60% possession, 14 attempts at goal with 9 on target (65%), 2 goals up in 17 minutes and the formidable fortress of Old Trafford – United fans could have been forgiven if they had thought that the match was over by half time. But the reality was far from it. Basel scored twice in quick succession in the second half and actually led the tie for 14 minutes before a 90th minute header from Ashley Young salvaged a point for United. United are having a weird season – they are dominating possession, scoring heavily but have also been susceptible to be scored against. David de Gea holds the record for the maximum number of saves made in the Premier League this season with 38 saves – hardly the stat for the ‘keeper of a table-topping club. Much has been made over the emergence of the young guard at Old Trafford but it is clear that their backline is missing a colossus in Nemanja Vidic.
Sir Alex Ferguson, as usual, opted for a 5 man midfield in the European competition with United lining up in a 4-4-1-1 with Ryan Giggs starting just behind Danny Welbeck.At least the 4-4-1-1 was better than the flat 4-5-1 line up that started against Benfica. Basel lined up in a 4-4-2 meaning this game would be open. But their German coach Thorsten Fink made one tactical tweak – playing narrower. United tend to play wide and switch the ball between flanks to make maximum utilization of the wide Old Trafford pitch.
If you notice the starting line-ups, you could see that Besel’s wingers Fabian Frei and Zoua Daogari played a lot narrower compared to United’s wingers Valencia and Ashley Young. Young with his searing pace gave a torrid time to Basel’s RB Markus Steinhofer. United’s width combined with the fact that Basel playing narrower led to the home side dominating possession in the starting phase of the game.
United also pressed forward a lot with Fabio almost playing like a second right winger. The Brazilian often drifted forward exchanging positions with Valencia. It was Fabio’s cut back to Giggs that set up Welbeck for his first goal. The very next minute, Welbeck scored again from another of Gigg’s pass. United were very much in the ascendency but they also could have conceded 2 goals by that time. Frei first fired wide after being set up by Streller’s flick over Ferdinand and then Streller didn’t notice Daogari who came in unmarked and squandered a chance to set him up to score. That was United’s problem – their defense was too slack. Whether it was due to them being complacent that their opponents were Basel or that they were up by two goals or it was Rio’s age and Jones and Fabio showing their inexperience, But there’s no denying that United’s defensive slackness was their undoing. If not for Basel’s wastefulness in front of goal and de Gea’s instincts, United might have been trailing well before half time. I have selected two instances which should have sent warning bells ringing in the United camp, but sadly it was not to be.
a. Daogari chance
Xhaka passes the ball to Alexander Frei and the striker sets off towards United’s goal. Streller moves left and stretches Evra. Rio and Jones are left with the task of shepherding Frei and the situation would have been under control. But the problem was Fabio was too far up the field and he didn’t react when Xhaka passed the ball to Frei. This left Daogari who was playing narrow to simply dart into the box and suddenly the situation became 3 on 3 with Daogari left completely unmarked. Frei passed the ball to Daogari but he missed the opportunity to score. Let off for United and especially Fabio.
b. Streller chance
de Gea’s casual punt up field was headed by Xhaka to Daogari. Fabio tried to tackle but lost out leaving Daogari acres of space behind. Daogari passed the ball to Streller and darted towards the goal with Fabio left trailing. Streller passed the ball back to Daogari and this required Ferdinand to shift towards left to handle Daogari. Jones moved to Rio’s position and Evra moved to Jones’ position. Fabian Frei ran in between Ferdinand and Jones caused the distraction Streller needed to slip beyond Evra. Though Daogari’s cross was headed wide by Streller, it was dangerous and ponderous defending nonetheless. If Fabio had tracked back properly, Streller’s run could have been blocked by Evra.
Basel counter attacked well with their narrow wingers slipping into the gaps in United’s midfield due to their width. Carrick and Anderson didn’t offer much defensive cover and Fabio often looked lost after he had bolted up field. All four United’s defenders had a pretty ordinary day in the office as Ferdinand was too slow to react to balls that were played past him and Jones was a bit too casual. Fabio had a torrid time out except may be for the first 15 minutes. Basel could have won this game, but that doesn’t mean that United couldn’t have. If their defense hadn’t been too casual they could have easily stuffed the Swiss side.