Manchester United headed into the pivotal Champions League clash with the aim of bettering PSVa s result while Wolfsburg knew a draw or better would secure them a place in the knockout stages.
Injury worries worsened for United over the weekend as Schneiderlin and McNair limped off. Full-backs are one of the most important components in Louis Van Gaal’s “philosophy” to play possession based football and this is an area in which United are deeply lacking. With Shaw, Rojo, Valencia and McNair missing, 22 year old Uruguayan Guillermo Varela was given his first start in a Manchester United shirt. There were no such worries for Wolfsburg as they named a full strength line-up.
Both teams lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The involvement of Fellaini meant that he was most likely to leave his role in the double pivot to show his aerial prowess in and around the box. This greatly altered the balance in this formation. Arnold and Guilavogui in the 2 defensive midfield positions for Wolfsburg gave them a better base and more license to the full backs to join in attacks.
With a debutant at right back for United, Wolfsburg could not believe their luck as Schurrle found himself in a one-one with de Gea early on – giving Varela the slip as he moved infield. The space between midfield and defence was there to be exploited more so for Wolfsburg as Fellaini frequently joined in United’s attacks to offer a more direct approach. But it was United who drew first blood as Mata found a tiny pocket of space and released Martial with a wonderful through ball. Minutes later though, Wolfsburg equalized as Naldo volleyed in a free kick after Wolfsburg exposed the space behind Schweinsteiger and Blind came forward to put in an early tackle.
Wolfsburg continued to exploit both these weak areas time and time again in the first half. Although the second goal was beautifully worked, it painted a perfect picture of Uniteda s frailties. Trasch found Schurrle with a ball over Varela, Schurrle cut inside and found Draxler on the other side, (with both the full backs exposed) who literally walked past Schweinsteiger before releasing Vieirinha who played a crisp 0ne-two with Draxler and slotted the ball into an empty net to cap off an impressive move.
Tactical naivety in the Champions League often does not go un-punished as United found out the hard way in Germany. The ability to read the football match in the middle of the game is often unheard of for English teams, but not so for their German counterparts. Schurrle started going more in field to exploit the acres of space left behind by Schweinsteiger and Fellaini and this almost led to the third goal at the end of the first half as he released Draxler down the right after pouncing on a loose ball from Schweinsteiger. United were kept in the game by the heroics of de Gea.
Wolfsburg sat deep in the second half to conserve their slender lead. This gave Schweinsteiger and co. more time on the ball as United carved out various opportunities without finding the finishing touch. But apart from a late own goal scored by Wolfsburg midfielder Joshua Guilavogui, Louis Van Gaal’s failed tactics and his lack of tactical awareness was laid bare in front of the world as United deservedly bowed out of the Champions League.
It was an immense learning curve for Uniteda s young contingent as they finished the game with Varela, Borthwick-Jackson, Powell, Lingard, Depay and Martial. Manchester United don’t usually line-up in an attacking formation which is evident from the fact that they have also conceded the least no of goals in the English Premier League. However, circumstances dictated otherwise as the tactics deployed by Van Gaal and United’s weak midfield duo were deeply exploited on a fateful night in Germany.
This is a guest post written exclusively for TheHardTackle by Aamer Aslam.