Let’s not kid ourselves: Manchester United, even this Manchester United, should have gotten past Olympiakos. There should be no great surprise at them being in the final eight given the stature and quality – the lowest of those that had remained – of the opposition.
David Moyes was facilitated in his team selection by the unavailability of Juan Mata. The Spaniard being cup-tied loosened the shackles holding the manager back; on Wednesday night he was not obligated to field his three leading names.
Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, with the right personnel to their flanks and just behind in central midfield, set out to forge a partnership that we hadn’t seen yet to see this season. There was an awareness for one another, they combined well when it came off and the lack of tactical complications looked to be a weight of each of their shoulders.
The back to basics approach allowed this team to play like the United of old. It wasn’t the perfect performance by any means, as Olympiakos troubled the United back line on more than one occasion. But going forward, Moyes’ side had found a purpose and a motivation to get through a job that didn’t deserve the level of drama it had generated.
Ryan Giggs’ inclusion was just as important as Mata’s absence. The latter necessitates a strengthening of central foundations to the compromise of attacking ingenuity. Marouane Fellaini or Tom Cleverley could not have picked out the passes Giggs produced that led to van Persie being felled in the box, and later the ‘pre-assist’ to the Dutchman’s second.
Even more so, United were able to bring genuine width back to their game, something completely alien in the previous game against Liverpool. Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck are far from perfect, but their imperfections are not so great that they can’t serve a purpose.
Valencia did his job on the right to make the pitch bigger, while Welbeck’s somewhat unorthodox style troubled the visitors enough for focus to be temporarily taken away from United’s two most lethal attackers. Width gave United’s central players time and space to work, as well as the value of workers who were willing to help out defensively.
As has been the case in the past, this win won’t eliminate the problems in the United camp. Moyes must also be conscious not to get too far ahead of himself; declarations of his team being able to equal and then better Europe’s finest were misguided.
What we have seen is evidence that simplicity will trump over elaboration, previously served up by a multitude of technicians in favour of team balance. This latest Champions League win was as much a tactical revealing as it was an injection of life.