Sorry, my intention isn't to conjure up traumatic memories from Manchester United's failure last week to qualify for the UEFA Champions League knockout stages. I promise. The past midweek had me a bit short on time* but I was able to review the match this week so that I could provide a tactical review now. At this moment in time, there may not be quite the need to go into the depth of detail that is typically provided for tactical reviews. Nonetheless, I have made it a goal to provide a review this season for each and every Premier League and Champions League match. Therefore, here are six points on last week's match:
* The free time that I did have on Wednesday was spent drinking copious amounts of therapeutic beverages in order to numb the pain, which actually caused a different sort of pain on Thursday morning.
Opening Lineups and Formations
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deployed his side in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape. David de Gea was the goalkeeper and the starting center-back tandem was captain Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. As is typical, Patrice Evra was first-choice at left-back while Chris Smalling was selected at right. In central-midfield, Phil Jones was positioned deepest, Ryan Giggs played in a box-to-box sort of role, and Park Ji-sung was positioned most advanced as the central-attacking-midfielder. Wayne Rooney was the lead striker and he was flanked by Nani on the right and Ashley Young on the left.
Heiko Vogel, FC Basel's caretaker manager, fielded his side in a narrow 4-4-2ish shape, although it did have elements of a 4-3-1-2 to it. Yann Sommer was the goalkeeper while the center-back duo was David Abraham and Aleksandar Dragovic. They were flanked in defense by Park Joo-Ho at left-back and Markus Steinhofer at right-back. In midfield, Xherdan Shaqiri was positionally based as a wide right player but he roamed freely across the space between the lines. Fabian Frei positioned himself narrowly and conservatively as Basel's wide left player. Cabral partnered Granit Xhaka in the center of the pitch with the former playing slightly deeper. Up front, captain Marco Streller was partnered by Alexander Frei.
1. Basel's early opening goal changed everything: Okay, perhaps that's an obvious statement since nearly every goal in football changes the complexion of any match. However, in this particular match, Streller's goal in the 9th minute brought about clear changes in approach by both sides. United were not guaranteed to go top of the top group with a victory (since Benfica had an away goal tiebreaker) and they were well aware that only a draw was required for them to go through. Therefore, it was not shocking to see Fergie deploy his side in a conservative shape and with a lack of pressing intent to start the match. After the opening goal was scored, Basel -- who needed a victory in order to advance -- began to defend deeper and United were forced to come out and play.
2. Nani and Giggs are incisive but the rest of United's attack is poor: For the remainder of the match, Basel defended deep, stayed compact, and positioned themselves narrowly. United failed to consistently break them down. However, they did create chances and these usually came from either Nani or Giggs. Nani continually got the best of his counterpart -- Park -- as he was either able to get into dangerous positions in the box or he was able to get to the byline to send in threatening crosses. In addition, Giggs was pulling the strings from the center of the pitch and it was he that was United's chief creator through the middle. The legendary 38-year-old completed more passes than any other United player (68/80 passing | 85%) and many of them were incisive (6 key passes | 2/9 crosses | 5/5 long balls). Rooney was simply wasteful with his chances as United's lead striker and Park wasn't able to get himself into goalscoring positions on enough occasions. Young was poor with the entirety of his final product.
3. Park and Jones were not ideal selections, but Fergie's choices were limited: This certainly is not an indictment on either player nor the manager. Park has been a vital contributor over the years while United have won the biggest trophies in club football and Jones' emergence is perhaps the most positive storyline of the season thus far for United. However, Park is a more natural wide player and when he is physically positioned as a number ten on the pitch, it is generally because he is tasked with using his work-rate and defensive abilities to close down a deep-lying playmaker. It is not because he is supposed to provide the traditional creative benefits of a trequartista. The job the Korean did on the great Andrea Pirlo a few seasons back, when he had him in his pocket for United's two-legged Champions League tie with Milan, best exemplifies his strengths when he is positioned as the most advanced player in a midfield trio. As for Jones, his tendency to be combative and his ball-winning ability is a nice attribute to have as a holding-midfielder. However, that isn't exactly what United needed against Basel.
