For possibly the first time since David Moyes took charge of Manchester United he revisited his Everton days. If there was one thing Moyes could never be faulted for, it was the organisation of his defence. As a result, the foregone conclusion many expected in the first leg of United’s Champions League quarter-final tie with Bayern Munich turned out to be anything but that.
At a club like Manchester United, with the weight of expectation, Moyes will be required to attack. But at times, as against Bayern, all his team could do at times was defend for their lives. And defend they did.
Bayern Munich enjoyed 74 per cent of the ball, made 698 passes in comparison to United’s 166 and the Germans attempted 16 shots to 6. If the stats were heavily in Bayern’s favour the scoreline, 1-1, was not so much.
For all Bayern’s domination, they failed to create as many clear-cut opportunities as you would have come to expect. Led by the once outstanding duo of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, Manchester United’s defence were steadfast in their approach. The two rolled back the years and were almost at their impenetrable best once more. Even in their heyday, neither Ferdinand or Vidic had experienced an onslaught quite like this.
Bayern were relentless in their pressing, and like clockwork in the way they recycled possession. They squeezed the space and United’s central midfielders – already the weakest link of the side – struggled to retain possession.
But, the possession didn’t come without issues for Bayern. They lacked a serious cutting edge. For all their intricate passing in and around the penalty area, they only achieved three shots on target. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s well-worked equaliser, following Nemanja Vidic’s header, was as good as it got for Bayern. An Arjen Robben 18-yard curler and a snapshot from his weak right foot were as close as they came to any success other than the goal.
In truth, the best chances of the match fell to United. Danny Welbeck had the ball in the net after just four minutes, only to be penalised for a high foot, and he found himself one-on-one with Manuel Neuer just minutes before half-time but couldn’t fool the German with his crafty attempt to beat him.
When Arsene Wenger declared this Bayern Munich side to be more vulnerable than last year, after his side had seen themselves eliminated by them for a second year running, most people laughed off his claims. Maybe the word ‘vulnerable’ was misused, but they look to lack the ruthlessness of last season.
They feel very much like a Pep Guardiola side, more intent on suffocating the opposition than blowing them out of the water. The counterattacks launched against Barcelona in last year’s semi-finals were brutally efficient. Every opportunity Bayern got to break when United had committed men forwards they failed to capitalise on, more often than not allowing United to regroup behind the ball. At times it felt like a refusal, from Bayern, to do what was necessary. Their tiki-taka football would bring the just rewards, nothing else would do.
Despite their strong defensive showing, United face a mammoth task at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday. They can expect much of the same in terms of ball possession. Bayern won’t change for anyone, so neither should United. Any hope for the second leg and they’ll have to perform at least as well as they did at home. They’ll be relying on haphazard and sporadic counterattacks, whilst for the vast majority of the game, easing pressure on David De Gea’s goal.
You’ll be hard pushed to find anyone except the most optimistic of United fans who believe they stand any hope of progression to the semi-finals. But you’d have been hard pushed to find anyone who believed they could perform as they did in the first leg. Contrary to popular belief, Manchester United’s Champions League dream remains alive. After the CPR performed in the second-leg against Olympiakos, United’s heart hasn’t stopped beating yet.