United’s first opponents in Champions’ League Group A are Swiss side FC Basel who last year won the Swiss Super League for the eighth season on the run finishing 15 points ahead of nearest rival Young Boys; they also won the Swiss Cup defeating FC Sion 3-0 in the final. That run of league success means that they have been regular competitors in the Champion League in recent years, in fact helping to eliminate United back in 2011-12 season following a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford. Last year they had a disappointing Champions League campaign however being eliminated in the group stage after finishing 4th. They failed to win a game losing home and away to Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal whilst drawing home and away against Ludogorets.
That said it is a difficult time to draw conclusions from any recent form or successes as there have been significant changes at Basel over the summer and it feels like a time of renewal for them as they adjust to try to keep their recent run of success going. Three big changes in fact, two in management and one on the pitch.
Urs Fischer had been manager for two season but has been replaced this year by youth team manager Raphael Wicky, presumably because there is a sense that success domestically is a given after eight championships in eight years and the real challenge was to take the team further in Europe. The appointment of Fischer was agreed at the annual general meeting in June when several of the directors stepped aside. Former Basel striker, club favourite Marco Streller also returned to the club as part of this reshuffle taking on the role of Sporting Director. Streller played for the club over two spells, between 2000-2004 and 2007-2015 and is the clubs 2nd highest goal scorer having scored 111 goals over 233 appearances in those two spells.
But what of Urs Fischer’s approach? Early indications are that he was thinking of adopting a 3 at the back approach with Argentinian Matias Delgado, FC Basel’s captain a playmaker in front of the three in a 3-1-4-2 strategy but one game into the season Delgado announced his retirement. It’s too soon to say where that will leave them now; will Fischer persist with a 3 at the back approach or revert to a 4? The current thinking is that it is more likely to be a 3-4-1-2 as that is a strategy which seems to be supported by the balance of the squad. Even that though is difficult to second guess given that this is a period of renewal on the pitch as well as off it.
Basel have been active in the transfer market this summer but the number of players leaving the club has significantly exceeded the number arriving which suggest that they will be looking to some extent to promote from their youth system. That Youth system has been a source of pride for the club for some time now producing the likes of Barcelona’s Ivan Raktic, Arsenal’s Granit Xhaxa and Xherdan Shaqiri who United faced at Stoke on Sunday. The latest youngster to make his mark is attacking midfield player Dominik Schmid.
Five players have moved on this year, Marc Janko to Sparta Prague, Daniel Hoegh to SC Heerenveen and Jean-Paul Boeius to Feyenoord, whilst two forwards Ricky van Wolfswinkel from Vitesse and a loan signing Dimitri Oberlin from Red Bull Salzburg have been the only incoming players.
The season so far
The Swiss League starts in mid-July so they have played more football than most. Basel started with a disappointing 0-2 defeat to last year’s runners-up Young Boys but then rallied with three wins on the trot. This was followed by two draws before they lost to Lausanne at the weekend. So its been a mixed start to the campaign and they currently sit third. The utilised a drought 4-4-2 formation on Saturday and took the lead via a first half Van Wolfswinkel goal but had been pegged back by half-time and went down 1-2 in the second half.
After a period dominating Swiss football it feels like FC Basel are going through a period of adjustment and United should in theory be too strong for them at Old Trafford to get their group stage campaign off to a good start. That is if they put in an intelligent focussed performance.