On this European night at Veltins Arena, Manchester United gave one of their more memorable away performances by showing clear superiority in their 0-2 victory over Schalke 04. The Reds were so brilliant in this away UEFA Champions League semi-final tie, that the consensus is it's a shame the margin of victory wasn't higher. Despite being a juggernaut throughout the entire evening, it took until the 67th minute for Ryan Giggs to break through for United. Just two minutes later, Wayne Rooney added another and United were well on their way to an impressive victory. This performance was so convincing and thorough, that it's nearly impossible to imagine a final at Wembley without United there.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS:
In basic terms, United played in a 4-4-2 but their shape may better be described as 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-1-1. Edwin van der Sar was in goal while Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were the center-back tandem. Patrice Evra played at left-back while Fabio filled in at right-back for the injured John O'Shea and not fully fit Rafael. Michael Carrick shielded the defense as a deep-lying playmaker and Giggs joined him in the center of the pitch in a more attack-minded role. Park Ji-sung was the wide left player and Antonio Valencia wide on the right. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez was the striker and Rooney played in a withdrawn and central playmaking role.
Schalke played in a 4-4-2 shape as well. Manuel Neuer was in between the posts. Christoph Metzelder and Joel Matip were the center-back pairing, the latter deputising for the injured Benedikt Howedes. Hans Sarpei lined up as the left-back while Atsuto Uchida played as the right-back. Kyriakos Papadopoulos was the holding midfielder and Jose Jurado joined him in the central midfield with more freedom to get forward. Alexander Baumjohann was the wide left player and Jefferson Farfan was the wide right player. Edu was the striker and Raul played off of him in support.
When United were in possession: United were quick, intelligent, and incisive with their passing. They were equally as impressive with their movements. This all added up to some breathtaking and sensational football on the break. Schalke were throwing players forward in this match, especially their full-backs and Jurado. When United won the ball back, they were often countering against only three, four, or at most five Schalke defenders. There were massive channels to exploit and space behind a Schalke defense that appeared to poorly communicate and poorly attempt a high-line in defense. United did well to vary their attack; they were tidy in possession through Carrick and Giggs in the middle, they had a crative attacker higher up the pitch in Rooney, and they were getting good width from Valencia on the right and Evra on the left.
When Schalke were in possession: The German side were as advertised and they had a go at United. As mentioned, Schalke were attempting to throw waves of attackers forward with Jurado and their full-backs. When they were in the attacking third, movement and quick passing seemed to be the emphais; with the apparent goal of trying to drag a defender out of position so that an attacking channel could be opened up. There were a few threatening moments throughout the match, but United generally stayed organized and compact while Schalke rarely had genuine goal-scoring chances. As the match wore on, it was evident that Schalke's biggest threat in attack versus Inter Milan, their full-backs, had been nullified by Park and Valencia. With their full-backs erased from the game, the rest of Schalke's attackers simply didn't do enough to keep possession and the attack quickly sputtered.
A LOOK AT SOME KEY INDIVIDUALS:
* Rooney vs Papadopolous: In Schalke's quarter-final tie versus Inter, Papadopolous (I hate typing this name now) did reasonably well marking Wesley Sneijder. For Inter, Sneijder occupies similar space to Rooney; both are central attacking playmakers for their sides. In tonight's match, Papadopolous struggled mightily to contain Rooney. With Jurado failing to track back and defend, and with Schalke's attempt at playing a high-line being so poor, Rooney had acres of space to exploit. Wazza took full advantage of this and he helped dictate play. He not only dropped deep, but he continually moved wide and created space for Giggs and Park to run on into as well. He was both incisive and accurate with his passing according to UEFA.com. He completed 37 passes out of an attempted 45 (82%); more impressive when you consider the direct nature of his distribution. Our talismanic number ten was superb again tonight whilst contributing a goal and an assist.
* Park/Evra vs Farfan/Uchida: Schalke's effective wide play versus Inter may have been the primary reason that the German side advanced past the defending European champs. Inter plays extremely narrow, thus, Schalke's full-backs continually got forward into the attack and created 2 v 1 situations on the flanks; this broke Inter down. This was a match-up made for Park, who typically is called upon anyway for European matches. Uchida continually broke forward into the attack in support of Farfan, but Park was superb at tracking back. When United would regain possession in their own half, Park would often come central during the counterattack while Evra broke forward down the left flank. Farfan wasn't nearly as hard-working or as tactically astute at tracking back on Evra as Park was on Uchida. It's fair to say that Park and Evra got the best of their counterparts in this key battle.
