Manchester United arguably produced their best performance of the David Moyes era, as they thumped Bayern Leverkusen at the BayArena.
Robin van Persie, Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick were still unavailable, so David Moyes was forced to make a few changes to his 4-4-1-1. Wayne Rooney led the line ahead of Shinji Kagawa, Nani and Antonio Valencia, while Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones formed a midfield duo.
There were no surprises in Sami Hyypia‘s 4-3-3 as Stefan Kiessling, Gonzalo Castro and Heung-Min Son led the attack, while Lars Bender, Stefan Reinartz and Simon Rolfes formed a midfield trio.
United were terrific – they were organized, disciplined, and frightening on the counter attack, and Leverkusen was punished for their naïve approach.
Leverkusen impress early
Leverkusen started the match in a positive manner, and this was down to United’s shape. United maintained a high line in the early moments, and although it left them vulnerable to balls over the top, the gap between the midfield and backline was large.
This is where Son thrived – The South Korean attacker drifted centrally to pick up pockets of space in the final third, and he attacked Moyes’ men at every opportunity. Son received two opportunities to hand the home side the lead, but both of his attempts didn’t test David De Gea. Kiessling also had a glorious opportunity to hand Leverkusen the lead when he skipped past Rio Ferdinand, but Jonny Evans made a vital interception to keep the match scoreless.
United continued their impressive run of scoring in the opening 25 minutes of each Champions League match this season – they’ve done so in each group stage match this season – despite Leverkusen’s positive attacking contributions at the start of the match. Shockingly, prior to the goal Kagawa and Rooney were peripheral figures.
Nonetheless, United pounced on Reinartz’s mistake, which allowed Kagawa to break into midfield with pace, before playing a ball to the oncoming Giggs. The Welshman found Rooney on the left, and the Englishman delivered an exquisite ball at the far post for Valencia to tap in.
This was a devastating move that highlighted Moyes approach on the counter attack. United utilized their pace in wide areas, whereas Kagawa excelled in a no.10 role that relied on the Japanese playmaker’s wonderful ability to swiftly transition from defence to attack.
One of the main differences between the sides was the way they approached the match without the ball. United were terrific on both ends – their natural shape was compact, whereas their pressing was cohesive.
Rooney and Kagawa closed down Leverkusen’s centre backs and Giggs tracked Reinartz when he attempted to drop deeper and create 3v2 situations. Hyypia’s men attempted to play around United’s press by having Bender and Rolfes drop deeper, but Nani and Valencia took the authority to track the duo, and left Patrice Evra and Chris Smalling the responsibility of marking Leverkusen’s fullbacks – this left Moyes’ men 3v3 at the back, but the German outfit had difficulties breaking past United’s press.
However, United looked comfortable when Leverkusen pushed forward. The issue Leverkusen encountered was the shape of their attacking three – Castro and Son aren’t natural wide players – they rely on movement around the final third, and United’s narrow shape prevented the wide players from flourishing, as central areas were often congested.
Hyypia’s men were in desperate need of width – which is often provided from their full backs – and although Emre Can and Giulio Donati pushed into advanced positions, the quality in these wide areas were poor. Rolfes and Bender also attempted to push forward to help their full backs attain better positions, but Nani and Valencia admirably tracked their runs.
It’s been awhile since we’ve seen an impressive defensive display from United, but they showcased their grit in Germany.
While United displayed a sense of organization and discipline, there was a significant contrast in the German side’s approach. Leverkusen’s front three dropped off the United backline, and allowed Evans and Ferdinand to have the ball – yet whenever they did press the centre backs, Jones or Giggs would drop between them and receive the ball.
The German side also encountered issues between the lines – there was a heap of space between midfield/attack and midfield/defence. With no pressure being applied on central players, Giggs, Jones, and Kagawa found it relatively easy to receive the ball, and facilitate play. United didn’t necessarily trouble the German side with their possession, but the multiple gaps available in Leverkusen’s shape left Hyypia’s men vulnerable throughout the entire match.
One of the most surprising feats in this match was the midfield battle. Heading into the fixture, the biggest concern was whether United would be able to cope without Carrick or Marouane Fellaini against a midfield trio.
Leverkusen’s numerical advantage in midfield favoured the German side to dictate central areas, yet Giggs and Jones produced their best performances of the season. The United duo were intelligent with their movement, and often slotted into deeper positions, knowing that Leverkusen’s midfield wouldn’t press them.
This played into Giggs’ hands as he was allowed to showcase his impressive range of passing, whilst the duo also contributed on the defensive end, when needed.
It was shocking to see neither an attacker nor midfielder press Giggs, as he was dominating the midfield, and in the 88th minute his glorious over the top ball to Nani, highlighted this fact. Giggs was allowed time and space to cleverly pick out the Portuguese attacker, who subsequently produced a cheeky finish past a helpless Bernd Leno.
Despite United’s lack of numbers in midfield, Leverkusen’s naïve approach towards containing the duo led to Giggs and Jones’ dominance in midfield.
There was a difference in Leverkusen’s approach in the second half – opposed to the opening 45 minutes, Hyypia instructed his men to press higher up the pitch. There were brief glimpses of their press towards the end of the first half, when Bender and Rolfes closed down Giggs and Jones.
However, the issue Leverkusen faced was their press was disjointed. There was no structure in midfield, and United smoothly drove into advanced positions. Equally, it left more space for United’s attackers to drop into, thus leading to Rooney and Kagawa having a larger influence in the second half.
United down the right
Also, with Leverkusen attempting to win possession in advanced positions, space in wide areas were outlets for United to exploit. With Son and Castro rarely tracking back, the onus was on Rolfes and Bender to protect their full backs.
Their was a vast improvement in Valencia’s performance throughout the second half, as Can – who was absolutely dreadful in and out of possession – was caught higher up the pitch on several occasions. Valencia attacked space behind the makeshift left back, and the Ecuadorian’s pace and strength tormented Can. Valencia was involved in four different situations that could’ve led to a goal – likewise, his dangerous cross in the 64th minute led to the corner kick that provided United with their third goal.
Of the many star United performers against Leverkusen, it was Kagawa that impressed – with that being said, Rooney and Giggs’ imperious displays shouldn’t be overlooked.
Kagawa thrived in the no.10 role, which he rarely gets to feature in due to Rooney’s inclusion in the squad. However, Moyes’ reactive approach also played a factor in his success. The Japanese playmaker succeeded at Dortmund playing behind the striker in a transition-based game, which focused on quick attacks on the break – coincidentally this was Moyes’ approach towards the match.
But the United playmaker dropped deeper to retain possession, and Leverkusen was unable to contain his swift movement. Kagawa’s involvement in Chris Smalling’s fourth goal showcased his highly-rated creative niche. The Japanese international dinked a clever ball over the Leverkusen back line to Rooney, and the Englishman lobbed a pass to Smalling, who guided the ball into the open net.
Kagawa’s performance was impressive – United’s approach played to his strengths, and now it’s evident that United has another element of creativity at their disposal, especially against superior sides in Europe.
This was a convincing United performance – arguably the best display of Moyes’ tenure thus far. Nonetheless, Leverkusen was lethargic – their narrow attack favoured the away side, whereas their defensive approach allowed Kagawa, Giggs and Jones freedom to control the match.
United were by far the superior side, and individual performances from the midfield and Rooney merited three points, and a berth in the round of 16. Moyes can breathe for a few days, but upcoming fixtures against Spurs and Everton should provide a sterner test, and display whether genuine progress has been made.