Envisioning a Manchester United Game Plan to Take Down Bayern Munich
As Manchester United seek to pull off an upset against Bayern Munich, they will need a game plan which compensates for the significant gap in quality between the two sides.
When Sir Alex Ferguson's United faced Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid last season, United fans feared the worst. Eventually the worst came to pass, but the performance over two legs gave heart to those who had come to believe that Madrid were in a qualitatively different league to United.
With Mourinho saying "The best team lost," per BBC Sport, Ferguson's men were tigerish in their hunger, fully committed and clearly capable of taking the game to their more expensively assembled counterparts.
In spite of that fixture being only a little over a year ago, it feels like a story of a bygone footballing era. Because, of course, it is.
David Moyes' United have been a vastly inferior copy of Ferguson's version. Every time United have faced a truly significant test this season, they have failed it, often dismally.
The games cited as exceptions, the defeat of Arsenal and the overturning of the deficit amassed in Greece, were enjoyable certainly, but both of those occasions come with a significant caveat in terms of the performance of the opposition.
Assuming "stay at home and take the 3-0 defeat" or "find a way to get at Bayern's pre-match catering" are not an option, how can United, this United, overcome their stiffest challenge yet?
It is a challenge provided by a team who have already won the Bundesliga, managed by a manager who knows exactly what it takes to achieve the highest European success.
There are no easy answers. Even with a perfect game plan, perfectly executed, United are second favourites. Here are some thoughts on how they can make the best of the situation.
Set Up to Play with Energy from the Front
Pep Guardiola will set Bayern Munich out to dictate the tempo of the game and to dominate possession. Moyes will need United to combat this with pace and energy.
When Ferguson met Guardiola's Barcelona in 2011, United faced a side not identical to Pep's current Munich side but one with a similar ethos. Ferguson knew that energy was key. For the first 10 minutes of that game, United were first to every ball and did not allow Barcelona to settle at all.
However, at the end of a long season, United were unable to sustain that level of intensity and Barcelona's eventual win was comfortable.
So, how will Moyes' side find the energy to last the whole game? The answers are partly in conditioning and general fitness but also in a selection which maximises this.
Danny Welbeck seems a certainty to start. His energy and work off the ball will be enormously significant, as will his ability to run between the lines, meaning that Bayern's defensive shape is stretched not just with width but also with his ability to cut in from wide positions.
In United's recent humbling defeat to Manchester City, Welbeck was one of the few United players to cause City problems, drawing bookings from Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta. Welbeck was, memorably, United's goalscorer in the Bernabeu last season and has a justly earned reputation as a "big-game player."
With Shinji Kagawa seemingly "rested" when he was taken off two-thirds of the way into Saturday's game against Aston Villa, he may well start and, like Welbeck, provides energetic pressing when United are not on the ball. Antonio Valencia is tireless on the ball and off, as is Wayne Rooney.
As a front four, this combination is flexible, creative and extremely hard working. United will need every ounce of their energy.
Play Rooney Deep, but Be Proactive in Prescribing His Role
Assuming that the front four is indeed Rooney, Welbeck, Kagawa and Valencia, then there are decisions to make about their relative positioning.
Whilst I have recently advocated the use of Rooney in the No. 9 role, this occasion is perhaps best served by him playing deeper than Welbeck and dropping back into midfield to help disrupt Bayern's play, particularly asking him to press Toni Kroos, to affect the German's passing rhythm.
However, this should not be all Moyes asks of his charge. He should instruct Rooney to play at speed, hassling and harrying at every opportunity. If he is to play at his best, Rooney will also need to be asked to temper this adrenaline-fuelled approach with a calm head when in possession in deeper areas.
Fewer "Hollywood" long, sweeping passes, and more running and close interplay with his fellow attackers would serve United best, with a view to maximising what possession they have.
Break Down the Right Side, Compromising Bayern’s Left-Side Ambition
David Alaba and Franck Ribery combine to wonderful effect for Bayern Munich and are a real threat to Rafael and Valencia on United's right, but Moyes can use this to his advantage.
If Rafael and Valencia are both fit, they can be deployed to pin both Munich players back when United counter.
Alaba may currently be Europe’s most adventurous full-back, and with that in mind, Moyes may find that attack truly is the best form of defense.
Of course, it is risky to prioritise offensive tactics in this way, but opting for a very defensive-minded tactical approach to United's right flank is probably no less of a risk in that it will invite an enormous amount of pressure.
Play Phil Jones as a Javi Martinez-Style Defensive Midfielder?
Moyes must be tempted to play Phil Jones in central midfield against Bayern. Given United's defensive injury problems, he may not be able to do so, but if he does, Jones need look no further than Munich's Javi Martinez for tips on how to excel in a combative central midfield role.
Martinez's highly combustible approach and quick recycling of the ball was key to the approach of Athletic Bilbao and has been part of Guardiola's plan since his arrival in Germany.
If Moyes does opt for Jones to be deployed in midfield, there are two tactical approaches he may consider. The first is to task Jones to press high upfield, harassing Bastian Schweinsteiger and Kroos. The second would play him in a position more familiar to Michael Carrick, sweeping ahead of the two centre-halves.
Last season, against Real Madrid, he performed a reasonably effective job occupying Cristiano Ronaldo in the Bernabeu.
Whilst defensive injuries make it less likely that Jones will start in midfield, he is potentially so useful as a destroyer in the centre of the pitch that it may even be worth starting Carrick at centre-half and playing Jones in the midfield. That would be a bold choice indeed, and it seems unlikely that Moyes will be so experimental.
Given the size of United's task, it may behove him to do so.
Be Bold with Substitutions
Moyes' substitutions have been found wanting on a few occasions this season. He cannot afford for them to be so against Munich.
Which ever of his midfielders and forward players start, he is likely to have some very good options from the bench. The best of these is likely to be Adnan Januzaj.
Back to something approaching his sparkling best in his cameo against Aston Villa, Januzaj should be deployed to occupy Bayern's full-backs in the latter parts of the game, when fresh energy and impetus will be needed.
Moyes may well also have Marouane Fellaini on the bench, available to be deployed in a number of roles. It is not impossible to imagine him used as a second striker, giving United a more direct option that the rest of their forwards do not offer.
It would be a shame for United to be reduced to "hit-and-hope," but against the might of Munich, it may be a necessary evil.