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The last time the 2 sides met in the Champions League Group stages was in 2002. United were victorious in both the games with Ruud van Nistelrooy scoring in both and a certain Bulgarian striker named Dimitar Berbatov getting his name on the scoresheet for Bayer. This of course was only 1 season after Bayer had dumped United out in the semifinal stages of the 2001-02 season to set up a final against Real Madrid which will always be remembered for THAT Zidane goal.
Fast forward to 2013 and both teams find themselves in the same group once again. While Group F was quick to be tagged the ‘group of death’, Group A featuring these 2 teams along with Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Both sides came into the game on back of home wins in their respective leagues and were keen to get their first points on the board.
Manchester United’s starting line up was as expected. Fellaini made his first start for the English Champions while Smalling was selected at Right-Back. Japanese International Shinji Kagawa started on the left. For Leverkusen, their midfield was weakened by the absence of Lars Bender. In his place started promising youngster Emre Can.
The most fashionable and arguably most effective tactic in recent times is pressing. Relentless pressure off the ball throughout the game coupled with quick easy on the eye attacking play has become more of the norm than the exception. Indeed Leverkusen have to look no further than Borussia Dortmund to see how pressing high up the field is often the basic component of success. Thus it came as a surprise that they chose to sit deep for large periods of the game, especially considering the fact that their opposition have never enjoyed playing against teams that press high up the pitch. To say that Bayer didn’t press at all would be inaccurate. They did press but it was in deeper positions. They were content to sit deep and let United play in front of them- an understandable tactic but ultimately the wrong one as it gave the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini time on the ball. Passing accuracy is a much maligned statistic but in this case I think it’s quite telling that Vidic attempted 48 passes with an accuracy of 100% (HUNDRED) and Ferdinand wasn’t far behind with an accuracy of 98%. In addition to conceding possession, Leverkusen’s tactics lead to United’s territorial dominance as shown in the above graphic.
In my tactical analysis of United’s game against Liverpool, I spoke about how United simply didn’t have the personnel to cope with a 3 man opposition midfield. This was however before the capture of Fellaini. The afro-donning Belgian’s 1st start for the club was most definitely a success. Yes his and Carrick’s jobs were made easier by Leverkusen sitting deep as mentioned above but still the duo played an integral part in building up United’s attacks. Such was their level of domination that, in the 1st half alone Fellaini and Carrick had 69 and 61 touches of the ball respectively as opposed to Rolfes, Can and Reinartz who had a palty 84 touches collectively. Leverkusen’s defence struggled to contain Manchester United’s forward line led by a on-song Wayne Rooney so they would’ve been better served trying to cut off the supply by putting pressure on Carrick and Fellaini and thus choking the supply. Unfortunately for Leverkusen, Bender wasn’t fit to feature from the start. His presence was missed as despite only being on the pitch for the last half hour, he made the most tackles in the game (5).
A forward line of Kieβling, Sam and Son is not one that can be dismissed off-hand. Leverkusen have started the season in good form and their attack was expected to trouble United’s defence. However, it was not to be. Yes, they did finish with 2 goals to their name but the second was a mere consolation from a corner that was given away needlessly. An unusually off colour Rio Ferdinand had a few shaky moments but truth be told, I expected Leverkusen to carry more of a threat. They sat deep (as enumerated above) so were set up to play on the counter. The fact that Kagawa started on the left meant that Evra was expected to provide the width in attack on that side. This was a situation that Leverkusen should have looked to exploit with Donati and Sam but failed to do so. Kieβling also struggled to make an impact against the experienced pairing of Ferdinand and Vidic winning only 2 aerial duels as compared to the Serbian’s 6.
United have traditionally had an emphasis on wide play especially in the Sir Alex Ferguson era. This trend looks like it will be continued under David Moyes. Throughout the first half it was the left wing that provided the majority of the home team’s attacking threat. With Kagawa cutting infield, it was the Frenchman Evra who stretched play on that side. Young full back Donati struggled to come to terms with the constant shuffling of the United pack with Van Persie and Rooney also taking turns to drift out to that wing. It came as no surprise when the opening goal of the night originated from United’s left wing. And the proverbial icing on the cake also came in the form of a swift counter from the left hand side with Valencia finishing off a sweeping move. Valencia himself had a good game with a goal and a assist to his name further highlighting United’s propensity towards wing play. But the star of the show was undoubtedly Wayne Rooney. 2 goals and an assist is a good return but more than that it was the fact that he finally looked sharp that stood out. The quick turn of pace was back and in general he had an excellent game. Rooney delivered a quick reminder of why Chelsea coveted him and more to the fact, why he still is at Manchester United despite all the drama.
Goals were the order of the day in this opening Group A encounter. From United’s point of view, their attacking play was good and after what seems like an eternity they now boast of a physical presence in midfield in the form of Fellaini. Their tendency to leak goals though continues to be a problem, one which if not addressed will haunt them should they progress to the knockout phase. For Hyypia’s Leverkusen, it simply wasn’t a good day at the office. They will be heading back to Germany with nothing to show for their travels but its early days yet and as the old commentating cliche goes- there’s still all to play for.
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