As mentioned in recent posts here at TBB, we are publishing tactical reviews for the past few matches prior to the current international break. Here are five points of analysis on Manchester United's 3-3 draw with FC Basel at Old Trafford from September 27.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson elected to play in a 4-4-1-1 shape. David De Gea was in goal and the center-back tandem was Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand. They were flanked in defense by Patrice Evra on the left and Fabio on the right. In the central midfield, both Anderson and Michael Carrick were deployed in box-to-box roles while Ryan Giggs played more advanced in a free role as the central-attacking-midfielder. Danny Welbeck was the striker and he was flanked in the attack by Ashley Young on the left and Antonio Valencia on the right.
FC Basel played in a narrow 4-4-2 shape. Yann Sommer was between the posts with Aleksander Dragovic and David Angel Abraham the center-back duo. Park Joo-Ho was the left-back and opposite of him at right-back was Markus Steinhofer. Granit Xhaka and Cabral were the tandem in the center of the park for the Swiss side and they were flanked by Fabian Frei on the right and Jacques Zoua on the left. Up front, Alexander Frei and Marco Strellar were the striker pairing.
1. Full-back track back failure: There were two areas that caused major difficulties for United and one of them was the poor defending from their full-backs. Both Fabio and Evra were marauding forward throughout the entire time each was on the pitch -- the latter proved a threat going forward and contributed with a cutback on United's opening goal -- but both were poor in tracking back and allowed their counterparts to get in behind them (reader Varadharajan Ramesh did well in explaining a specific instance in regards to Fabio). For Evra, he was simply letting Fabian Frei continually slip inside of him and Steinhofer did well with overlapping runs to exploit open space on the flank. For Fabio, he was over-aggressive at times in getting forward and he continually let Zoua slip in behind him -- this often stretched the defense by forcing Ferdinand to come out wide and defend one-on-one in space. The full-backs contributed to the attack in the 1st half but were liabilities in defense -- particularly on the counter. They contributed very little in the early portion of the 2nd half when United's attack began to sputter.
2. Lack of a holding-midfielder: Another area that caused the Reds trouble was the lack of a holding player in central-midfield and this was evident in two ways: (1) They lacked a defender to naturally defend the space between the lines and this often caused Jones to come out high and be dragged out. In turn, this often resulted in Rio being forced to deal with a runner through and his pace was lacking on this particular evening (lack of fitness or has age simply caught up with him? Or a little of both at this point in time?) (2) The other effect that this had was lack of cover for our marauding full-backs. A deep-lying midfielder shielding the defense may have allowed for better cover for both Evra and Fabio when they surged forward. A good example of this is Chelsea FC's John Mikel Obi covering for Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa or FC Barcelona's Sergio Busquets covering for Dani Alves.
Last season, Carrick played quite deep during the run-in and he provided protection for Giggs' forward runs from central midfield and for our full-back's runs forward. This season, our central midfielders have generally shared responsibility in box-to-box roles -- when one goes forward, the other is supposed to cover. However, neither naturally sits deep enough to play the role of a true holding player. For an attack as fluid and interchangeable as United's, the space between the lines is exploitable without anyone occupying that space. Perhaps this is the main reason why United have conceded so many shots on goal this season. In this match, both Ando and Carrick were box-to-box midfielders playing behind a free-roaming Giggs.
3. United's attack: In the 1st half, the United attack was both fluid and dangerous -- much of this was due to the sheer aggression of their attack. As a result, and as just discussed, this exposed them in defense. Both Ando and Carrick did well to dictate the match from the center of the park. The latter completed 78 passes at a superb 97% success rate -- he particularly did well at switching play when Basel's defense began to lean too heavily on one side. The quick switches, in combination with sheer numbers of attackers United had, allowed for them to overload Basel at times in attack and this created chances.
