This week saw Manchester United travel to Greece in their first Champions League knockout game under David Moyes. With United's disappointing displays in all of the competitions they have played in, the Champions League was a great opportunity to prove that their fortunes were about to turn and that eventually, the team would return to former glory.
Olympiakos started in a 4-3-3 formation. With Mitroglou gone to Fulham, and Saviola injured, Alejandro Domínguez started up front with Pérez playing to his left, and Arsenal loanee Joel Campbell playing to his right. Delvin Ndinga started in the deep-lying playmaker role.
Manchester United started in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic paired up in the heart of defence after their clean sheet against Crystal Palace. Ashley Young started on the left wing, Valencia on the right, while Cleverley and Carrick formed the holding midfield partnership. Juan Mata was ineligible for the game due to being cup tied after his involvement with Chelsea in the competition.
Olympiakos play in a wide 4-3-3
The kind of wide interpretation of the 4-3-3 that Olympiakos played in is the one that Ajax play in, for example. Going forward, the main feature of this formation is that the wingers are going to stay near the byline, stretching the pitch when their team is in possession. This, combined with the pre-rehearsed movement of the striker and the two midfielders in front of the deep-lying playmaker, will create opportunities from overloads and runs into space. The main task of the deep-lying playmaker is to keep possession, and start the pre-rehearsed moves with a pass.
One of the most renowned performances lately from a deep-lying playmaker was the one of Yohan Cabaye in France's second leg World Cup qualifier against Ukraine. Ndinga played in the deep-lying playmaker role for Olympiakos. He dropped between the defenders, or searched for space in midfield to provide a short passing option to whoever had the ball, then keep it going. He didn’t have a marker in the first quarter of the game, and Olympiakos had no problems with keeping possession. At the same time, Olympiakos won back the ball very easily. Olaitan and Maniatis were pressing Carrick and Cleverley in United’s build-up very aggressively, taking them out of United’s play. The wingers pushed high as well and man-marked the full-backs closely, while Dominguez forced the United central defender in possession to play the ball on quickly.
This led to rushed passes, lost balls in United’s own half, or wayward long balls. The Olympiakos defence didn’t push up with the midfielders, but the pressing of Olympiakos was effective enough that United couldn’t exploit the space opening up between the lines. The situation got better after Kagawa's introduction in the 60th minute, but by that time, United had a mountain to climb, being two goals down. This shows perfectly how playing a 4-3-3 can be more solid defensively than a 4-2-3-1 even though the latter has more midfielders sitting deep. By pushing high with two midfielders the opponent’s build-up can be spoiled. If the opponent can beat the press, the pressing players have to drop quickly, and regain a solid, compact defensive shape in a deep position. Olympiakos did this excellently.
After the first fifteen minutes, Rooney followed Ndinga everywhere in United’s half, taking him out of the game. At the same time, Ashley Young started dropping deeper to become a third holding midfielder, which helped United with their build-up. One of these situations led to United’s first cross from an Evra overlap, but the whole attack started off with Young coming deep.
|Ndinga's passes. 25 out of his 62 passes were played in the first 25 minutes, when Rooney was not marking him.
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On the right wing, Manchester United played with a circular move that was aimed at creating space for Smalling when he pushed forward. The move consisted of Cleverley drifting towards the right side, Valencia dropping towards central midfield, pulling the defender with him, and creating the opportunity for Smalling to push high. Smalling had an awful game, largely due to the constant pressing from the opponent’s winger. He was also poor in performing his defensive duties; he let Pérez cut inside all the time despite the winger not even trying to mask the fact that he was going to dribble inwards.
Olympiakos’ wingers were very direct in attack. When they got the ball, they attacked the goal straight away by cutting inside instead of staying wide in possession and trying to cross it. One of these cut-ins from Joel Campbell lead to Olympiakos' opening goal in the 38th minute. The Costa Rican winger’s first cross was cleared, but the ball was collected by Maniatis, and his shot got a deflection on Dominguez, bouncing into the goal past De Gea.
United’s situation got worse when they shot themselves in the foot in the 55th minute. Cleverley was dispossessed while trying to bring out the ball with a one-two on the right. United were pressed very aggressively once again, and they played into the hands of Olympiakos by playing the ball into an increasingly smaller area. They played the ball to the right, where Olympiakos were applying all the pressure.
David Moyes made changes right away. Welbeck came on for Valencia, Kagawa came on for Cleverley. Welbeck moved to the left wing, Kagawa played in a central attacking midfield position, Young moved to the right, while Rooney stepped back to a holding midfield role alongside Carrick.
Kagawa was drifting between the center and the left wing, trying to find space and link-up the midfield with the attack. This is his natural position and role, so he was pretty effective at this task, showing that he would have been suited to this game. At the same time, Rooney made more vertical runs than Cleverley - not to mention that he was more direct with his passing - which helped United bring the ball forward.
Welbeck often moved inside instead of playing near the line, and he played more around van Persie. The Dutch striker had United's best chance when he shot high from Smalling's cross in the 82nd minute. However, Olympiakos deserved to win the game by a comprehensive margin, as their tactics and strategy worked excellently against a United side going through the motions.
The game had three tactically very different parts. The first part was the starting 20-25 minutes, when Ndinga was allowed to run the game. After that, Rooney got tighter to him, forcing Ndinga out of the game. Then the third part came when David Moyes took off Tom Cleverley, and Rooney went into central midfield.
Olympiakos had an astute gameplan, one that they have executed well enough to deserve their win against Manchester United. There were a few instances where the players made mistakes in their covering of space, so this team is not unbeatable by any stretch of the imagination, but if they can put press just as well in the second game, they should not have problems with advancing to the last eight.
Gary Neville was right when he said that United seem to be drifting through games, going through the motions. This is what I consider to be the biggest problem of the current side. They are not proactive in their approach, and they are lacking passion, desire and the belief that whatever happens on the pitch, they will be able to pull through.
A two-goal deficit is not something that can’t be overturned, but it will take a different Manchester United team in tactics, approach and psychology than which we have seen in Greece.