In terms of competitiveness Group A is up there with any other group in this year’s group stages. With Real Sociedad the unwilling whipping boys of the group, the race for qualification was a three way fight leading up to the game with just a point separating the 2 teams atop the Group with Shakhtar within touching distance. Leverkusen and Manchester United locked horns in Germany knowing that a win for either side would ensure qualification to the knockout stages. Bayer came into the game off the back of a hard fought 1-0 win over Hertha Berlin while United were looking to bounce back from a disappointing draw against Cardiff.
The home side lined up in a 4-3-3 with Spahic and Toprak featuring in central defence in front of Leno. Donati as usual occupied the right back slot while promising young midfielder Emre Can filled in at left back, a fact that United exploited. Son, Kießling and Castro provided the attacking threat with the latter replacing the influential Sidney Sam. The away side were hit with injuries as key men Vidic, Carrick and Robin van Persie were among the casualties. Featuring in their customary 4-2-3-1 formation, Smalling got the nod at right back, Kagawa was deployed in his preferred number 10 role in Van Persie’s absence and Nani was entrusted with a role on the left wing.
Leverkusen’s narrow front 3
Kießling formed the focal point of Leverkusen’s attack with Son and Castro flanking him on both sides, in theory at least. In actuality, Son and Castro both tended to drift into more central positions. While this gave the United fullbacks a decision to make on whether to follow them infield or stay out wide, the failure of either full back to provide width to the Leverkusen attack in the 1st half made United’s life a lot easier. Son especially very rarely ventured to the left touchline preferring instead to cut infield and try to utilize the space between the defence and midfield as shown in the above graphic.
While Son was impressive in spurts, his and Castro’s tendency to occupy central positions coupled with the fact that the full backs failed to provide any attacking threat meant that the German side lacked any attacking width [as illustrated by the above graphic].
United nullifying Leverkusen’s attack
As mentioned above, Leverkusen’s attack was extremely narrow in the 1st half. This allowed the United full backs to stay close to the centre backs and form a compact back 4. Can ventured forward on few occasions and when he did Valencia tracked back and made sure he stayed goal side of the young German. Faced with a crowded defence, Leverkusen found it hard to produce any penetrating attacking play aside from Kießling’s chance which was blocked by a last ditch Jonny Evans tackle.
Kießling formed the tip of the spear that was Leverkusen’s attack. He’s not the type you would fancy to run past the defence with a spectacular dribble. Being more of the traditional centre forward, he is reliant more on his strength and physical presence. If there was the easiest weakness to pick out between the central defensive pair of the United defence, anyone would put their money on Ferdinand’s lack of pace and here is where Leverkusen failed to capitalise. Ferdinand was able to handle the fairly slow Keißling with his experience and sense of positioning, thus largely rendering the Leverkusen attacking spearhead blunt. Kießling managed only one shot on target the whole night (that which he took after getting the better of Ferdinand far too easily), in what was a quiet night for the German. This combined with the Leverkusen’s unwillingness to press for the ball quickly gave Ferdinand more time.
With an 87% pass completion, 4 interceptions, 11 clearances and 2 tackles, Ferdinand came out on top in the duel between the two.
United’s proficient link up play and counter attacking football
United came into the game with a definite game plan and executed it in exemplary fashion. With the compact defence nullifying Leverkusen’s attacking threat, United looked to hit Leverkusen hard and transition fast from defence to attack. And this is exactly what they did largely due to the link up play between Giggs and Kagawa. Giggs delivered a masterclass of a performance; elder statesman in name alone, he was the crucial link between defence and attack. The Welshman dovetailed beautifully with Kagawa on multiple occasions and provided the springboard for a sizable number of United attacks. Kagawa deployed in his preferred role had what was his best game for United this season and was a constant menace as he found gaps in the opposition defence. Further up the pitch, it was all about Wayne Rooney. The forward didn’t get on the score sheet but with 4 assists to his name he was at his commanding best. The side looked balanced and the attack functioned in perfect synchronization on the night.
Much of United’s counter attacking threat came down the right hand side. The start of the second half was characterized by Can and Donati pushing very high up the pitch to provide the attack with the width that they lacked in the 1st half. This left plenty of space behind for the likes of Valencia to exploit on the counter as best shown in the build up to the corner from which United scored their 3rd goal.
Can’s failings at left back
With Sebastian Boenisch ruled out of the game, Hyypia needed someone to occupy the left hand of the Bayer defence. Emre Can was called up to fill this void and given his fair share of pace, was expected to keep up with Valencia running down that flank. Although Can has played as a left back on a few occasions before, being more of a central midfielder, his discomfort in playing out of position was clearly evident over the span of the game. Throughout the game, Can was stuck in two minds, whether to hang back and get a few yards ahead of Valencia or whether to go forward and help out with the overlap. This led him to do neither effectively, as Valencia was able to run in to yards of free space more often than not. Leverkusen’s attack was hindered more with the lack of an overlapping run from Can (although he did get up field once or twice to swing in a cross). Can took corners for Leverkusen (2 corners) from the left, once again, leaving Valencia lots of space to run in to from the counter. With Can stuck up the field from such situations and others too, he often tried to retrieve the ball from the United half itself and failed each time (0/4 in the United half). With 66% pass completion on the night, Can’s performance was noteworthy in the wrong sense.
Leverkusen are no pushovers and yet they’ve lost by convincing margins in both the games against Manchester United. Last night in particular was a disappointing performance by Hyypia’s men. Poor individual performances by the likes of Spahic and Can were put to the sword by a rampant United side. They’ll have to bounce back quickly domestically before winning against Sociedad and hope that United can do them a favour by taking points off Shakhtar. For United, it was a strong recovery from Sunday’s draw and a clinical performance saw them ensure qualification. Top spot in the group is still up for grabs though but United look favourites with a draw at home against Shakhtar enough to ensure that they go into the round of 16 as group winners.
By Arnab Ray and Razim Refai
Did you notice a tactical aspect of the game that we missed? If so, do leave a comment below. Make sure you follow us on Twitter @OOTB_football and like us on Facebook. We’re on Google+ and Tumblr as well for those interested.