It wasn’t that long ago that Manchester United manager David Moyes was bemoaning his side’s inability to defend set pieces.
He was similarly distraught when Cardiff City nicked a late equaliser from a free-kick in late November.
But last month against West Ham the Red Devils suddenly displayed some competence in this area and when they went up against Bayern Munich on Tuesday it proved to be their saving grace.
Defending Set Pieces
Bayern won six corners at Old Trafford in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal against United. And from none of them did they create a meaningful attempt at goal.
Perhaps Moyes’ frustration had boiled over in the form of helpful instruction, because on this night his players not only acquitted themselves nicely on corners and free kicks—they thrived on them.
It was a situation they first faced in the 13th minute, when Arjen Robben won a corner off Nemanja Vidic.
As Toni Kroos prepared to make his delivery his teammates were being conscientiously eyed up by their Premier League opponents, who had positioned themselves to both watch the players they were defending and, crucially, see the ball as it was floated in.
Their close marking prevented the sort of run-ups that would later burn the Bavarian giants, and Danny Welbeck was also left in more advanced space—an important tweak from previous corner-kick setups under Moyes.
Attacking Set Pieces
At the opposite end of the pitch, United took their chance from a set-piece situation when it came.
With only three players inside the 18-yard box—two of them occupying four Bayern defenders—Vidic was able to make the sort of run he had helped prevent earlier.
Peeling off Philipp Lahm, the Serbia defender raced into the goalmouth, where Phil Jones was busily holding off the two opponents who had mysteriously converged on him.
By mid-run he was completely unmarked, although his headed effort still required expert technique to beat goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to the far corner.
For a side that so prides itself on technical elements such as passing, movement and conversion, Bayern’s defense of Wayne Rooney’s corner-kick was shocking and no doubt it’s something they’ll be looking to work on between now and next week’s return fixture at the Allianz Arena.
Defending in Concert
In endeavouring to sustain pressure with two banks of defense and the timely, concentrated use of brief pressure when stepping forward from their lines, United’s setup in their own third of the park looked similar to that employed by Roberto Di Matteo when his Chelsea side eliminated current Bayern manager Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona outfit back in 2012.
From the get-go it was clear the Bundesliga champions would be enjoying well near three-quarters of possession and to combat it, United arranged themselves like one big sponge in front of goal.
The game-plan: to soak up pressure before wringing it out on the counter-attack.
In accomplishing it, Moyes’ men delivered a highly-attentive display of defensive fundamentals.
Concentrating on defense of the target alone, United conceded those spaces and channels that didn’t represent a direct route to goal (they defended the goal—not the outside areas).
They also managed to keep Bayern’s buildup play in front of them through much of the encounter, and they left enough space between themselves and their opponents so as to prevent the sort of breakthroughs Robben and Franck Ribery are famous for.
Finally, they cleared the ball quickly and indiscriminately whenever it was loose in front of goalkeeper David De Gea and in doing so they avoided the sort of careless mistakes that often lead to penalties.
It’s an approach that worked to perfection until Mario Mandzukic was introduced as a target-man for the Bayern attack, and it also helped spring Welbeck for a chance that should have resulted in a goal.
Marouane Fellaini—much maligned for his performance—was one of two United players who came occasionally out of the first bank of defense to put his body in the way of a passing triangle. Rooney was the other and in the 40th minute the England man was able to release Welbeck, who shook off Javi Martinez before scuffing his final effort in front of Neuer.
It’s a strategy the hosts put to more frequent use after the restart, which is largely why United found themselves in slightly more possession in the second half.