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Retro Diary: AS Roma vs. Manchester United

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We look back at the 2008 Champions League quarter-final first leg

AS Roma v Manchester United Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Thanks to COVID-19, we’re all watching old matches these days. There’s little else to do. Even before the coronavirus came I’d been finding some time to go back and watch older matches for various projects I’ve been working on.

It’s a nice little time capsule. We know the game has been evolving little by little but it’s fun to go back to a time not so long ago and see just how much the game has changed. For example, back in 2006 this tackle somehow didn’t even warrant a yellow card!

One of my favorite things about watching old matches is seeing something, making a comment about it online, and then having someone respond to that comment on Twitter or anywhere else on the internet with: “Nah. I remember it differently, mate.”

Yea, of course you do! I remembered it differently too before I rewatched it. Not to get all psychological here but that’s how memories work. Over time we remember what our brains want us to remember (typically the good stuff!). Narratives also shape our memories.

This isn’t exclusive to older matches. We form biases the first time we watch any match. You think Luke Shaw is terrible? I bet you the day after the game you only remember the two or three mistakes he made and not any of the good things he did.

That’s what makes going back and watching older matches interesting. We see things that we didn’t remember. We see things that we remembered differently. Sometimes we see things that we didn’t notice at all the first time.

If you’re on Twitter you’ve probably seen plenty of people picking a random match and live-tweeting it as if it was live. Well, that’s what were doing here.

We’re doing it running diary style so I can mix some tactical analysis in, compare my thoughts with what I remember, but ultimately, these are just the thoughts that are popping in my head as I watch.

Hope you enjoy the ride.

Buildup

Manchester United are traveling to Rome for the 2008 Champions League quarter-final first leg. It’s their third trip to face AS Roma in 12 months. They met at the same stage of the competition last year with Roma winning 2-1, and were drawn together in the group stage where they played out a 1-1 draw in what was a dead rubber. Losing 2-1 isn’t the worst result, but as good as this United team is, they know they’re not getting another 7-1 in the return leg. They want to win tonight.

United are rocking last season’s away strip, which just reminds you that while football was becoming global in 2008, it still wasn’t so global that shirt companies were in “we have to release three new kits a year to drive sales” mode.

The formation graphic drops. I don’t know about you, but back in 2008 I always assumed that the clubs had actually submitted their formations on a sheet like this to the media and thus this was how they were going to line up. How naive of me right?

Anyway, I don’t know much about 2008 Roma but I know enough about United to know this is not how they are going to play. It’s also a nice time capsule to how we thought about formations and tactics back then.

Back then, United played 4-4-2 in the Premier League. In the Champions League, Fergie would often drop a striker for an extra midfielder. Today that’s the norm and it’s either called a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 depending on how you use your attacking midfielder. Back then, as soon as a striker was dropped for a midfielder it was called a 4-5-1, which, for me has a very negative and defensive connotation. A 4-5-1 just feels like your wingers are going to sit deeper and your midfielders will be sitting flat. I doubt this is how United will play.

Lastly, I’m shocked Anderson got the nod here. I know he was good that season, and this just further backs up my claim that he’s Fergie’s most mediocre signing ever, but in a game where organization is key and you need your best players — Anderson? I’m sure we’ll have more on this as we go.

Kickoff

Here we go. The initial goal is figure out how United are actually playing. Is it actually a 4-5-1 or did we just not pay as much attention to tactics back then?

3rd Minute:

Wayne Rooney dropping all the way back in defense. (This is going to be important later).

5th Minute:

Okay we’ve got it. United are in a standard 4-2-3-1. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes sitting in front of the defense. Rooney’s out on the left, Ji-Sung Park on the right, Cristiano Ronaldo up top and Anderson playing behind him.

The first 10-15 minutes of this match are basically as you’d expect. Sort of. There are a lot of players clogging up the midfield, but there isn’t a lot of organization in the midfield. Both teams seem to be getting up and down the pitch with relative ease, mostly because the opposition is allowing them to. Things tend to clamp down once you get near the opponents box.

