They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. For 73 agonizing minutes, my heart yearned for a certain copper top to appear in order to spice things up. Then he suddenly did. Midfield maestro Paul Scholes came on for 17 minutes and injected passing wizardry into a lifeless Manchester United attack, but the brief encounter was not enough. United were held to a goalless draw at Stade Velodrome in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League match by hosts Olympique de Marseille. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson surprised many by starting Darron Gibson over Scholes, but the 23 year-old failed to yield much influence on this European night. The match contained shifts in momentum throughout, but neither side appeared to be a genuine threat. United will welcome Marseille to Old Trafford in three weeks time for the return leg in a favorable position, but still with plenty of work to be done in order to advance to the quarter-finals of Champions League play. The lack of an away goal may be somewhat worrisome, especially when considering United's recent fortunes in similar predicaments.
OPENING LINEUPS AND FORMATIONS:
Manchester United played in a '4-3-3' shape. Dimitar Berbatov lead the attacking line in the center. Wayne Rooney played on the left flank, and often drifted towards the center. Nani played on the right flank and stayed closer to his touchline than Rooney did on his. Michael Carrick played deep in the central midfield, just ahead of the center-backs in a holding position, and also as a double pivot when United were in possession. Darren Fletcher was also employed in the center of the pitch in a box-to-box role, and also slightly left-center. Gibson was the third central midfielder, playing slightly higher up the pitch than Fletcher and generally farther to the right. Patrice Evra played left-back, and made many forward over-lapping runs in support of Rooney when the latter tucked inside. Right-back John O'Shea was a bit more conservative than Evra and stayed back in his own half more. The center-back pairing was captain Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling, the latter deputizing for the injured Rio Ferdinand.
Gibson might have been inserted into the line-up over Scholes in order to provide a bit more energy and pace. Despite the Northern Irishman's inclusion, the '4-3-3' shape that United used was intended to be attack-minded in nature. Only Carrick played deep, and Gibson had the freedom to join the attack. Often a '4-3-3' shape includes two double pivots, which can resemble a '4-2-3-1,' but that wasn't the case for United at tonight's start.
Marseille typically play with a '4-3-3' shape, but their lineup resembled more of a '4-2-3-1' shape. In the central midfield, Charles Kabore and Edouard Cisse were used as holding players, with the former often providing cover for left-back Gabriel Heinze when in defense. The two holding players freed up Lucho into the attack higher up the pitch, and the Argentinean was free to act as a play-maker and link player to the attack. Rod Fanni played right-back, and was joined in the defense by the center-back pairing of Stephane M'Bia and Souleymane Diawara. In the attack, Brandao was the central striker, and he was flanked by Andre Ayew on the left and Loic Remy on the right. These three attackers were fluid in nature and interchaning often, especially Brandao and Ayew. It all looked a bit like this:
Further tactical breakdown after the jump...
* The opening 20 minutes was more free-flowing than most had anticipated. United started well and the freedom that Fletcher and Gibson had to join the attack displayed an away side that was initially attack-minded.
* Evra was really bombing forward in the opening moments of the match, and the Frenchman seemed invigorated by being back on native soil. Once again, Rooney gave his manager tactical flexibility as he was tasked out wide left due to the limited selection of wide players for United at the moment. But he kept drifting towards the center of the pitch, where he is clearly more comfortable. In the attacking half of the pitch for Marseille, Remy was tucking in central and didn't occupy the touchline much. This all provided acres of space down the entire left touchline for Evra to occupy and exploit. It was a class performance for Evra, both defensively and an in attack.
* On the opposite side of the pitch, O'Shea was more reserved, but he did pick times to join the attack. O'Shea was often dragged toward the center of the pitch by Ayew's movement. Both Brandao and Ayew were interchangeable on that side of the pitch, and in general, Smalling and O'Shea did well to communicate in handling this fluidity from the Marseille attackers. I remember two separate occasions where Smalling got dragged out too far by the movement of Brandao and Lucho, but in general the young defender was very solid. Another masterful performance for Ferdinand's deputy.
* Nani had a clear pace advantage on Heinze, and the Marseille left-back required the cover services of Kabore for help. It had initially looked like Nani was going to abuse the former United defender throughout the evening, but Kabore's help and Nani's wastefulness at times made the match one to forget the Portuguese winger. In the past, teams have tried to have the left attacking player provide help to their left-back in order to deal with Nani, but typically with unsuccessful results. Marseille had their left-attacking player high up the pitch in attack, and had one of their two holding midfielders provide inside cover on Nani leaving few chances for the United winger to exploit Heinze's lack of pace in one-on-one situations. This also forced Nani to track back more often than he typically does in order to help in defense.
