David Moyes won his first UEFA Champions League (proper) fixture on Tuesday night by defeating Bayer Leverkusen 4-2, and although the scoreline suggests an easy win, Manchester United had to work hard to seal all three points.
Robin van Persie and Antonio Valencia grabbed a goal each while Wayne Rooney scored a brace, fending off resistance from both Simon Rolfes and Omer Toprak strikes.
Here, B/R resumes its usual analytical role in dissecting the prime European ties of the week, starting with the Red Devils.
United lined up in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation, with Marouane Fellaini making his full debut in a United shirt and Shinji Kagawa starting his first game under Moyes from the left.
Both Rooney and RvP's roles are slightly open to interpretation given their immense movement, but the Dutchman always appeared to be the central striker when it mattered.
The Werkself lined up in their usual 4-3-3 shape, with Stefan Reinartz in holding midfield and Emre Can coming in alongside Rolfes to form the middle three.
A Solid Platform
A lot of things went well for United on Tuesday evening, and the Red Devils looked far more fluid and assured than many had anticipated before the game.
That undoubtedly had its roots in a spectacularly solid midfield base—formed by Fellaini and the ever-reliable Michael Carrick—that appeared positionally excellent for large chunks despite their inexperience as a duo.
The Belgian was extremely proactive in getting himself about the pitch, recording four interceptions in good areas and "hurrying" plenty of unsuccessful passes by the visitors.
Carrick looked far less stretched as a result, recording three interceptions of his own and clocking up an impressive pass total as per usual, with 86 completed passes.
Back to the United Roots
It has been extremely typical of Manchester United to favour the wings in recent history under Sir Alex Ferguson, with battles against Chelsea—who prefer to control the middle—very much bringing that to light.
This was a huge occasion for Moyes, who had faced unfair questioning in the buildup to the game regarding his novice status in the competition, and it was fitting that the "United way" stepped to the fore.
Antonio Valencia had a game to remember—a rarity these days, unfortunately—applying furious pressure on the right-hand side to the awkward Sebastian Boenisch. Patrice Evra worked hard to overlap Kagawa on the left, too, and Giulio Donati's relative inexperience became apparent early on.
The first goal—offside quibbles ignored—was the product of high pressure from the midfield (again playing a big part) and a sublime cross from Evra.
With United achieving control of the midfield through Fellaini and Carrick, Valencia was freed up to play his own game on right rather than drop inside to help. Kagawa was able to float between the left-wing and the No. 10 role, too.
Perhaps owing to their excellent early season form and strong finish to last season (level with Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga), more was expected of Sami Hyypia's charges.
Yes, they scored two goals at Old Trafford, but the counterattacking mantra they follow fell apart in the final third on the night.
Emre Can, playing as the right central midfielder, did an excellent job of finding the one-two, wall pass or through ball into the area behind Evra, but Leverkusen failed to deliver the correct ball all night long.
Stefan Kiessling was given scraps to contend with, and not one pass fell his way inside the box—far from the ideal situation given his poacher-esque style.
Sidney Sam, for all his pace, lacked the composure to get the job done in the final third.
Moyes' game plan was very good, and he made the right call in overloading the flanks early on to pick on Leverkusen's suspect full-backs.
Evra left holes, but he was integral to the high pressure and width United played with, and the home side ironically scored the finest goal of the evening—via a swift, ruthless counterattack.
There were promising signs for Moyes, and he'll be delighted to get the first one out of the way, Rooney back in form, Fellaini bedded in and Kagawa back in the side.