MANCHESTER UNITED VS OLYMPIAKOS
After a very poor performance at the weekend United had to improve significantly if they were to over-turn a 0-2 deficit from the first leg of this tie. Olympiakos had never won in England but since the first leg had secured their domestic league. The big question for many was whether United were capable of keeping a clean sheet; concede once and they would need to score four.
In: Ferdinand, Welbeck, Giggs and Valencia.
Out: Vidic, Mata, Fellaini and Januzaj.
- After the weekends performance this was a big improvement. There was no great improvement in the general quality of United’s play, but the game was played at a higher tempo. Passing was earlier and the team had a greater sense of urgency. They took the game by the scruff of the neck in the first half, but then they had to if they were to forge a comeback.
- Giggs was another significant difference and much of the improvement in performance was down to him. He may have lost some pace, but he has not lost his football brain. He provided much needed mobility in the midfield and no little creativity. He was the decisive factor in the first two goals.
- What Giggs did really well, and this rubbed off on others, was to pass the ball forward towards United players. There was then a lot more passing up and down the pitch rather than from side to side. This not only naturally increased the tempo, but asked difficult questions of the Olympiakos defence.
- Having taken a three goal lead United sat back, (and in fairness now chasing the game themselves Olympiakos stepped up). Why? This tells a tale of the more cautious mindset, which appears to be infecting United this season. They got away with it here against a modest side. They won’t against better teams.
It was important that United made an assertive start to this match and they did. For the beginning they played at a higher tempo than for months, pressed and kept a fairly highline. This was brave with Ferdinand and his much discussed declining pace at the heart of the defence. The start wasn’t gung-ho; United couldn’t afford that as conceding a early goal would almost certainly be terminal.
Carrick and Giggs were the central midfield players with Valencia recalled on the left, Welbeck on the right and Rooney through the middle behind van Persie. Carrick tended to stay deeper and to the right with Giggs the more mobile of the two pushing up on the left. Giggs tended to drift t wherever the space was when United had the ball, but was disciplined and helped keep the team shape when we lost possession. The midfield had a far better balance here.
United’s football throughout this game wasn’t fantastic, passing was often a bit too frenetic and ill considered, but the tempo put the opposition on the back foot, particularly in this opening period of the game. So what were the other key differences? In addition to the increased tempo we would identify three factors; Giggs, the pressing, a greater sense of urgency.
Giggs – asking questions of defenders since 1991!
Giggs was excellent here. He may not have the blistering pace of old but he still has a quick football brain. The interesting thing here was his movement; full of intelligence both in and out of possession, and his passing. Giggs passing set the agenda, it was front to back, and that is forward passing rather than side to side. Side to side balls were at a minimum and usually diagonals. This passing asked questions of Olympiakos and helped set the higher tempo, (you naturally have less time in the oppositions final third so have to do things more quickly). Early forward passes from Giggs kept the opposition on the back foot and never allowed them to settle into two banks of four with no space between the lines. The play was on top of them before they could get themselves set.
Pressing was also important. The front four pressed with back up from Giggs. Moyes has historically liked his teams to press, and United tried this in the early months of this season. It didn’t work well because at the same time he asked his two central midfield players to sit deep. This left a yawning gap between the front four and the rest into which many teams poured on the break having beaten the press. United stopped doing this when it became an obvious Achilles heel. Since dropping this tactic United’s play has been a lot more assertive. The tactic worked here because Giggs wasn’t sitting so deep, that gap between the front four and the rest never became significant. If anything Giggs was directing the press. The other factor helping was the use of Valencia and Welbeck. These two aren’t quite as dynamic as others but they are disciplined. Welbeck will drop deep and work in midfield and Valencia has developed a great defensive understanding with Rafael. They work well coming forward at times but their delivery of the final ball is often a weakness that undermines some of their approach play.
The third factor was the sense of urgency. We mentioned above that United are often too passive these days. Well chasing a0-2 deficit from the first game they couldn’t be.
That United got to 2-2 at halftime was due to the above factors. In the 23rd minute a forward pass from Giggs drew a foul on van Persie in the box. Van Persie stepped up and Boom! United were back in the tie. Then in the 45th minute van Persie scored again Another early forward [ass picked out Rooney, he was lucky to retrieve the ball when it looked like he had lost it, but this was again down to the factors identified. The defender was under pressure from an early forward pass from Giggs and Rooney straight of mind refused to concede possession. He centred for van Persie to finish first time. Boom!
Just before United’s second goal United had a lucky escape courtesy of the excellence of De Gea. Giggs lost the ball and Olympiakos poured through their inside right channel. Evra was out of position and couldn’t get back, (people often say couldn’t be bothered but we have to face facts – he hasn’t got the legs to do so anymore). The cross drew two almost miraculous saves in rapid fire succession from the keeper. Add this to De Gea’s world class stop from Suarez on Sunday and it’s fair to say he is in great form.
Half time in the second leg and all square in the tie.
Nothing changed after half-time. United continued in the same vein and then after 62 minutes scored again. This goal came from a well worked free kick taken by van Persie from just outside the box. This was probably a training ground routine. Rooney feigned to take the free kick but left it, van Persie stepped up and Boom! The Olympiakos keeper must have been totally confused as he hardly moved. United were now in the lead in the tie for the first time.
This goal changed the game however, and not n a good way. The tempo dropped a little and United began to sit a little deeper. Of course they now had something to defend. Olympiakos had to chase the game now and they stepped up playing higher up the pitch. Of course Olympiakos had to change strategy but why did United suddenly sit back – were they just tired or was this an onset of their usual passive mindset. A sudden lack of movement off the ball when in possession told a tale of United concentrating on keeping their shape, but it meant fewer passing options and United as a result kept giving the ball away and so inviting pressure. Olympiakos, with nothing to lose were less concerned about their defensive shape.
Moyes made a couple of late substitutions, both cautious. Valencia was replaced by Young, who played unusually in Valencia’s position on the right. That change came after 77 minutes. Then after 82 minutes Fletcher replaced Welbeck. This necessitated a positional reshuffle as Fletcher sat alongside Carrick, Rooney moved wider to the left and Giggs moved into the space behind van Persie.
United were able to see out the tie by securing the 3-0 win.
So United go through to the Quarter Finals. This was really as a consequence of being brave and taking the game to the opposition from the start. Fortune favored the brave. United passed the ball early, if not always well. Their passing often asked questions with more forward passes than has been usual of late. The combination of Carrick and Giggs in midfield had good balance with Carrick sitting deeper as a screen and prompting from deep. Giggs was more mobile and the higher of the two. It was his passing which caused Olympiakos all sorts of trouble.
United were brave to get into a winning position in the tie but then became more cautious. This is a dangerous game; they got away with it here. Too often this season United have been cautious and passive in their approach to games. Asking questions of the opposition can cover a multitude of your own weaknesses. Here they had to be brave and assertive to overcome a 0-2 deficit. Can they take this approach into other games? In the next round if they sit back and are cautious they will probably be destroyed. United should be about asking questions of the opposition, not allowing the opposition to set the agenda.