* About 20-25 minutes into the match, Marseille began to grow into it. Their tempo really picked up and they began to increase their pressure on United at this point. It was a game-changer. The pressing was high up the pitch, and United struggled to consistently deal with it. Fletcher had a string of poor passes from this point and until the half, which resulted from him not being able to adequately cope with the increased pressure. Carrick kept the passes simple and tried to ping the ball around, but at times he needed to provide a more positive pass since Fletcher was struggling to deal with the pressure. Gibson at this point needed to come deeper and provide a link to help relieve pressure, but he was very liberal with his freedom and stayed closer to the attack, rather than linking play. Gibson wasn't poor on the ball when he had it, he was just poorly positioned and didn't have the tactical awareness to adjust. The main result of this pressure was that Marseille was winning the ball back in United's half of the pitch, thus in a dangerous position. Fortunately for United, Lucho wasn't much of a factor at this point and the rest of the attackers couldn't come up with enough creativity, vision, or skill to unlock the United defense. Despite being on their heels for the remainder of the half, the Red Devils were never threatened much.
* At this point, it would have been very nice to have Scholes on the pitch. Because Carrick wasn't hitting the incisive pass to relieve pressure, as was his role to an extent (unfairly or not) by being paired with Fletcher and Gibson, the attackers weren't being given service. The only times that United appeared to threaten in minutes 20-45 were on counter-attacks, but Scholes likely would have provided better service with his trademark long diagonal passes to the flanks. At this point of the match, Marseille's vulnerability on the counter-attack was the space behind Heinze, where Nani would have had time and space to exploit him one-on-one. Unfortunately, he wasn't provided enough service. Same goes for Berbatov as a chain-of-effect result. Berba needed the link-up play with Rooney or crosses from Nani. At this point, I was screaming like a mad man for Scholes.
* Ayew was the only the attacking player who worried me at all, as his quickness was somewhat troublesome for O'Shea. Maybe Rafael would have been better suited for this match-up?
* With all the movement between Brandao and Ayew on United's right side (Marseille's left), Vidic was often the free defender to sweep up any mess. He did this well. He picked up on a few sneaky runs into the box by Lucho when Smalling occupied Brandao or Ayew, and Vida even tracked a few diagonal runs by Remy when Evra was higher up the pitch into the attack. The Serbian was extremely well positioned throughout the evening, and was strong in tackle as always. Another fantastic match from our skipper; Vidic deserves to be PFA and FWA player of the Year at this point.
* No substitutions (bring on Scholes!!!) or formation changes at half.
* More of the same to begin the half. Marseille continued to pressure, and clearly were feeding off the energy of their frenzied supporters. In what's starting to become a concerning pattern, our central midfield failed to cope with the pressure. I'm sure Fergie and his staff addressed this at half, but there's not much you can do if you simply don't have the skill and football brain to deal with it. Fletcher is a lightning rod for criticism, but he's a fantastic footballer if you pair him with the right partners. He's a great bulldog if he's surrounded by good and creative passers (e.g. Scholes, Carrick at times, Anderson at times, Giggs when he's central), but he can appear rubbish when paired with a struggling Carrick and an inexperienced Gibson.
* For about a 25 minute stretch to start the 2nd half, United were getting completely overrun and it progressively got worse. The midfield at this point was hopeless, and they couldn't involve the attack, let alone relieve pressure for their own defense. Marseille completely bossed the game at this point, but never had the ability to unlock the solid back four of our defense. However, no matter how rubbish the side, if you give them enough chances, the probability of one lucky strike or bounce goes up significantly. This was the threat to United at this point. It both felt like (to me at least) a goal was coming, but it also felt that it wasn't.
* Berbatov was drifting more to the left this half to link up with Rooney. This allowed M'Bia to provide cover for Heinze on counter-attacks directed towards Nani, and Marseille's left-back Heinze. This was needed because as Marseille grew more confident and had more of the possession, Kabore was getting forward a bit more. Therefore, the only threat was space on a counter-attack for Nani when Kabore was high up the pitch. This bit of space was United's most threatening channel but..... we didn't have the center-midfielder on the pitch who was able to provide the service on a consistent basis (Scholes likely agrees).
* Benoit Cheyrou subbed in for Cisse, and the substitute played higher up the pitch than the man he replaced. Marseille manager Didier Dechamps may have decided to chase the goal at home with this positive substitution. Kabore slid centrally into a strict holding role. Now cover was there for Heinze again by Kabore as the latter was clearly instructed to support his back four defenders.
