Manchester were favorites going into the first leg and it came as little surprise that they outplayed Schalke for the majority of the match and won quite comfortably in the end. Schalke have punched well above their weight this season and reaching this stage of the competition is an achievement in itself but for the sake of post match analysis that will remain an isolated fact.
United’s experience was on display from beginning to end on as they took control of the match early on and never looked back. The game became a shooting gallery for the Reds and Neuer’s heroics made the score line flattering for Schalke. United now have one foot firmly in the final and it is difficult to see Schalke coming back at Old Trafford.
It was an overall better collective performance by the visitors and a lot of credit has to go to how Ferguson set out his side but results like these always have two faces and it takes both to complete the final score line. That said, just what went wrong for Schalke that allowed United to dominate the way they did and make it such a one sided game?
Midfield riddled with problems
What it ultimately came down to was the fact that United were allowed too much space and time in the middle of the pitch without much pressure from Schalke. Schalke’s backline was already weakened by the absence of key defender Höwedes, a stagnant Metzelder and arguably Schalke’s weak link, Sarpei. The failure to be combative in midfield in turn added unnecessary pressure on an already vulnerable backline. As a result, everything came rather easy for United.
If you leave the opponent open to move like that, you allow its’ playmakers to start running the show without any worry of giving up possession. Carrick is United’s key distributor and was allowed all the time and space he needed to weave his magic. Papadopoulos was preoccupied trying to track Rooney’s runs while Jurado, the other central midfielder, drifted away from the action too often. Farfan stuck to the flanks almost exclusively rather than coming inside and adding pressure, leaving Carrick essentially unmarked for most of the match. The Manchester playmaker completed 91% of his 56 passes in the first half alone, a game high and indicative of the type of influence he had on the game.
Schalke continued to neglect Carrick’s presence in the second half and as the game progressed the more worn down the home side became. It did not take long then for Giggs and Rooney to break through. In the end the United playmaker completed 98 of his 112 passes and 146 touches overall, more than Neuer and Jurado, Schalke’s two most involved players.
Another key factor that must be mentioned is the freedom Rooney had playing in the hole. Papadopoulos was selected by Rangnick to keep track of the United striker, similar to what we saw with Sneijder against Inter. This time around however Rooney was assisted by a well organized and drilled United side that kept Schalke so busy they found it difficult to organize during the match. Hernandez was the perfect foil for Rooney, and explains the exclusion of Berbatov amongst other things. His off the ball movement and running inside the box created the space Rooney needed to play his role freely and drop into midfield whenever necessary. Papadopoulos found it difficult to track the mobile striker without compromising his defensive position. As a whole, Schalke failed to pick up any of his runs and he was free to pick passes, drag away defenders and make space for his oncoming teammates.
Neuer made 8 saves in the first 47 minutes of the match, more than any other game this season. That tells you just how much pressure United applied. Schalke’s defense was rightfully criticized for their frailty but the problems for the Germans started in midfield and then trickled back to their defense.
Suffering from width
United, and most modern football sides nowadays, utilize fullbacks very proactively when going forward. They add an extra dimension in attack and are used to stretch the field and provide additional options for players in the center.
Schalke’s fullbacks were their obvious weak points going into this match and it was very evident against United. Uchida, and Sarpei to an even greater extent, were rather conservative when it came to joining in attack. As a result, Schalke lacked options and allowed Manchester to effectively mark and crowd out their opponent’s attack. Sarpei was pinned back almost exclusively by Valencia and because Baumjohan drifted into the center Schalke had essentially no width on the left, hence the room for Fabio to operate as freely as he did. Uchida on the other hand had to contend with the forward running Evra, the never tiring Park and Rooney’s occasional drifting to the left.
Schalke’s lack of width was not exploited by Inter because the Italians too suffered from similar problems. Against United Schalke faced players like Valencia, Fabio and Evra who are diligent in using the flanks. Neuer admitted after the match how United made good use of their wide players and that is what made it such an overbearing performance by Ferguson’s men. United had options everywhere. If they were squeeze in the center they went out Valencia or Park. If they were marked they dragged defenders inside and opened the channels for Fabio and Evra. It is fair to say that Manchester’s width was crucial to Schalke’s undoing.
Conclusion – Rangnick did not adapt tactically
As a proponent of attacking football, Rangnick has won over a lot of supporters but the Champions League is a competition of substance first, especially at the later stages, and style second. Teams and managers have to be flexible in their approach and know when to alter tactics to suit the occasion. Rangnick’s purist football philosophy may just have turned out to be a liability in this case as his strict adherence to his style of football left his side more vulnerable than prepared.
Schalke’s inability to adapt after United dominated in the first 45 minutes led to their eventual collapse and their game never got off the ground. Rangnick set out a very attack oriented side. Raul and Edu failed to drop back which can only mean that they were instructed to wait for their side to attack. The problem was that Schalke rarely had to ball.
This brings up the inevitable question of whether the same thing would have happened had Magath remained in charge. Magath is more conservative but more shrewd tactically in how he approaches his opponents and it can be argued that today’s weak links (Sarpei, Baumjohan and perhaps even Jurado) might not have started to begin with. Jurado and Baumjohan are natural attacking players and don’t offer much defensively. Both failed to get into the game and essentially left Papadopoulos to fend for himself. Playing Per Kluge, a more traditional defensive midfielder, from the start might have been a better move by Rangnick. Alas, it is only speculation and any side would have struggled against the well-oiled Manchester United side form yesterday.
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