The difference that passing the ball forward can make. It sounds very simple. And in many ways it is. But when you pass the ball forward you have a much greater chance of losing it. To pass the ball forward, you have to be brave.
This is an area that Manchester United have traditionally excelled in. Ferguson built a team that always looked forward first. They attacked with speed, and they attacked direct. Such terms had become pejorative in a possession-centric culture that has dominated football in recent years, but there was never anything uncultured about Man United’s play. They attacked direct, but they attacked with quality.
Michael Carrick is a player who can pass the ball forward. In fact, the midfielder made more forward passes than any other player in Europe’s top leagues last season. But Carrick has not been of the same vintage this year. When United are at their best, the midfielder is often central to everything good. But when the team are under-performing as consistently as they have in the Premier League this season, Carrick is not the man to turn the tide.
Giggs may well be. He certainly seemed to be in the game against Olympiakos. His passing was key for United’s first two goals, and the Welshman offered a calming presence in a midfield that has often only exuded anxiety. Carrick could look left and not see someone who he needs to carry but someone he can follow. It took a certain amount of pressure of the Englishman, and his game benefited greatly for it.
Giggs’ bravery made the difference. His first thought when he got the ball was not ‘how can I not give the ball away’ but ‘how can I hurt the opposition’. He was willing to take risks. He was willing to lose the ball.
But perhaps it wasn’t so much bravery, as it was determination. Giggs has watched from the sidelines as the good work of the last 20 years has gone to ruin in one season. The Welshman felt he should have played in the game against Liverpool, and he made as much known to the media afterwards. Olympiakos would be victims of the backlash for this.
Even David Moyes seemed slightly surprised by the level of Giggs’ performance in his post-match interview. He explained his reasons for not starting the midfielder for the last two months were forward-looking. Given the dire run that Man United have gone through during this period, Moyes’ continued eye on the future is about as admirable as it is delusional.
While Ryan Giggs improved Man United’s midfield, he improved the team by keeping the ball away from it. Goalkeeper aside, United’s one strength lies in their forward line. By getting the ball to Rooney and Van Persie early, Giggs put Man United’s best players in threatening positions. And Olympiakos panicked.
The problem at Manchester United was never about movement, as van Persie recently suggested, but about patterns of play.
When United have played with traditional wingers, their forwards scoring opportunities have been mainly restricted to converting crosses. And when they’ve played with three 10’s; in Rooney, Mata and Januzaj, their forward play has often been too narrow.
But what has been consistent with either variation of 4-2-3-1 is the lack of speed in United’s build-up play. This has meant that the team’s strikers tend to get the ball when the opposition has already had the time to get back into a defensive set-up.
However, against Olympiakos, by having a player in Giggs who was eager to pass the ball forward, United’s strikers received the ball in one-on-one situations and were able to run at the opposition. Such positions have been engineered all too rarely at Old Trafford this season.
It’s a terrible indictment of Man United’s recent transfer dealings that it took a 40-year-old to show the way forward. But this is the situation that David Moyes finds himself in.
However, if Moyes wants to ensure he’s at Manchester United next season, he’d be well advised to take leaf through the past and not be so concerned about the future.