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Manchester United 2-1 Olympique de Marseille (UEFA Champions League): a Tactical review

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On Tuesday evening at Old Trafford, Manchester United FC earned passage to the quarter-final of the UEFA Champions League by defeating Olympique de Marseille by a 2-1 aggregate; all goals in the two-legged tie were scored at Old Trafford. Javier 'Chicharito' bagged a brace in the 2nd leg to put United up two goals, but an own-goal by United defender Wes Brown on a Marseille corner-kick made the final minutes a nervy-affair for the home side before United held on for victory.


With the significant injury concerns of Manchester United and the variety of tactics that manager Sir Alex Ferguson has used as of late, it was anybody's guess as to what lineup and shape would be used. United played the majority of the match in a '4-2-3-1' shape; Edwin van der Sar was in goal with Brown and Chris Smalling deputizing at center-back for the injured Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Patrice Evra was at left-back and John O'Shea got the nod at right-back over Rafael. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick played deep in the central midfield as double pivots. On the flanks in attack, Ryan Giggs played on the left and Nani returned from injury to play on the right. Wayne Rooney played in a withdrawn playmaking role as he was essentially a center attacking midfielder. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez played as the striker.

As for Marseille, they came out in a relatively predictable lineup. Marseille's typical shape is a '4-3-3', but they played in more of a '4-1-4-1' shape at Old Trafford. Just as in their previous match-up at Rennes, Gabriel Heinze was moved from left-back to center-back and Taye Taiwo was brought in to play left-back. Souleymane Diawara was the other center-back and Rod Fanni was at right-back. Stephane M'Bia played as a holding midfielder and sat much deeper than his central midfield partners, Lucho Gonzalez and Benoit Cheyrou. Andre Ayew was on the left flank in attack, Loic Remy on the right, and Andre Pierre-Gignac was the fulcrum of the attack up front. 

Because this is a Manchester United blog, I'm going to be writing this review from more a United vantage point:


* Rooney: It was evident quite early that Rooney's movement, vision, and range of passing were on a level that was out of this world on Tuesday night. It could all be seen on just the build-up to Chicharito's first goal: Wazza received the ball, played a sublime pass with the outside of his right foot to Giggs on the left flank, then he sprinted 30 yards up the pitch to receive back from Giggs, and then split two defenders with a pass across goal that found Chicharito for the tap in. That sequence did well to summarize Rooney's entire evening, especially in the early going.

Wazza continually came deep for the ball in between Marseille's defense and midfield and he was often free to receive, turn, and hit an incisive pass through or around the opposing defense. M'Bia, who was deployed as the defensive midfielder, was the natural foil to Rooney, however the normally used center-back did poor to track the United attacker. This may have resulted from a combination of M'Bia being tactically confused and Rooney's work-rate and wit allowing him to slip his marker.

* Scholes & Carrick: United were also in control of possession due to the tremendous passing of Scholes and Carrick (56%-44% possession advantage overall for United). Both, from their roles as a double pivot in the '4-2-3-1',  did well to help maintain possession by linking well with Rooney and spraying balls diagonally to the flanks. The 36-year-old Scholes was absolutely bossing the central midfield in the first half but seemed to tire as the match wore on. After the completing 43 out of an attempted 49 passes in the first half, the midfield maestro faded in activity and accuracy as evidenced by 24/31passing in the 2nd half. (Chalkboard provided by Total Football iPhone app)

Carrick completed 54 out of an attempted 59 passes. 

Giggs, Nani, & Valencia: The wide players were receiving consistent service Scholes, Carrick, and Rooney. Giggs from his wide left position, continually came inside and did well to link play throughout the evening. He had a part in both goals; the first as previously described and in the second, Giggs played a simple cross for Chicharito allowing the Mexican striker to finish his 2nd goal. Nani returned from injury in this match after being sidelined by a horrific Jamie Carragher challenge at Anfield. Perhaps these quotes from Nani help explain his struggles:

"My leg is OK," he said. "It is not 100% and the confidence is not the same. I know players always like to tackle me so I have to be careful. That is why my football was not the best"

However, credit should also be given to Marseille left-back Taiwo as he did well to defend the Portuguese winger. Valencia came on in the 62nd minute, seemingly to spell Nani for fitness concerns and to continue his comeback after the Ecuadorian's own injury. The winger continued to show positive signs as his pace, direct play, and work rate provided United a spark in the last half-hour of the match.

Chicharito: Although it's possible that Sir Alex prefers the Mexican striker only in certain tactical match-ups, it appears more likely that Chicharito has surpassed the Premier League's leading goal-scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, as the preferred striker option. Once again, the speedy Mexican was superb in his movements and he's shown a consistent ability to time and make the right runs in order to slip markers for goal-scoring opportunities. He's also very clinical in his finishing as according to Opta, Chicharito has scored with 13 of his 20 shots on target in both the Premier League and Champions League.

The Full-backs: Evra was fairly conservative in his runs forwards, and the captain for the evening didn't join the attack as often as he typically does. On the other side of the pitch, O'Shea surprisingly seemed more liberal in his decision making to get forward in the attack and a result, he was pinning Ayew back. After his injury, the normally attack-minded Rafael came on but the Brazilian was very selective in his runs forward. 



