MANCHESTER UNITED VS BAYER LEVERKUSEN
17.09.2013

David Moyes first taste of Champions League football as United manager and after the win at the weekend United went into this game looking to establish a winning streak in the first of three big games in the coming week.

PERSONNEL

In: Smalling, Fellaini, Kagawa
Out: Fabio, Anderson, Young.

KEY POINTS

  • This was a mixed performance. United scored four and with two shocking misses could easily have scored six. In attack this was a far more fluid performance than of late, but despite enjoying the majority of possession United did not excel.
  • In defence they looked vulnerable, particularly after transitions, whilst at times they appeared far too open through the centre. Inexplicably lax defending resulted in two Leverkusen goals.  On another occasion this could be costly.
  • Carrick and Fellaini both had reasonably good games and they appeared at times to have a developing understanding, but at other times it is clear that they need to work on a closer understanding. Between them they were often slow to close down space in the middle of the park.
  • A number of players gave good individual displays here. Rooney was excellent again and well worth his two goals, Kagawa performance was lively and Valencia’s display suggested his confidence may be returning. But the overriding impression was that currently United haven’t quite clicked. The team performance is not greater than the sum of individual performances. Is this as a consequence of the fact that the team is still coming to terms with the subtle differences in approach instigated by David Moyes?

FIRST HALF

United started this game with Kagawa playing to the left and Rooney behind van Persie in slightly lopsided 4-2-3-1 shape. It was lopsided because Leverkusen set up as a 4-3-3 in attack and a 4-4-2 in defence. That meant that United were naturally outnumbered in the centre of the pitch. On Saturday against Crystal Palace Rooney dropping deep addressed a similar scenario. Here the adjustment was lateral rather than vertical with Kagawa playing narrow and often moving to the centre. That is his natural inclination anyway and it ensured that United were able to enjoy more than their fair share of possession, it did however result in a lopsided pattern.

Leverkusen first half United’s first half shape

United initially played a high line and as in recent fixtures attempted to press Leverkusen in the early stages. Against a team what were technically proficient this did not work as well as in previous games. Leverkusen were confident in possession and successful in moving the ball out from the back. Their general approach was for their full backs to move very wide and very high creating real width across the pitch when they had possession at the back. The two centre backs spilt and the central and deepest player of the midfield three dropped deep to pick the ball up and direct play. This was a tactic employed by Ajax a couple of seasons ago against United in the Europa league and it worked again here. The problem for the visitors was that once they passed the halfway line, which they did at ease, they gave the ball away. As a consequence they made little impression on United as an attacking force in the opening twenty minutes.

United’s response to Leverkusen’s success in moving the ball out from the back was two fold. Firstly Rooney pushed on. He played almost as high as van Persie making United’s shape closer to a 4-4-2 at times. Secondly United stopped trying to press Leverkusen and instead were content in covering in the centre of the pitch. As a consequence it took United longer to win the ball from Leverkusen. The formation remained slightly lopsided with Valencia staying wide to cover Boenisch, the Leverkusen left back who was the more assertive of the two full backs.

Despite all this United had the lions share of possession in the first half. There play was far more fluid than in recent games. As on Saturday Rooney was having a great game again, dropping deep then moving higher and this time he was assisted by the liveliness of Kagawa. Kagawa’s movement in the attacking phase was excellent. He moved deep, wide, came inside and generally moved to wherever he felt he might have maximum impact. Valencia tended to stay wider and on the right Smalling regularly supported him. On the left Evra was less adventurous, although with Kagawa often moving infield this was perhaps prudent.

The break through goal when it came after 22 minutes was controversial. The goal was scored by Rooney after an 18 pass move which lasted 53 seconds. It started with a throw in on the United right. The ball was worked across the pitch to the left where it reached van Persie. He was isolated but turned the full-back this way and that before laying the ball back, it was then passed forward to Evra who had advanced to a high position. His cross was met by Rooney who controlled his volley hitting it down into the ground and pasted the keeper. Boom! The goal was controversial because van Persie was in an off-side when the ball was hit pasted him to Evra. Was he interfering with play? Valencia certainly was when Rooney shot as he was stood right beside the keeper and beyond the Leverkusen central defenders. He even tried to make contact with the goal bound ball.