* Valencia/Fabio vs Baumjohann/Sarpei: On the other flank, this match-up was completely one-sided. Sarpei tried to get forward early in the match, but as the match wore on, Valencia had completely pinned back the full-back. In addition, Sarpei struggled mightily with his defending as Valencia continually beat him 1 v 1; and often 2 v 1 when Fabio got forward into the attack. Baumjohann was poor in the match as well. He continually drifted towards the center of the pitch and failed to yield his influence there. This resulted in space being opened up for Fabio to run into; no other player on the pitch for either side had quite the space that the Brazilian had. This helps explain why Fabio was often so free to get forward into the attack. Schalke manager Raif Rangnick may want to consider a personnel switch here for next week's match.
* Neuer: Much has already been said about his superb performance tonight, especially during the first half. Despite United being so dominant throughout the first hour or so, it was an uneasy time for it's supporters because it seemed impossible to beat Neuer. Despite being called off-side in the 2nd half on what seemed to be a breakthrough goal, Chicharito perhaps gave his side the belief that the Germany No 1 could be beaten. Soon after, the floodgates opened and the goals came. It's a shame that Neuer is likely headed to Bayern Munich; ever since van der Sar announced that he was to retire at season's end, the current Schalke goalkeeper has been my number one choice to replace the Dutchman. He only further confirmed my belief in his ability tonight with his performance.
* Chicharito: On another night, and against another goalkeeper, Chicharito may have had one, two, or even three goals. He had many chances on goal; some wasteful and some thwarted away on world class saves by Neuer. However, the Mexican striker influenced the match in other ways as well; mainly with his intelligent movement. I'm continually amazed that he could have such a brilliant football mind at such a young age. A microcosm of United's attack occurred on their first goal: Rooney was poorly tracked by Papadopolous and came deep for the ball in space, Chicharito's fantastic lateral movement dragged a center-back out of position to the right, Giggs from the central midfield darted into this open space that was created by Rooney's and Chicharito's movement, Rooney then slipped Giggs through and 37-year-old was able to beat Neuer 1 v 1.
* Carrick & Giggs: Both were wonderful. But both were allowed to be wonderful because of Rangnick's woeful tactics. Despite Jurado's ambitious position high up the pitch, he rarely closed down on Carrick and the United playmaker had time and space on the ball to dictate play. He was 94/108 (87%) with his passing. Giggs was a bit wasteful with his finishing despite his goal; but the Welshman was terrific on the evening overall. He became the oldest goal-scorer in Champions League history with his goal. He also got into the attack with delayed and surging runs and he did well to link play as well (58/79 passing -- 73%). With Jurado somewhat tracking Carrick, and with Papadopolous marking Rooney, Giggs was often the free man. The two United central midfielders bossed the match in the center of the pitch.
* Ferdinand & Vidic: When healthy, there isn't another center-back pairing in the world that is better than Rio and Vida. As previously mentioned, Schalke's attacking intention appeared to be to drag United out of their defensive shape with movement and quick passing. This rarely happened. The duo were superb with their positioning, defending, and likely with their communication. They were even superb with their passing as well which helped United quickly ignite counterattacks: Ferdinand was 87/93 (94%) while Vidic was 71/83 (86%). According to Opta, their counterparts, Raul and Edu, only had a combined 58 touches on the ball while the goalkeeper Neuer had 60. This is a very telling comparison.
* Matip & Metzelder: Not much more needs to be said other than they were very poor. Losing Howedes to injury was a massive blow to his side as this match might have been too big of a stage for the 19-year-old Matip. Schalke were poorly organized in defense and this was often likely because of the center-backs. The movement of Chicharito and Rooney was dragging their counterparts around the pitch like they were chess pieces. Again, this created space for midfield runners.
* United were obviously brilliant, but Schalke were shockingly bad as well. I'm still in disbelief on just how bad the German side was. I don't think anybody doubted that United were clearly more talented, but despite the turmoil around the German club this season, I don't think anybody expected Schalke to be that poorly organized in defense and that poor with their tactics.
* Tactically, Schalke were simply stumped once it was evident that their full-backs were erased from the match by Park and Valencia. They had no plan B.
* Despite the dominant display, it is disappointing that United couldn't score more goals. A 3-0 or 4-0 scoreline would have been fully deserving. With the second leg sandwiched in between important league ties versus Arsenal FC and Chelsea FC, it would have been nice to have the luxury of rotating players for the return leg at Old Trafford. It's difficult to imagine that Schalke can win this tie, but United still have work left to do. Although, Fergie did hint after the match at the possibility of rotating his squad for the return leg:
"Depending on the result on Sunday (at Arsenal), I could make two or three changes because we play Chelsea the following weekend"
Source: Manchester Evening News
* My man of the match: Honestly, every single player on the pitch for United had a strong match. So did Neuer for Schalke. But if I have to choose one single player, I pick our talisman; Rooney.
* Clear your calendars for 28 May, you likely have a match to attend at Wembley or watch on television.
* Here is video of Fergie's post-match interview:
Alex Ferguson Interview behind Schalke vs ManUtd (via CL2011Goals1)