Quite simply, Michael Carrick's suspension for this match was a huge loss -- especially when considering his recent fine form. United controlled possession in this match (United 58% - 42% Basel) but they needed someone to dictate play from a deep-lying position against a deep-defending Basel. The Swiss side were compact and narrow as previously mentioned, therefore, United needed to swing the ball from flank-from-flank at a faster tempo in order to use the space out wide to expose Basel. When Jones received, he was simply too slow on the ball and he often failed to read the situation quick enough, nor adequately enough. With United enjoying so much of the ball -- and this perhaps should have been anticipated -- a deep-lying playmaker was very much needed.
This brings us to Fergie's options when he made his selection choices. A poacher like Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) or a player who provides a better target for crosses like Dimitar Berbatov would have been useful -- neither were available due to injury. In addition, Danny Welbeck's fitness concerns after his recent injury likely made using him as a substitute the only safe choice. Therefore, with Federico Macheda not being a dependable choice in such an important match, Rooney was the only realistic option. Perhaps he would have been better used In Park's role while supporting one of the striker's mentioned. Fergie's hands were tied due to injury. And with Paul Scholes' retirement, United have no other option for a deep-lying playmaker if Carrick is unavailable.
4. Shaqiri shines: If a poll was taken asking which player shined most at St. Jakob-Park, undoubtedly the most frequent name mentioned would be Shaqiri's. The 20-year-old Swiss international was Basel's creative force from his free role in attack. Much like David Silva's 'interiore' role at Manchester City, Shaqiri wandered from his initial wide position on the right and actively roamed across the space between the lines. It was not an uncommon sight for him to receive through the middle or even on the left side and not have a United player within 10 yards of him. The genesis of both Basel goals were from good moves created by Shaqiri, and that he created one from each flank does well to exemplify his free movement. The youngster did well to supply his two impressive strikers -- Streller and A.Frei -- as each were able to bag a goal.
5. Streller's and A.Frei's stellar partnership: Streller's influence grew as the match wore on and especially after Vidic was forced off due to an injury. The Basel striker is a load at 6'5" and he was more effective with his hold-up play when he was up against either Ferdinand or Evans, as opposed to Vidic. Streller's understanding with A.Frei was impressive as the latter was active in his movements as the support striker. The tandem compliment each other well and their understanding is likely improved due to their involvement together on the Switzerland's national team. Both were impressive in both ties versus United this season.
5. Late adjustments: As mentioned earlier, Fergie's options were limited. For the most part, United were dictating the match and they were creating chances -- they simply were wasteful and their final product was lacking at times. In addition, a more effective deep-lying playmaker was needed but one was not available on the bench, let alone to start. Perhaps United would have been better off had they made like-for-like substitutions and simply pressed more with some fresh legs. However, Fergie brought on Welbeck and switched the shape of his side from 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid to 4-4-2. Young came off and Park moved out wide. Later, Macheda came on for Park and it was Rooney that moved out wide in a cousin, and more ambitious 4-2-4 shape.
Vogel did not substitute until the 83rd minute and it was simply a like-for-like one. Not until his side scored again to go up 2-0 did he make negative substitutions. United's removal of a midfielder for another striker made it difficult for them to maintain the possession advantage that they were enjoying. Without viable tactical options on the bench, Fergie may have been better off using fresh legs and hoping that United's finishing became more clinical. They were very unlucky not have scored another goal or two.
Basel did not outplay United over two-legs but it would be wrong to suggest that United were more deserving than the Swiss side in regards to earning advancement to the knockout stages of the Champions League. It is what it is and United only have their lackluster performances during their six group stage matches to blame for their failure. Not even the two victories over Otelul Galati were that convincing. United missed Carrick versus Basel, but it's concerning that they may be that dependent on him -- and his fluctuating form -- going forward. Even prior to the news of Darren Fletcher's upcoming 'break' from football due to health reasons, Fergie needed reinforcements in midfield. Javi Martinez anyone (this is the hope of this writer)?