Further up in the attack, both Young and Valencia simply got the best of their counterparts on the flanks -- it was a nice bounce-back match for the former after a quiet one versus Stoke City. Giggs did well to find pockets of space while roaming in attack behind Welbeck. Basel didn't really have a true holding player either in the center and Giggsy did well to continually find space between the lines -- he found space there on Welbeck's second goal when he sublimely played a ball through for the assist. As for Welbeck, his off-the-ball movement has really improved. He did well to drop deep and link play but he also smartly make a good run on his second goal when he made a diagonal run into open space after Giggs dragged out one of the center-backs into the space between the lines.
4. Basel's attack: Basel's draw is certainly deserved and the chances they created were nearly equal to United's -- certainly the quality of them was equal. The shortcomings of United's defending in this match have been discussed but it should be noted that Basel did well to take full advantage (well mostly). Fabian Frei did well to continually slip inside from the wide right area of the pitch to space between the lines. In addition, the striker tandem of Alexander Frei and Strellar were active and intelligent with their movement as well. The sum of this was a fluid and interchangeable attack. United's lack of a holding player and their full-backs being caught out allowed Basel to continually break down the defense with one-touch and incisive passing.
Basel's attack was supplemented by Xhaka from the central midfield with his range of passing and vision. In addition, both full-backs did well to pick their spots on when to get forward and help provide width in attack. If it wasn't for a few wasted chances early on and a few superb saves by de Gea, the Swiss side easily could added more to their three-goal haul at Old Trafford.
5. 2nd half tactical adjustments: One could make an argument that each manager got their substitutions and tactical adjustments wrong in the 2nd half. The first switch that was made was bringing on Park Ji-sung for Giggs in the 61st minute. When the substitution was made, Basel had just equalised to make it 2-2. Fergie likely had the substitution planned with a 2-1 scoreline and with the thought that Park's defensive abilities were useful at that point in the match. However, bringing Park on for Giggs in a like-for-like substitution in this match, even with the lead, didn't make much sense. Park is generally used best in two situations: (1) When he's asked to erase an attacking full-back while deployed on either flank or (2) when he's the most advanced central midfielder in a midfield trio so that he can harass the deep-lying playmaker on the opposing side. In addition, he's lethal on the counter-attack. However, none of these situations applied here -- in neither a 2-1 or 2-2 scoreline nor versus Basel's personnel -- and it would be fair to ask Fergie why he made this substitution.
When Basel miraculously scored three consecutive goals in an 18 minute span in the 2nd half to take a 3-2 lead, they were in complete control of the match. They then took their foot off the pedal and immediately made negative substitutions while changing into a more defensive shape. Perhaps they should have kept attacking. It's understandable why Basel manager Thorsten Fink made these changes but it's fair to ask whether they were the right decisions. It's impossible to say how the match would have turned out had Basel kept attacking though.
The other decision by Fergie that could be questioned is not the decision to bring on Nani for Fabio and Dimitar Berbatov on for Anderson, but rather were those substitutions made too late? Fabio was having a shocker in defense and he was useless in the 2nd half when United's attack sputtered. Perhaps the in-form Nani should have been brought on sooner allowing Valencia to move back to right-back. In addition, when Berbatov was brought on, a change of shape resulted -- Park moved back deeper into central midfield with Carrick now in a holding role in a 4-4-2/4-2-4 hybrid shape. This provided a bit more balance against Basel and perhaps the change should have been made earlier.
Conclusion: Overall, it was a 4-4-1-1 versus a 4-4-2 with both sides using their full-backs in attack and neither side using a holding player. Thus, it was always likely to be an open match. Each team was exploited by fluid attacks in the predictable spaces -- between the lines and behind the full-backs. If either manager would have made alternative decisions in the last half-hour, perhaps one could have won the match with an astute tactical move. Arguably, neither did. Overall, 3-3 appears to be a deserved scoreline in this open and entertaining match. United certainly expected three points from this match and two draws after two group stage matches leaves them with plenty of work to be done still in order to win the group. The Reds will still likely advance to the knock-out stages but Arsenal FC's failure to not win their group last season should be a lesson -- they drew Barca in the first round of the knock-out stages as a result. Perhaps this shocking draw should further provide another lesson that advancement from this group should not be assumed.