Manchester United picked up a well earned point in their opening group C game in Lisbon against two times European Cup winners Benfica. Oscar Cardozo opened the scoring for the home team with a well take strike following a superb ball from the the left foot of Gaitan on the left hand side. The big Paraguayan took the ball on his chest before spinning to take the ball passed Evans and strike a right footed shot across the diving Lindegaard. Ryan Giggs hit back just before half time with an excellent left footed strike outside of the box, following a direct run from Antonio Valencia on the right hand side. Ryan Giggs scored his first goal in the Champions League back in September 1994 (just over seventeen years since his latest strike against Benfica) against IFK Gothenberg in 4-2 victory over the Swedish Champions.
Here we discuss the talking points of the 1-1 draw against Benfica.
Ferguson – the master of squad rotation?
From Bolton to Benfica – eight changes in the first eleven and yet still the side picked is brimming with talent. Sir Alex has always been the master of using his squad well – if you’ve got a large pool of players then use them. However, his timing is genius. Take Ashley Young for example; he plays in all four opening league games and excels, yet the opening Champions League game and he’s not even on the bench. Young, quite rightly should be pretty pissed off and now wants to make sure he trains even harder to ensure he’s selected on Sunday; and, if he is selected he’ll want to prove he’s worth keeping in the team. Keeping the players keen and wanting to prove themselves is fantastic for both squad competition and getting the results on the pitch.
Competitive squad aside, there was key match-time for various players who’ve not featured this year. Fabio, Carrick, Fletcher, Valencia, Lindegaard, Park and Giggs all made their first starts of the season. For Carrick and Valencia in particular, it was their first minutes in the first team after injuries. Getting players fit and sharp is important early on, expect a similar approach at Leeds next week.
Anders Lindegaard had known for a few days that he was to start this game ahead of David de Gea. Having started the season as second choice goalkeeper, Lindegaard’s rare opportunities are his chances to impress the boss. Generic mutterings post-match across social networking sites all agreed that Lindegaard was probably United’s star man (which may say more about how United didn’t perform than anything else). The Dane pulled off some terrific and important saves and could do nothing about the goal he did concede.
He’s always been adamant he’s not at United to simply “pick his nose” but to challenge and try to win the position of United’s “number 1”. He’s never put a foot wrong any time he’s played since signing in January and potentially more chances may come his way. That’s nothing against de Gea of course, he’ll remain first choice and will play on Sunday with the full backing of the boss, his team-mates and the fans. It’s good that United have such a strong goalkeeping department right now. Even Tomasz Kuszczak is still on the club’s books. It’s important that all of the goalkeepers are exposed to different types of games and they all get a chance to stake a claim to be first choice. With de Gea playing on Sunday, it remains to be seen who’ll get the nod in the league cup at Leeds now; potentially Ben Amos.
United fail to press in the first half
Fergie elected to go with a 4-5-1 formation with Giggs taking up the position he did in the Champions League Final v Barcelona in May, slightly ahead of a midfield pivot of Carrick and (the returning) Fletcher. Benfica started with a typical 4-4-1-1 system (4-2-2-2 on the counter), with Aimar in close support of Cardozo, the lone striker, and it was evident early on how intent the home side were on pressing United high (Wenger’s Arsenal suffered a similar fate in last night’s tie versus Dortmund), forcing the error and moving the ball into dangerous areas as quickly as possible – something we have written about recently with regard to United’s new-found approach. There are two things a side can do when faced with such an approach, one is to ensure that you counter-press with equal intensity (pushing the back-line forwards) in order that the team is not ‘pinned back’ in its own half; and the other is to ensure that the space between the midfield and forward lines is as narrow as possible.
Neither of these things happened in the first half and it was therefore inevitable that the Portuguese side would dictate the tempo of the game, with Aimar in particular seeing a lot of the ball in the opening half an hour. Benfica’s fullbacks and wide midfielders also worked tirelessly to track the movement of Valencia and Park off the ball, forming two narrow banks of four as soon as relieved of possession – with Garay and Perreira in the centre worked superbly well to nullify both Giggs and Rooney whenever they received the ball just in front of the back-line. Long and behold, the opening goal came from a quick transition from back to front, starting from a cute ball to the left fullback by the goalkeeper, who quickly released Gaitan. Both Fabio and Fletcher were too slow to press and within 10 seconds the ball had landed at Cardozo’s feet, who did well to evade the sleeping Evans before firing clinically into the far left corner of the net. Giggs’ superb goal from 20 yards to close the half saved the proverbial Fergie hairdryer somewhat.
