United make their point after battling Bayern performance
“Look at me when I talk to you.” Pep Guardiola cut an obviously frustrated figure as he sat in the Old Trafford press conference on Tuesday evening. It didn’t take long for that frustration to boil over either, as he launched into a bizarre exchange of words with one of the many journalists who had watched his Bayern Munich side being held to a 1-1 draw by Manchester United.
Asked if he was implying that the home side had taken an overly-negative approach towards the first leg of their Uefa Champions League quarter final clash against his team, an irked Guardiola replied: “Nein, nein, nein. I didn’t say that. He’s [Moyes] my colleague. I respect my colleague.”
There then followed a surreal stand-off reminiscent of a scene from Martin Scorsese’s cult classic ‘Taxi Driver’, as the Bayern boss momentarily lost his cool in the stifling and packed confines of United’s press room before calm was eventually restored.
Despite the pragmatic response however, there was little doubt Guardiola was disgruntled with the tactics United had employed in an effort to thwart his side – packing their midfield and defending in numbers on the edge of their own penalty area. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.
United were never going to contain Bayern any other way, after all the Bundesliga champions have enjoyed almost 70 per cent possession in European competition this season and have a pass accuracy that is in excess of 90 per cent. They have also humbled both Manchester City and Arsenal on their own grounds this term, teams who are currently much stronger than United.
Despite the obvious deficiencies that have characterised a difficult season so far, United produced an intriguingly old-fashioned display of well-organised defending and direct, route one attacking. It also very nearly paid off.
The decision to disallow Danny Welbeck’s early strike was somewhat contentious, adjudged to have come after a raised boot, while the England international should have done better when racing clear of the grounded Javi Martinez, only to see his weak chip easily dealt with by Manuel Neuer.
Although isolated, Welbeck did provide some threat for United up front as his pace stretched Bayern’s defence on more than one occasion. Martinez, a midfielder by trade, looked most vulnerable and was fortunate that the United striker was not more decisive when attempting to beat Neuer just before the break.
Nonetheless, it was in defence that United were most effective. While fullbacks Phil Jones and Alexander Buttner were given an often torrid time by the hugely-talented Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, both players stuck to their task admirably. The United defence creaked but largely kept Bayern at bay.
In midfield, Moyes’ decision to retain Ryan Giggs after a starring role against Olympiakos in the previous round was understandable, however the 40-year-old struggled. This left the inexperienced Buttner exposed, creating space that was exploited by the marauding runs of Brazilian fullback Rafinha. To Moyes credit, he acknowledged this and replaced the veteran Welshman with the under-used Shinji Kagawa at half time.
Statistically speaking, the game took a similar course to Bayern’s other trips to England this season. In possession for an overwhelming 72.4 per cent of the match, the Bavarians shuttled the ball around midfield with almost dizzying regularity, completing 698 passes of the 767 they attempted. Yet in truth, they created few clear-cut chances and often struggled to break through a determined rearguard action from their hosts.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Philipp Lahm may have eased through the gears to dominate build-up play, however there was a strange lack of cutting edge shown from Guardiola’s men. Thomas Muller was often on the periphery, while Bayern quite obviously missed the presence of arguably their most influential player this season, Thiago Alcantara, who suffered knee ligament damage during Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Hoffenheim.
Of the 11 Bundesliga matches they have played with Thiago in the starting XI this season, Bayern have a remarkably high goal average of 3.4. In the 17 games that the Spanish international has started on the bench or sat out entirely, that average fell to ‘just’ 2.6 goals. Fine margins, but his influence was certainly missed at Old Trafford.
Things could have been much worse for the visitors however, especially when Nemanja Vidic rose to head past Neuer to give the home side an unlikely lead just before the hour mark. In a game played mainly on the back foot, United’s best chance to score was always going to come from a set-piece, and so it proved.
The goal visibly lifted United and for eight minutes, a shock seemed on the cards. Guardiola was pro-active however, and immediately introduced Mario Mandzukic in place of Muller. The Croatian striker faces an uncertain future at the club, with Robert Lewandowski arriving in the summer, however he made an immediate impact on the game and soon after set up Schweinsteiger to hammer home the equaliser.
For all their subsequent possession, Bayern continued to disappoint in the final third – bar an exquisite trademark effort from Robben that fizzed just past the post of the stranded De Gea. There was still more frustration for Guardiola in the closing stages as well, as Schweinsteiger was dismissed for a second bookable offence when he tripped Rooney.
Despite their frustrations however, Bayern are still very much in control of this tie as the two sides go into the second leg at the Allianz Arena next week. While they would have liked to have left Manchester with safe passage all-but secured, an all-important away goal now leaves anything but Bayern progression almost inconceivable.
For Manchester United and their beleaguered manager, the result on Tuesday evening may just feel like a moral victory. Humiliating and heavy home defeats to Liverpool and neighbours City had taken them to new lows in recent weeks, however their performance against Bayern, arguably the best side in Europe right now, gave enough evidence to suggest David Moyes is not ready to through in the towel just yet.