Manchester United, having gone into the match tasked with avoiding further humiliation in this most abject of seasons, produced a hugely spirited display and will be disappointed to head to Munich next Wednesday with merely a 1-1 draw to show for their efforts.
That the Red Devils produced such a result against the odds attributes a lot to their counter-attacking game-plan. The approach drew criticism from many experts and fans alike, who claim that United’s rudimentary and direct style flew in the face of the maverick qualities instilled in the club by Sir Alex Ferguson. However, the recently retired Scot used the same rearguard action in big European games himself.
Despite boasting soon to be World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks, the focus of United’s 2008 Champions League semi-final triumph over Barcelona was stopping Lionel Messi and maximising their limited opportunities to counter-punch. The knockout blow was duly delivered by Paul Scholes, Old Trafford erupted, before the trophy was secured in Moscow. That similar organisation and tactical discipline was sorely lacking was a major factor as Tuesday’s adversary Pep Guardiola later twice led the Catalans to the trophy with the Big Ears at the expense of United, within the space of three years.
Nevertheless, Ferguson appeared to have learned his lesson from those final defeats during last season’s encounter with Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. A carefully constructed counter-attacking ploy, which utilised the pace of Danny Welbeck to ease the pressure on aging centre-halves Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand (sound familiar?) looked set to create a famous European night at Old Trafford, until Nani was wrongly dismissed. Moyes tweaked this successful template and summoned the same intensity and selflessness from his players, inspiring them to a result that has proved beyond even the most accomplished sides in world football.
Last season, en route to an unprecedented treble, Bayern thrashed the Barcelona side Guardiola built 7-0 over two legs; the world’s best team in terms of retaining ball possession, led by Lionel Messi were outplayed comprehensively. Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp features on most fans’ shortlists of replacements for David Moyes, but his side’s high intensity pressing game was unsuccessful against FC Hollywood’s 2014 vintage – BVB succumbed to a 3-0 home defeat in the sides’ November meeting. Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City outfit have irrefutably had a better campaign than their neighbours, but even they were comprehensively beaten when Bayern came to town. An Arjen Robben-inspired 3-1 victory made a mockery of the Citizens’ reputation as the country’s great entertainers.
The limited options available to Moyes make this result even more impressive. It is likely that, with a full complement of players to choose from, the Scot would have selected the more mobile Phil Jones and Jonny Evans at centre-half, flanked by Rafael and Patrice Evra. A combination of injuries and Evra’s suspension meant that Jones had to re-locate to right-back, with the aging Vidic and Ferdinand joining the erratic Alexander Buttner in the back-line.
Consequently, United were forced to concede a great deal of ground in the midfield area, where Bayern are so strong, as they sought not to leave their centre-backs exposed the pace of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Not only that, but Brazilian right-back Rafinha was allowed to maraud forward, linking with Robben to over-load Buttner, but this was with good reason.
In the first half Ryan Giggs, and in the second, Shinji Kagawa were dragged inside to match-up with their opponent’s midfield three, seemingly obligating either Danny Welbeck or Wayne Rooney to come out to the left-hand side and track back. However, Moyes took a risk and told both his front-men to stay central and occupy Javi Martinez and Jerome Boateng, neither of whom looked comfortable throughout the evening. The 50-year-old has been criticised for his excessive caution since taking on his new role, and Tuesday night’s game was held up by some observers as further evidence of it, but to do so would be to do Moyes a huge disservice.
Not only is a defence-based strategy more risky than many people realise – one defensive slip-up and it’s very hard to recover, especially in a tie governed by the “Away Goals” rule – but the decision to give his side two central outlets outlined Moyes commitment to attacking where possible. He identified Rafinha as Bayern’s weakest link and was quite prepared to let him have the ball, especially when shorn of a crossing target for the game’s first hour.
In truth, he may have been too brave; a 1-0 advantage and the introduction of Mario Mandzukic as Bayern’s attacking spearhead probably rendered Welbeck’s aggressive positioning too risky, as evidenced by the roles of both Rafinha and the Croatian striker in Bastian Schweinstiger’s cruical equaliser.
Moyes combined pragmatism with endeavour – he knew his team would be defending for long periods (when Bayern are so good at keeping the ball, what else can you do?) but also hatched a plan – something sorely lacking too often this season – to hurt Bayern when in possession. Had Welbeck found a corner with a low and hard shot five minutes before half-time, the approach would have seen United travel to Germany with a slender lead.
Prior to Tuesday’s encounter, the concern for the majority of United followers was how their side could keep the score down. At its conclusion, they had legitimate grounds to feel their side should have won the match. David Moyes’ game-plan, so effectively executed by his players, is responsible for the shift in perspective, which gives rise to the faint hope that Manchester United can complete their Mission Improbable.
Bayern Munich will be without Martinez and linchpin Bastian Schweinstiger for Wednesday’s return clash, while David Moyes should have more defensive options to call upon. With a 1-0 win enough to secure a place in the Champions League semi-finals, some fans may dare to dream. Although, whatever happens in Munich, David Moyes has already experienced a resounding success, where many of Europe’s elite have tasted bitter failure, before him.