Central Park and midfield malaise
In a similar fashion to the formation used in the game versus Barcelona, Park played virtually as an auxiliary central midfielder for two thirds of the game. The crucial difference tonight was the fact that United were playing five men across the middle, meaning that Park was often crowding the middle zone, leaving the side desperately needing width on the left side. When United inevitably countered, they had no choice but to release Valencia on the right given the distinct lack of width on the opposite flank, and although the Ecuadorian had a solid game and assisted the goal, the pattern became obvious to the home side, and they quickly doubled up on the right winger. Park improved after the hour mark where it was perhaps not a coincidence that he was instructed to hug the left touchline with greater aplomb – two goal-scoring chances fell to the South Korean shortly after.
Notably, Benfica’s defensive strategy was also aided by Carrick playing so deep and the fact that this was Fletcher’s first competitive game back for the reds, and fitness-wise it showed. This effectively meant that United were playing with a broken double pivot as Fletcher worked the pitch horizontally as the home side broke from the fullback position more often than not. As mentioned above, Giggs was cutting an increasingly frustrated figure in the final third as he was quickly closed down when on the ball, with often no viable out-ball for him to play – and although Fergie’s half-time instruction altered this somewhat in the second half, praise must be given to Jesus’ defensive approach with their narrow midfield (showing United inside), and high line (with Luisao excelling), effectively forcing Fergie to bring on Hernandez relatively early to support the increasingly isolated Rooney. Anderson, Nani and Young will surely be recalled to face Chelsea, and their energy and creative spark against a strong Villas-Boas side will be much required.
First away goal conceded since Bayern Munich
United went the whole 2010/11 campaign without conceding an away goal in the Champions League (remember, the 3-1 Wembley defeat was on neutral ground), but lasted a mere 24 minutes against Benfica on Wednesday evening. United went out to Bayern on away goals following a 4-4 draw, which I watched in disbelief following the second leg dominance prior to Rafael’s sending off. However, it was in the first leg where United last conceded an away goal – going down 2-1 in the Allianz Arena.
Last season, United travelled to Spain (Valencia), to Glasgow (Rangers), to London (Chelsea), to Bursaspor, to the South of France (Olympique de Marseille) and to Gelsenkirchen (FC Schalke 04) without conceding a goal. United actually conceded four goals at home, which could say something about Ferguson’s philosphy in trying to control possession away from Old Trafford (which may result in limited changes – take the bore 0-0 draw in Marseille for example), which taking the game to the opposition at home. In 540 minutes (that is nine hours of football) last season, United didn’t concede an away goal in the Champions League.
Having said that it was a superbly taken goal and United gained a valuable point in what is the most difficult game of group C. There were times last season when United were saved by a lunging Edwin Van der Sar (at Chelsea if I remember rightly following a Lampard effort), which helped to maintain that statistic.
Improved second half performance
Without doubt, United upped their game in the second half following a quite dire pedestrian first half effort. The shape stayed relatively the same (4-3-3), however Giggs broke forward more running from midfield, running into the space vacated by the wandering Wayne Rooney. Benfica still had chances second half, with Lindegaard pulling off a number of decent saves – especially from Nolito, diving low to his left following a side footed effort from just inside the box. Valencia got down the right hand side a number of times in the second half, and knocked a few decent low balls across the box – which, unfortunately were not met by a United player.
United dominated the ball, with 61% possession, however had minimal shots in comparison to their Portuguese opponents (14:4 in favour of Benfica). The introduction of Nani and Hernandez for Darren Fletcher and Antonio Valencia (who both were lacking first team match fitness) gave United more urgency, though the Mexican wasn’t given any decent service in the twenty minutes he was on the field. United controlled the second half but rarely looked like having the urgency to push on and net the winner. Having said that, Sir Alex will be happy with a point away from home against what should be United’s toughest opposition.
United will be content with a point in arguably the trickiest fixture of the group, and Sir Alex will be relieved to have given crucial game time to the likes of Lindegaard, Park, Fabio, Fletcher and the returning Valencia. With Chelsea next up in the league, Fergie will potentially have seven players coming back into the side, all of whom would have benefited from the rest on Wednesday. The performance was slightly disjointed and jaded, but this was to be expected given the aforementioned rotation policy the manager has in place.