United were on top throughout the first half without really making the most of the possession they had. A one goal half time lead was the least they should have taken from the half.

SECOND HALF

The pattern of play remained unchanged after the break, until on 54 minutes against the run of play Bayer Leverkusen scored. Sam was allowed to run from deep into the United half, he moved the ball infield and it bounced off Ferdinand to the right left hand side of United’s penalty area. United failed to be decisive in defence, sought to cover and jockey rather than to be assertive and clear the ball. Leverkusen were then able to keep the ball alive and tee up a shooting opportunity by laying the ball back to Rolfes who shot took a slight deflection past De Gea from just outside the United penalty area. Having been on top for most of the match United found themselves all square.

IMG_20130918_102616

Having been on top for most of the game United now needed to respond. They did and the final 34 minutes saw a further three United goals.

Perhaps the goal gave then an increased sense of urgency as it took only four minutes for United to retake the lead. Boom! This goal came after a surging run from deep and a pullback cross from Valencia. The pullback was slightly behind van Persie but he was able to adjust to volley first time past Leno in the Leverkusen goal. He got a hand to it and perhaps should have done better, but the finish was a superb piece of skill from van Persie.

The pattern of the game remained unchanged during this last half hour. United were generally on top but despite scoring three goals this wasn’t a great performance. They didn’t quite click. On 70 minutes Rooney scored his second and his 200th for the club. This came after a long kick from De Gea and a slip by a defender leaving Rooney clear to shoot past Leno. Boom times 200!

IMG_20130918_102833

Nine minutes later United scored again. This was the best goal of the night and a classic United breakaway goal. United were set in a defensive 4-5-1 shape. The one was van Persie, he stole in to win the ball as Leverkusen were loose on the edge of the United box. He was able to steer the ball to Ashley Young who had come on for Kagawa on 71 minutes, (in terms of position a straight swap, although Young retained his position far to a greater extent). Young ran into the Leverkusen half before turning a short pass inside to Rooney. Rooney moved forward, but at a pace that allowed Valencia, busting a gut to get up on the opposite right hand side into position to receive a pass which dissected two defenders desperately trying to get back. Boom! First time shot, game over. Or was it.

Valencia Goal  Valencia shot

United now made two further substitutions. Cleverley replace Fellaini on 81 minutes and Hernandez replaced Rooney on 84 minutes. Cleverley for Fellaini was a straight swap; Hernandez played as the most advanced player with van Persie dropping deeper into the space Rooney had occupied. In making these substitution Moyes may have been trying to play out time and at 4-1 who could blame hi. The problem was that Leverkusen weren’t prepared to follow the script and the substitutes didn’t seem to pick up the pace of the game. United went to sleep and this allowed Leverkusen in to score a consolation on 88 minutes from a corner. De Gea should have done better, did not reach the centre and Leverkusen played pin ball in the United six yard box. This was only ever going to e a consolation, but United need to learn a lesson here. Never switch off. The finish was sloppy.

Conclusion

This was a strange game. United were generally on top, scored four goals and missed two sitters. Apart from this and despite having the majority of possession and a number of excellent individual displays United went for long period without really looking like creating many chances.

At times United looked wide open through the middle. Both Rooney and Kagawa are attack-minded players. Both lack a degree of defensive discipline and with Fellaini and Carrick partnership in its infancy United looked vulnerable. Some of their defensive play was sloppy and indecisive. This wasn’t perhaps a consequence of the defenders performances but instead those players playing ahead of them. Fellaini and Carrick were often two passive, not responding to Leverkusen’s movements quickly enough. They were slow to close down space.

Despite his stated desire to leave the club this summer Rooney is currently in great form and now appears re-focused. Before and after his absence with a head wound he has turned in a number of outstanding displays. Long may this continue because in this sought of form he is a significant asset demonstrating why the club were resistant to letting him go.

A very mixed display.