* Not long after, Fergie made his one and only tactical move by bringing on Scholes in the 73rd minute. United shifted their shape to a very postive '4-4-2,' but it more resembled a '4-2-4.' Scholes and Carrick played deep and United now had two double pivots to help relieve pressure. Nani switched sides to the left flank, and Fletcher moved out to the right flank. Rooney moved up top to pair with Berbatov, and both strikers often came deep towards Scholes and Carrick looking to link play with the two central midfielders. It looked like this about the 75 minute mark:
* Bringing on Scholes and changing United's shape completely shifted the match's momentum in United's favor again. Scholes' direct approach began to trouble Marseille. Carrick came to life as well at this point and linked well with Scholes, and together they were able to work the ball into the attack. United went from playing for a 0-0 draw with Marseille having run of play, to looking for a winner and the crucial away goal. The attack came alive, and play really opened up for both sides in the closing minutes.
*EDIT* According to Total Football's iPhone app, Scholes completed 24 out of an attempted 25 passes during his 17 minutes. That is exceptional.
* Deschamps possibly sensed an openness to the game, and maybe along with his desire to win at home, he made a positive substitution and brought on French international Mathieu Valbuena. Cheyrou moved a bit deeper, and Marseille now had two midfield creators in Lucho and Valbuena.
* The match opened up, United looked much improved, but neither side could come up with a moment of brilliance to unlock the stalemate. A goalless 0-0 draw seemed deserving for both sides.
* Man of the Match: I want to give it to Sir Alex Ferguson but for Marseille's sake. I've said it before... I respect the hell out of Fergie and I believe he's the greatest football manager that has ever roamed the Earth; and he knows more about football in his left pinkie fingernail than I'll ever know. But he really should have started Scholes, especially with there being rumblings that Scholes is unhappy with playing time. If it comes to light that Scholes was somewhat injured, then I understand. Otherwise, Fergie really hurt his squad tonight by not having his midfield maestro out there. As for the players, I give it to Vidic, Smalling, and Evra.... all were superb. I can't distinguish one over another.
* I keep trying not to get overly excited about Smalling, but he has been superb filling in for Ferdinand. Jonny Evans played well last year, but hasn't so much this year. This is the reason I'm trying to curtail my excitement for the young lad. But what a big time performance on a big time stage. The derby and this match show signs that he's going to be a terrific footballer. He really is Rio 2.0 in his ability to read the game, intercept passes, and ignite the attack from the back with his composure on the ball.
* Rooney wasn't brilliant by any means, even if I argue he didn't have the chance to be often enough due to poor service from the midfield. But a blue-collar effort from him tonight, he defended well on the left flank and did decently well to play as a true winger.
* Nani was our biggest threat... but also our biggest disappointment tonight. This was Nani from season's prior, not the world-class winger we've been witness to for much of the current season.
* I can't blame Berba for much because he got no service as well. The one time I can remember where he maybe should have done better was a break late in the game, where Scholes showed disgust that Berba didn't lay one off for him to strike on goal.... and instead passed to Nani.
* I'm curious to know if Rafael is now second-choice to O'Shea or if the Brazilian defender is just banged up a bit. Perhaps both?
* The fact that we're this poor in the midfield without Scholes is alarming. Very alarming. Hopefully reinforcements come in the summer. Even if our main point of attack is always going to be from our wide players, we still need central midfielders that can create in order to actually service our wingers, and also provide another point of attack centrally if teams attempt to shut down attacking channels on the flanks. Ando being out magnifies this problem, both for quality and depth. If I understood Deschamps' quotes correctly prior to the match, then I agree with him that we lack a bit of "fantasy."
* Passing certainly appears to be important; midfield passing, or lack of it, shows correlation to goal-scoring as evidenced by the statistical analysis done by Graham MacAree, of SB Nation's Chelsea FC blog. Keep the ball and you have more scoring chances; lose the ball in dangerous areas (midfield, defense) and you tend to give up goals. United might be another great case study for that.
* Getting back to the point of United being vulnerable to teams that press up the pitch against us. Obviously, no team is completely comfortable with it, United is no exception. However, we seem to be extremely vulnerable to it and I suspect this explains why we don't play as well away from Old Trafford. Teams are likely to employ this tactic more at home where players can feed off their supporters; no team can press for a full 90 minutes, not even Barcelona. At Old Trafford, teams are less likely to press us and are wiling to invite pressure and attack on the counter. I suspect this somewhat explains the stark contrast in our home and away form.
* I'm confident that we'll prevail at Old Trafford, but I'll be a nervous mess at Old Trafford if Marseille bag a goal. I hope lack of away goals don't come back to bite us in the ass.... again.
* We're certainly in a advantageous position with Marseille, and in hindsight, 0-0 may prove to be a positive result considering the injuries the club is dealing with.
* I know what you readers are thinking.... that I'm into gingers. I'm really not, I prefer brunettes, but I've had a recent affection for blondes after a holiday in Sweden/Denmark this past Autumn.
* For all the criticism and negative tone I may have portrayed tonight, I'll leave on a positive note... I tip my cap to the class defensive performance by our club tonight. Fantastic effort. Grit and guts.