18th Min:

The confidence from Anderson here is outrageous.

Unless your name is Cristiano Ronaldo, and even then, this isn’t even remotely a good shot. Anderson basically hadn’t come close to hitting the target from anywhere yet this season. Now he’s trying his luck from around 25 yards out? Lol.

And again, how the hell did Anderson get the call here? I know he was “good” that season but it’s clear United were prioritizing not just a result in this match, but getting a win. You need your best players. How in the world does that lead you to thinking “how about Anderson as the attacking midfielder with Carrick and Scholes behind him” instead of “how about Hargreaves and Carrick with Scholes pushed slightly forward?”

21st Min:

United are now switching things up. Scholes has pushed forward next to Anderson, Rooney and Park have dropped deep, creating a really wide 4-3-2-1 formation; basically the Christmas tree shape.

This change helps us get a look into United’s tactics(?); it’s sort of man-to-man and sort of not.

Ferguson may have brought an extra man into midfield to clog things up, but in terms of what the actual plan is there doesn’t seem to be anything more than the simple “play your game” instructions he was famous for back then. Rooney is out on the wing, and knows who he’s responsible for, same with Park. As for the rest of them, they seem to know areas and they know when someone vacates an area, someone else needs to fill it.

This strategy can work, but only if you have really good individual players. How good? Like the kind of players the 2008 Manchester United team had.

With Scholes and Anderson pushed higher, and Park tucking inside, United have just one player (Carrick) protecting the back. With that open space to defend, Evra steps into midfield, playing in right in line with Carrick.

Once the ball is played further out to the right, Anderson’s job is to close down the ball, which he does. But given Evra’s position on the field, he starts to step up too, putting him in no man’s land and opening up a lot of space behind him.

Luckily you have Rooney tracking back and staying with his man the whole time.

24th Min:

We’re back to the 4-2-3-1 but not the same as before. Scholes follows his pass forward and Anderson immediately drops back to cover him. They’d stay like this for most of the rest of the half.

This obviously brings up that Anderson question again. If you wanted Scholes to play further, why not Hargreaves instead of Anderson to play next to Carrick? Thank god I was pretty naive back then because today I don’t think I would ever wrap my head around it.

24th Min:

By now we can get a sense of how both teams are playing. United have players on the pitch, clogging up the midfield and not giving Roma space near their own box. It’s hard to call them organized though, especially when you see Roma.

In 2008 I knew very little about Italian football other than the buzzwords thrown around them. Defensive, organized, structured, tough to break down; Italians love a 1-0 win. That kind of stuff. I wouldn’t have actually been able to notice it though.

Just watching Roma for a bit here and now it’s obvious what they’re talking about when they say things like “organized.”

There are blocks of three, everywhere. Defense, midfield, going forward. It’s blocks of three and they move together like a unit.

Then we get to see how that block of three just smothers teams when they’re attacking. Look at what happens when Scholes gets the ball at the top of the box.

That block of three turns into a block of six, with one player in front of them. When Scholes gets the ball...

Now, Scholes takes an eternity to shoot this ball but look at how they react. All six of them rush out of the box in unison. It’s part to block this shot (which they succeed at) and part to suddenly pull Ronaldo, Park, and Anderson offside.

Offside traps are hard enough to do with just your back line, Roma does it perfectly with six people.

26th Min:

Look at all the time and space United’s midfielders have on the ball! I haven’t seen this much time and space since I watched James Garner and Angel Gomes boss around Stoke City’s U23 team a month ago. Was this a 2008 thing or an Italian football thing?

28th Min:

Not even two minutes later it looks like giving time and space to midfielders on the ball was very much a 2008 thing. Must’ve been so easy for Pep Guardiola to be looking at this and thinking “Hey guys, I know how to drastically change football.”