Brown and Smalling: In short, they were poor as a unit. Smalling has been terrific deputizing for the injured Ferdinand, however, in the two recent matches where he hasn't had Vidic as his center-back partner, the youngster has struggled. The main issue appears to be communication and as a result, positioning. Too often, both were dragged in the same direction towards the same threat and neither provided the other cover. In addition, often one defender would get dragged out wide by Pierre-Gignac's movement, but the other wouldn't slide over and provide cover; this exposed United to wide open channels for Marseille's attack. Marseille had plenty of goal-scoring opportunities due to defensive breakdowns, but they were wasteful. In contrast, United were more clinical in their opportunities. This chalkboard shows 1st half opportunities:


* Evra vs Remy: As previously mentioned, Evra didn't get forward into the attack as often as he typically does. This was due to Remy pinning him back. Remy exhibited both creativity and pace and it appeared to have worried either/both Evra himself and Fergie. The United skipper for the evening was fortunate to escape a booking or two for rash challenges, perhaps thanks should be given to the captain's armband. 

* A.Ayew: The opposite of Remy occurred on Marseille's left attacking flank. In the previous match at Stade Velodrome, Ayew caused O'Shea trouble with his quickness and willingness to take on defenders. In that first leg, O'Shea was pinned back, rarely joined the attack, and appeared to be concerned with the fluid interchanging movement of Ayew and the center-forward. At Old Trafford, O'Shea was getting forward and forcing Ayew to retreat back in order to assist in defense. When Rafael came on for the injured O'Shea, and later Fabio for the injured Rafael, this changed as the substitutes were conservative. Once again, Ayew started to dribble at defenders and cut inside as he did in the previous leg. 

* Lucho & Cheyrou: Lucho was expected to be the main playmaker in this match, but Cheyrou may have surprised United a bit by getting forward into the attack much more than expected. With M'Bia in the holding role, this appeared to have given Lucho and surprisingly Cheyrou license to get forward. With both Scholes and Carrick playing as deep-lying playmakers, the space was there for Marseille's central midfielders to get forward in attack. However, when United won the ball back and Lucho and Cheyrou were high up the pitch in attack, space opened up for Rooney to come deep and receive the ball from United's defense and United's two double pivots. It was this space (yellow box) that Rooney continually operated in all evening and hurt Marseille from. When he received, he was able to play in a wide player or Chicharito into space. 


Taiwo: Much of the anticipation ahead of the match was Heinze being moved to left-center-back so that he wouldn't be exposed for a lack of pace, as he was in the first encounter. The inclusion of Taiwo at left-back was thought to bring on a more attack-minded player who provided more pace and a thunderous shot from distance. This didn't happen at all. Taiwo was pinned back throughout the match; likely due to the threat of Nani and then Valencia.



* United came into this match with more energy than expected and the home side pressed harder and higher up the pitch than they typically have this season. Much of this was due to the energy of Chicharito and Rooney. It didn't keep up for the full 90, but it set the tone in the early going. 

* This game was a contrast to the first leg, a 0-0 draw will often do that in two-legged affairs where away goals provide the tie-breaker. The game was played at a frenetic pace and if both sides weren't as wasteful, the match could have easily ended 3-3 or 4-4. In my opinion, United deservingly went through but Marseille earned their late moment to chase a goal to send them through to the quarter-final. 

* Vidic being out was enormous; there might not be a more indispensable player on this squad. For all of the talk about how United fail to consistently impress... well one underrated staple has been the mostly rock-solid defense led by Vida. Smalling has really emerged as an exciting young player, but it's clear he's been helped by the presence and leadership of Vidic. We need our skipper for the stretch run as we chase trophies on three fronts. 

* It appears that Chicharito has overtaken Berbatov. Fergie appears pleased with his summer signing:

"We are surprised," Ferguson said. "When we brought him to the club we thought it would take him awhile to adapt and that we would mainly use him as a substitute. When he has come on he has won games for us. He has improved his strength and he's lasting the 90 minutes now and it's giving us options. With his form as it is, we can make changes now."

Furthermore, Fergie was quite expressive on how well Rooney and Chicharito have been while partnered together:

"It's developing pretty well. Where Wayne has played in the last couple of game (deeper role), he is a real threat because he has such power and speed with the ball. And, of course, Hernandez is unbelievable with his movement. If you see his movement for the first goal, he made three different types of run. The boy's got goals in him."

* United have responded in a terrific fashion since the losses away by Chelsea and Liverpool in league play. Advancing in the FA Cup with a patch-work side and taking care of Marseille, provides tangible evidence that the season is back on track. Elimination from the FA Cup and Champions League might have brought panic (See: Arsenal). The key now is make sure we earn three points versus Bolton Wanderers on Saturday and get to the international break; so that we can get healthy for the final stretch run. 

* The Champions League quarter-final/semi-final draw is on Friday: Root for Barcelona and Real Madrid to draw each other and on the other side of the bracket so that in the best case scenario, we couldn't meet either until the final at Wembley. Personally, I'd be thrilled to draw either Schalke, Shaktar Donetsk, or Inter.