problems and weren’t flattered by a draw.

David Moyes had both first-choice full-backs out, so Phil Jones and Alexander Buttner played in those positions. Further forward, Moyes picked Ryan Giggs after his excellent game against Olympiakos in the previous round. Juan Mata is cup-tied.

Pep Guardiola was without Dante so Javi Martinez played at the back. Mario Gotze was only on the bench, as was Mario Mandzukic – Thomas Muller led the line.

Bayern had lots of possession, but didn’t create better goalscoring opportunities than Manchester United.

Bayern dominance

Bayern’s possession dominance throughout this game was widely expected, with Manchester United always likely to be forced back and allowed only sporadic counter-attacking opportunities. It’s difficult for opponents to play any other way against Bayern, and the pattern of the game wasn’t hugely surprising.

United tried to pack the centre of midfield, using Michael Carrick as the deepest of the three central midfielders, Marouane Fellaini to his right, and Giggs tucked in on the left – although sometimes having to drift out wider. Wayne Rooney dropped back and half-heartedly picked up Philipp Lahm, ensuring United weren’t completely overrun.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to explain precisely why Bayern were so poor at converting their dominance into genuine chances. Guardiola complained, after the game, that it’s difficult to make the breakthrough against opponents that sit with multiple players crowded around their own box. “It’s not easy when you want to control the game and there are nine players in the box, eight, nine players there,” he said. “So it’s not easy. But we controlled the game.”

But this was rarely the case – Rooney and Danny Welbeck usually stayed in advanced positions, and United’s defensive shape wasn’t actually that good.

United often left too much space between the lines, for example, with Carrick slow to close down opponents who found room in that zone. It felt like the use of Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger together was unnecessary against a side that wasn’t attempting to compete in terms of possession, and the dribbling skills of Mario Gotze might have been more useful in the circumstances. Kroos and Schweinsteiger often had space to move forward in possession, but instead switched the ball to the flanks.

That was understandable in theory, considering Jones and Buttner were at full-back – but they coped well with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben respectively, when the wingers stayed out on the flanks. In fact, United were actually more troubled when they drifted inside into more central positions, sometimes combining with one another. This was partly because they were providing the directness between the lines Kroos and Schweinsteiger seemed reluctant to contribute.

Welbeck positioning

The real story of the game, however, was much simpler – it was about the shape of the teams, and more specifically the positioning of Welbeck.

The forward could have been used in two separate roles here, either on the left in a 4-5-1, or upfront in a 4-4-1-1. The strange thing is, it wasn’t entirely clear which of the two positions he was playing in. He spent some periods defending deep in the left-back zone, yet other times he was simply upfront in the centre-forward position, making no attempt to get back and protect Buttner. It wasn’t as if United suddenly switched from one system to the other – Welbeck was seemingly just given a free role.

He spent longer upfront, however, and from that position there were four separate incidents that justified his advanced positioning – these generally came in the right channel, a long way from his notional left-sided positioning.

  • Inside the first five minutes, Welbeck had the ball in the net after receiving the ball from Valencia, evading Javi Martinez with a neat piece of skill, before firing in. The goal was disallowed, presumably as Welbeck’s foot was a little high.
  • After 27 minutes, Welbeck chased a long ball downfield and was briefly pulled by Martinez – not enough for Welbeck to go down, nor for the referee to notice, but it was a sign he was causing problems with his pace.
  • On 39 minutes he had the game’s best chance, starting his run from the right channel and receiving a ball from Rooney in behind the defence. Boateng missed his tackle, Martinez wasn’t in a position to cover, but Welbeck scooped the ball up and Manuel Neuer made the save. It was the game’s clearest chance.
  • On 42 minutes, David De Gea thumped the ball downfield after claming a corner, where Welbeck was penalised for pushing Rafinha out of the way – although Neuer darted out of his area to sweep up anyway.

Welbeck’s continual threat meant his positioning high up the pitch was justified. His finishing, of course, still needs to improve.

The problem for United, however, was that this meant they were exposed down their left. Ryan Giggs was reluctant to move out towards that flank, partly because Bayern had so many talented players in the centre, and partly because he simply doesn’t have the stamina these days to constantly shuttle back and forth. Therefore, Bayern right-back Rafinha had oceans of space ahead of him, and Bayern switched huge diagonal passes out to that side throughout the game.

Maybe this was a deliberate strategy: Rafinha is a decent full-back, but probably the weakest member of this Bayern starting XI, and it feels a little like the situation with Guardiola’s side at Barca, where opponents were generally happy to allow Maxwell, Sylvinho, Eric Abidal or Adriano time on the ball. It wasn’t that they were bad players, but they weren’t as dangerous as everyone else.

Again, United’s approach was justified because Rafinha didn’t cause major problems in the first half. He wasn’t overly keen on crossing the ball, probably because he didn’t think Muller had a great chance of beating both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand in the air. He usually passed to Robben instead – and Robben did what he always does, cutting inside before shooting towards the far post.

Guardiola surprisingly didn’t change anything at half-time – Gotze and Mandzukic were the obvious replacements – but he did turn to his bench shortly after United took the lead through Vidic.

Crucially, Mandzukic replaced Muller, and this changed Rafinha’s approach when he received the ball in possession. He crossed immediately the next time he looked up, and then created the equaliser by drifting a cross onto the head of Mandzukic – he headed down, and Schweinsteiger lashed the ball in.


United should take some credit for the way they nullified Bayern, although it’s not immediately clear precisely what tactical trick they played to make Guardiola’s side look so blunt. They sat deep and defended the centre of the pitch reasonably well, although even then you’d expect Bayern to find a way through. The men most deserving of credit were the full-backs, neither of whom would have been in Moyes’ first-choice XI, but they coped with Ribery and Robben excellently.

Away from the slight mystery of how United didn’t get a thrashing, this was an interesting example of a formation decision shaping the match both positively and negatively, from Moyes’ perspective. Welbeck upfront meant United continually threatened, but were weakened in the left-back zone.

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