Manchester United vs. Bayer Leverkusen: 6 Things We Learned
Manchester United got their 2013-14 UEFA Champions League campaign off to the perfect start with a clinical 4-2 victory over Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday.
The Red Devils took the lead early through a slightly-controversial Wayne Rooney goal and went into the half-time break with a 1-0 lead—probably a fair score given their dominance. That was quickly followed by a flurry of second-half goals.
Simon Rolfes leveled the scores just after the break with a fantastic shot from outside the box. However, that lead didn't last long, with Robin van Persie taking advantage of some woeful goalkeeping to net from Antonio Valencia's cross.
Rooney scored his 200th United goal when he clipped the ball past the goalkeeper, then laid on an assist for Antonio Valencia to kill off any Leverkusen comeback.
The Germans went on to score a late consolation goal through Omer Toprak after the Red Devils failed to clear a corner, but it made little difference to the final result.
Here are six things we learned from a dominant Manchester United win.
David Moyes Got His Starting XI Right
David Moyes hasn't opted to experiment with his Premier League squad a great deal this season.
And, at times, that's dramatically affected how United play on the pitch.
Yet against Leverkusen, it was clear that Moyes got his starting team completely correct for the Red Devils' Champions League encounter. It was the perfect team for the players they were primed to come up against and it showed in the eventual result on the night.
Against a team filled with plenty of counter-attacking talent and quick ball-playing, the inclusion of Antonio Valencia on the right wing was key for the Red Devils.
That gave them an advantage in pace in both attack and defence.
The inclusion of Chris Smalling was also key. Not necessarily the most talented of ball-players, Smalling's strengths lie in his ability to read the game and in his height, which—against a strong, tall German team—turned out to be very important for the Red Devils' defence.
Moyes certainly got this one right.
It's Good to Have Wayne Rooney Back
Transfer rumours might have flown around all summer about his departure to Chelsea, Arsenal or any other club that could afford him, but now that the dust has seemingly settled, it's good to have Wayne Rooney back.
And not only that—it's good to have him back in the form that he is.
After scoring a sensational free kick against Crystal Palace on the weekend in his return from injury, the England international added to his goal-scoring total for the year with a lovely strike in the first half before beating the goalkeeper for his 200th United goal.
The first wasn't the most complicated of finishes, but his movement to drop off the defender and find space in the box showed that he's currently switched on and ready to prove his worth this year.
His natural ability to come from high positions and then drop back to overload the channels was also key in the second goal—timing his run perfectly to get in behind Leverkusen's defence.
He probably should have added another after beating the goalkeeper early in the second half, but we'll forgive him for the error (which could have been a pass).
It's great to see Rooney back, healthy and enjoying his footie once more.
United's Hole in the Middle Is Disappearing
If you'd asked any Manchester United following the scoreless draw with Chelsea, then the heartbreaking derby defeat to Liverpool, they'd have spoken endlessly about one thing.
The "hole" in the middle of the field.
Moyes' deadline-day signing of Fellaini was made in the sole hope of filling this hole. United needed another central midfielder capable of playing in front of their defensive line and making key turnovers and interceptions.
They also needed someone who was able to turn those stops into attacking threats and contribute to the attacking line whenever he saw fit.
And while it's still early days, it seems Fellaini is filling that role perfectly.
Played far deeper than he was at Everton last season, the bustling Belgian was superb in front of United's back four against Leverkusen. He made a slew of key interceptions and stops, and rose well to win a number of key headed duels throughout as well.
His passing game was controlled and disciplined, while his cracking 30-yard, first-time pass to put Robin van Persie through on goal early was a sign of just how deadly he can be from central midfield this year.
Again, it's still early, but Fellaini is very quickly filling United's hole in the middle of the field.
Leverkusen Are a Tough Group Contender
When Manchester United were drawn into a group alongside Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad, many again scoffed at how simple United's group was.
And while that's true to some extent, it's also horribly inaccurate.
United's group is far tougher than it appears on paper and Leverkusen—based on what they showed against the Red Devils—will be a very strong opponent in the group stage this year.
They'll be more than competitive against Shakhtar most likely for a qualification berth to the knockout rounds, and United must be wary about the real threats that exist in their group this year.
Leverkusen are a young, attacking team blessed with plenty of talent.
Stefan Keissling and Heung-Min Son have the potential (and skills) to become a very potent attacking duo this season. The likes of Emre Can and Lars Bender can also cause real havoc from midfield.
And with an innovative young manager at the helm, they're certainly a sleeper team to watch for, even if United did expose them a little in this one.
Shinji Kagawa's Role Still Terribly Unclear
Football fans finally got their chance to see what role Shinji Kagawa would have for United this year, with the Japanese international recovering from his illness on the weekend to take the field.
And while it was a strong performance from Kagawa in terms of what he delivered, this match didn't exactly offer any clarity on what his role will be for the Red Devils this season.
Played out on the left wing, Kagawa drifted in centrally for most of the match and played as almost a dual interchangeable attacking midfielder alongside Rooney.
Yet it wasn't the most fluid of combinations, with the pair often found taking the same space in attack as well as in defence. Between the two of them, they were caught far too central when Leverkusen attacked.
That's not an issue, per se, for Rooney—given that he was deployed centrally for this match—but it is worth noting for the wiry Japanese attacker.
He clearly isn't comfortable playing as a regulation midfielder and he isn't a Premier League winger (something which Jurgen Klopp will no doubt attest to).
In fact, Kagawa looked his best for the entire match when he was afforded a quick counter-attack in the 27th minute. He quickly broke free of defenders, turned a few more inside out and then nearly found Van Persie at the top of the box—and he did so with no other attackers ahead of him.
That was his role at Dortmund, to an extent, and it's what he looked most comfortable with tonight. Question is: Will he be given that role at United this year?
An Important Victory for United to Have
Make no mistake—this was a very important win for Manchester United to have.
Firstly, it was key in the sense of getting their Champions League campaign off to a good start.
Early wins last year put them in a great position to progress and it meant they didn't have to stress over the final games and, potentially, miss qualification for the knockout rounds.
They should have won this game—and they did. An important three points to have, points that put them top of their group (albeit only on goal difference).
However, it was also a key win for United to have in context of their season as a whole.
Their clinical demolition of Swansea City no doubt feels like an eternity ago. They picked up one point from two games (Chelsea and Liverpool) that they really should have done better in and weren't all that impressive against the Eagles either.
The pressure—albeit unspoken—was clearly on United.
Yet with goals flowing in and their best performance of the season in the books, the Red Devils will no doubt breathe a lot easier heading back to the Premier League.
With a derby match against Manchester City at the Etihad on Sunday and a clash against Liverpool in the League Cup scheduled for Wednesday, that could turn out to be very important indeed.
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