Manchester United are on their way to Wembley to face Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League final after dismantling Schalke 04 in their semi-final tie. United won 6-1 on aggregate after a 0-2 victory last week in Germany after a 4-1 home victory tonight. In the second leg, United scored first after a terrific through ball by Gibson found Valencia through for a one-on-one; the Ecuadorian winger calmly slid home the ball and United had essentially earned passage to the final by that point. Gibson later tallied himself and he was joined in the scoring barrage by Anderson; the Brazilian midfielder bagging his brace in the 2nd half. It was an impressive performance by United after fielding a side that closer resembled a Carling Cup XI rather than a Champions League semi-final XI.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS
United played in a 4-3-3 shape. Edwin van der Sar was in goal and the center-back pairing was Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling. John O'Shea wore the captain's armband at left-back and Rafael returned at right-back. Paul Scholes played as a deep-lying playmaker and he was joined in the center of the pitch by Gibson and Anderson. Valencia was the wide right player and Nani was the wide left player. Dimitar Berbatov led the attacking line as it's fulcrum.
Schalke played in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 type of shape. Manuel Neuer was the goalkeeper and the center-back tandem was Christoph Metzelder and Benedikt Howedes. Atsuto Uchida was the right-back and Sergio was the left-back. Kyriakos Papadopoulos was the holding midfielder while Jose Jurado and Alexander Baumjohann player higher up the pitch in the center. Julian Draxler was the wide left player and Jefferson Farfan wide on the right. Raul Gonzalez was the striker and he played in a "false-nine" role.
The tie was effectively over when Valencia scored, therefore, there isn't really the need to break this match down chronologically. Here are some of the tactical highlights of the match:
* Schalke's pressing: This was almost as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. Schalke needed to have a go and that's certainly what they attempted. Schalke had the right intent by pressing our midfielders and selectively pressing our defense, however, United dealt with the pressure very well. Scholes bossed the match in the center of the pitch; he completed 33 passes in the first half out of an attempted 36 (92%). This allowed United to dictate the tempo of the match and eventually Schalke's pressing tapered off due to two factors: (1) they began to tire as they were unsuccessful in consistently winning the ball. (2) United's trio of central midfielders, especially Scholes, made Schalke wary with their incisive distribution behind and through Schalke's defense.
* Schalke's high-line: One big problem Schalke had last week in Germany was that they weren't compact enough; they left way too much space in between the lines and players like Rooney and Carrick exploited it. Along with their intent to press United, Schalke also played with a higher line of defense in the initial stages of the match. This was arguably good tactics as they were much more compact. Once again, the intent was good, but United just punished Schalke by playing killer balls behind the defense; both to the flanks, especially on Valencia's side, and also through to midfield runners (e.g. Valencia's goal from a terrific through ball by Gibson).
* United's midfield vs Schalke's midfield: The general consensus has been that United's central midfield has been the weak link this season. However, today they were superb. As already mentioned, Scholes was terrific, but so were his two partners in the center of the pitch -- Gibson and Anderson. When the match was still somewhat contested in the first half, it could be argued that Gibson was the best player on the pitch. The much criticized midfielder was making delayed but surging runs forward in support of the attack, he was intercepting passes, and he was providing incisive passing. In addition, Anderson was very industrious and he continually looked dangerous in attack; he was rewarded by bagging a brace in the 2nd half. In contrast, Schalke's midfielders were poor with their passing. Their energy was good and they had a few threatening moments, but the German side's midfield was simply outclassed by United. Here's a chalkboard of Scholes' passing in the 1st half courtesy of TotalFootball's iPhone app:
* Schalke's fluidity in attack: The visitors were very fluid in attack and the genesis of their interchanging movement was from their striker Raul. The Spaniard played as a "false-nine" and he often came deep for the ball. As the only striker, Raul's deep movements created space for midfield runners; something that Farfan, Jurado, and Draxler tried to take advantage of. Farfan and Jurado both had early chances because of this but their attempts to finish were poor.
* United's attack on the right side: In the 1st half, this was the best avenue of attack for United. They did well to quickly get balls to Valencia on the flank and the Ecuadorian was terrific. With Draxler often coming central for Schalke, this resulted in him being out of position at times when his side lost the ball. Rafael did well to get forward to help provide support in attack, often creating 2 v 1 situations on the right flank with Valencia. Here's a chalkboard of Valencia's passes received:
* Nani vs Uchida: In the previous encounter between these two sides, Park Ji-sung and Valencia did well to nullify arguably Schalke's most threatening point of attack; their full-backs. Park was seemingly being rested today for Sunday's upcoming clash with Chelsea FC, so Nani was matched up with Uchida. The Japanese full-back was not being tracked consistently by his counterpart and he did well to get forward and provide support in the attack. It was Uchida's whipped in cross that helped set-up Schalke's lone goal in the tie. No one was happier on the night that Park wasn't playing than Uchida.
* 2nd half: In general, nothing really interesting happened besides United piling it on. The half was essentially a fun exhibition. Schalke started the first 5-10 minutes with some tidy passing but they didn't get much more than a few half chances. United did well to contain Schalke's intent after the visitors threw on more attackers and the home side responded well by being quick and surgical on the break.
* I don't want to take anything away from United's performance because they were stellar and Schalke did defeat Valencia and Inter Milan to reach the semi-final; but Schalke simply were very poor in this tie. I don't know if I've ever seen a worse team in the Champions League semi-final. Despite what Sir Alex Ferguson said in the build up to the tie, you know that he wasn't intimidated by the German side. Just look at the side he used today.
* Anderson: The talented midfielder was terrific today in all facets of the game. In Ando's first 127 games with the club, he scored two total goals. Today, he doubled that total. I was thrilled to see him not pick up a second yellow because he may be used in the final at Wembley. His energy and his ability to quickly break on the counter attack may be useful versus Barcelona.
* Berbatov: The Premier League's leading goal-scorer hasn't played much in the run-in, more due to Chicharito's fantastic form rather than Berbatov's own. Despite not scoring any goals today, the Bulgarian striker did well today in linking up play and in being a creator in attack. He still may play a big role in the run-in.
* This was the last appearance for van der Sar at Old Trafford in a Champions League tie, and quite possibly for Scholes as well. Today was a grand way to go out.
* Man of the match: For me, the best player on the pitch when the match was still being contested was Gibson, therefore, he's my choice. Among others, Scholes, Valencia, and Anderson were terrific as well.