Look at how much United are just sitting back, letting Roma progress the ball (they’d get a shot at the end of this). This is that front foot attacking football that everyone says Sir Alex Ferguson used to always play?

Another interesting thing about this clip. Watch how far wide Park stays (with his man, we’re going very man-to-man tactics here). We know Fergie would bring Park into these games because of his defensive ability and work-rate.

We always remember Park and his ability to man-mark midfielders out of these games. That can sometimes get attached to Roma’s Daniele de Rossi in this match but that didn’t really happen. I’ll admit that it was hard to follow de Rossi since I’m watching on a really grainy 2008 non-HD feed, but United were not man-marking him.

If anyone, they were closely paying attention to the left winger Mancini, as you can see in this clip. Park has to stay wide right because Wes Brown completely vacates his right-back position to follow Mancini to the middle. Again, it’s just players filling in for players who vacated space. The football IQ on this team is tremendous.

30th Min:

Nemanja Vidić picks up an injury. I didn’t remember this. I’m not thrilled.

33rd Min:

Vidić is replaced by John O’Shea. I can only imagine what 2008 me was screaming when this happened. 2008 Pauly was, let’s just say, not a fan of John O’Shea the center back.

38th Min:

So. Much. Time. On. The Ball.

The first 40ish minutes of this game have been as mundane as can be because it’s basically been this. One team has the ball, the other one backs off. Then the other team gets the ball and the first team backs off. This looks just like today’s United when they play against teams that sit deep.

Also, Anderson — who’s playing as the attacking midfielder — gets that pass and doesn’t even bother trying to turn on the ball even though THERE’S NO ONE NEAR HIM. You have to do better than that.

39th Min:

We’ve got a breakthrough! It comes thanks to a defender finally being the one to make a line breaking pass. And it’s John O’Shea because of course it was (Fergie always had the magic touch).

O’Shea sends it to Rooney who instead of playing the way he faces, turns on the ball. Suddenly United have something: Scholes makes a run, Rooney plays him in, and as a result we get this goal that no United fan has ever forgotten.

41st Min:

United have their away goal. What are they going to do? Why, sit back and try to hold it to halftime of course.

That’s not much different then what they’ve been doing the entire game. They’ve been letting Roma walk up the pitch all day, only starting to apply pressure near the box, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been perfect and that Roma aren’t getting chances.

That’s the problem when you’re relying on individuals to individually defend. It can get messy in the box.

43rd Min:

Rooney and Park are being pinned all the way back. No one is up there with Ronaldo anymore. Scholes, Carrick, and Anderson are basically playing flat across the middle. Ok! It’s a 4-5-1, I give up! At least Rooney is still running his ass off down that left flank.

Second Half

48th Min:

Same old, same old. Little team-wide pressure from United, but eventually an individual steps up to apply pressure.

In this case it’s Scholes, who immediately gets beat and could concede big opportunity if not for a last ditch tackle that I’d realllllly like to see another angle of.

Oh look at that, Scholes didn’t get him!

52nd Min:

Van Der Sar gets the ball and immediately hoofs it all the way down the pitch to Roma’s goalkeeper. There’s not a United player in sight and no one even tries to chase this ball.

If anyone ever tells you United wanted any of the ball in this game, they’re lying.

55th Min:

Owen Hargreaves in, Anderson out. It’s clear Ferguson knew that whatever plan he had for Anderson wasn’t working. He gave Anderson 10 minutes after the break to sort it out and he didn’t. Hargreaves comes on and sits next to Carrick, Scholes pushes up, we’re in the 4-2-3-1 that we should have been in from the get-go.

60th Min:

That was quick. Park has moved out towards the left side, Rooney has tucked in a bit. We’re now back to the 4-3-2-1 when Hargreaves tucks inside, but this can (and does) quickly change to a 4-4-2 with Rooney pushing up next to Ronaldo and Hargreaves pushing wide to the right.

62nd Min:

Those banks of three. They are always there and they never go away. It’s incredible. What’s most incredible is how they’re both simultaneously very fluid and very rigid.

Roma get a break here and as they break that midfield bank of three forms.

As soon as the ball catches up to the midfield, rather than have a block of four, one player quickly pushes up into the attack, maintaining the midfield bank of three, while giving more options up front.

The timing of it all is just so perfect.

The play breaks down when a lazy run is flagged offside.

65th Min:

United are now in their 4-4-2 and Rooney is playing centrally next to Ronaldo. As soon as that happens:

I remembered Fergie saying after the game “we moved Rooney centrally for a few minutes and he immediately scored” but this not how I remembered the goal.

Maybe I was thinking of the goal he scored against Roma the previous year (you know, same shirts!).

Nope, definitely not this one, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to Rooney, nice to see.

Maybe it was the one he scored against Milan a few years later? White shirts vs Italian opposition, you’d understand the confusion.

Nope not that one either. I think I remembered it as more of a combination of the goal vs Milan and what the goal actually was. That’s why you go back and actually re-watch the games.

After the second goal:

I’m not going to sit here and say that United then went and ‘parked the bus’ because I think there’s a difference between parking the bus and playing defensively.

Parking the bus to me is really dropping everyone back into your own box, and inviting long shots and crosses to come in. Your main focus is to just get the ball out and wait for the next wave of attack to come.

Playing defensively is more like: you can drop people back but you’re still trying to play. Once you win the ball back you still play your game.

That’s much more of what United did here, but within minutes of that second goal they’ve already dropped into a 5-3-2!

United were going to let Roma bring the game to them and focus on not letting Roma score. They did exactly that. Slowly Roma brought on some more attack minded players and opened themselves up ever so slightly. United were ready for it. That’s exactly what this United team made a living off of.

82nd Min:

Okay now Hargreaves is pushing all the way up to join Rooney on a counter attack. Does this team have any positional discipline?!

As much as I joke, this is another great example of one player dropping off and another filling in the gap.

When Carrick gets the ball, Ronaldo realizes he’s not an option and peels off to the left. He pulls a defender with him and opens up the middle. With Ronaldo hanging back, Hargreaves can now push forward to replace him.

83rd Min:

God, remember peak Michael Carrick? One pass was all he needed to spring a break like this.

Given their form that season it’s honestly shocking that Rooney and Ronaldo get a 2v1 here and the ball doesn’t end up in the back of net. That shot from Rooney — and him making no attempt to get closer or go around the defender — tells you everything you need to know about him. He’s exhausted. That’s thanks to the tireless work he put in running up and down the flanks all game. He’d be replaced a minute later.

84th Min:

There was one more part of this match that stood out. Everyone (I’m taking Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Rooney, Hargreaves, Ferguson) always said that Ronaldo had very few defensive responsibilities. He was so good that they didn’t want him wasting his energy on defense. Just focus on attack while Rooney and Tevez do your work for you.

You hear it so often that over time you just end up assuming Ronaldo really never defended. Then you see this.

Six minutes from time that man is hauling ass to get back on defense.

United get their 2-0 win to take home for the second leg. Tactically it was certainly interesting. Ferguson brought in an extra midfielder to clog up the middle but they never seem to be working as a unit.

It’s a strategy that relies on individual talent, which they had in spades, and just being difficult to break down. Roma out-possessed United 53%-47% and outshot them 15-12. But of those 15 shots, only one was on target, and none of them were particularly good or remotely dangerous. United’s defense did their job there. For United, 4 of their 12 shots came after they were 2-0 up and could start counter attacking.

I’m still perplexed by the Owen Hargreaves omission. Perhaps it’s because United had a must win game at Middlesbrough the following weekend and he was being rested (checks team news for that game, Carrick and Scholes start, no Hargreaves) but nope.

However that suddenly looks like a very interesting game to go and watch next...