In all honesty, it is not often I can look back on a Manchester United draw in satisfaction. However, following a couple of weeks where attacking play seems like a taboo, United fans anticipated a strong offensive performance when Benfica visited Old Trafford for their Champions League crunch match.
After the Derby Day slaughtering at Old Trafford, the Red Devils have kept 5 clean sheets on the trot, something we have not seen from the club in over two years…..they were not destined to make it 6 though.
The Portuguese outfit entered the pitch with only one thing in mind – Attack! They started energetically and brightly, they set a high line, and pressured United from the outset.
How did United manage to get it tactically right but fail to take all three points after falling behind in the opening minutes?
It seemed like Jorge Jesus (Benfica coach) had told them to stay high, as Berbatov lacks the pace or ability to run in behind defenders in the way Rooney or Chicharito would do. This pressured United back, and we found it increasingly difficult to find space. Their defence had total control in the opening 15 minutes, always managing to force the United players into crowded areas where they became outnumbered. They kept this aggressive approach for long parts of the first half, and it gave them an early goal.
After a long ball was looped up the pitch, they got first to a Rio Ferdinand clearance, and following some neat one-touch passing they found themselves at the edge of the United area. Neither Evra or Nani managed to get close to Gaitan, who’s deflected cross went into the net off an unfortunate Jones.
1-0 down after 3 minutes, and changes were necessary. It took some time for it to happen, but after 20 minutes Sir Alex made a brilliant switch in tactics which changed the game for us. Going into the game, he had chosen to start Berbatov as a lone front man with Nani, Young and Valencia roaming in behind him. This did not work though, and he decided to change Young’s position with Berbatov. Nani, who had been going centrally for much of the opening minutes, now found himself as a sole left winger, with Young as a striker with Berbatov taking his deep-lying role. After two offsides by Ashley, the Benfica defence fell further and further back fearing his explosive pace. They could not leave too much room behind, as Young did his best Hernandez impression of stretching them as much as he possibly could.
United got a better grip of the game, as Carrick in particular played some brilliant neat passes and found himself in more and more room as the half progressed. As soon as United manged to build up their play, having pinned their defence back, Berbatov went up front with Young buzzing all around their box, whether on the left, centrally or right. This change resulted in a goal for United, as Nani found himself with enough space on the left wing to find a cross for Berbatov who headed in his first Champions League goal since 2008. Benfica’s only chances came from solid counter attacks, but they were promptly stopped by a Michael Carrick who had one of his best games for a long while. Berbatov could have had another goal for himself, but found himself wrongly ruled out for offside after a raking through ball from Carrick.
The second half started as the first one had finished. Whenever United lay deep, Young was our furthest player pinning their defence back, giving us plenty of room in the middle of the park. Early on Benfica had focused on attacking our left wide, with Evra seen as a liability. But Patrice had an excellent game, and with Nani helping him out whenever necessary they found attacking this area very difficult. Getting past Fabio and Valencia was no easy feat either, and their wingers were neutralized to maximum effect.
United kept creating chance after chance, Fabio and Young missing one-on-ones with the keeper and getting a goal wrongly ruled out for offside. Although there were three United players in an offside position, Young was not one of them, and had the referee let that goal have stood United would have found themselves 2-1 up earlier than they did. It did not take long for the goal to come though, as our Frenchman picked out Fletcher with a brilliant pass! Although Arthur made his best attempts to stop Fletch, he managed to poke it in after some serious pressure by United, who looked every bit as good as they have done this season. Crosses went flying in from all angles, and with Carrick’s passing game being on top he managed to find our wide players almost every time.
It was not to be though. Jones, who had a terrible game throughout, put De Gea under pressure with a difficult pass, and his clearance was weak. Jones had been nervous during the whole game, giving difficult backpasses to De Gea time and time again. This time it resulted in a goal though, as Cesar picked up his clearance and rode towards our goal. There was not a lot Rio could do about it, as their cross hit him and went back to Aimar who smashed it in from 5 yards. Instead of trying to help out his defenders following his poor backpass, Jones just stood on the edge of our box looking at it all happening. Suddenly Benfica were 4 against 3 in our penalty area, and you do not get away with things like that in the Champions League. The stuffing seemed to go out of United, and although Fergie tried to change the game by bringing Chicharito on the end result stayed the same. Berbatov missed a glaring chance from 10 yards he would have scored on 9 times out of 10, but other than that most of our crosses were cleared with ease. Putting Matic on certainly made a difference, with his height making it almost impossible for us to get to a header in the box. Benfica did not get closer to snatching a win either, despite Rodrigo having a shot just wide after ghosting past Jones.
Although we only got a draw out of the game, there were a lot of positives to pick from the game. For this first time since our 5-0 win against Bolton, United looked like a major threat going forward creating chance after chance. Benfica did not really threaten after we moved Young further up the pitch, and they scored two very scruffy goals on their only chances of the game. Nani had a brilliant game along with Young and Carrick, and even Patrice Evra looked as good as he has during his period at Manchester United. Rio had a good game alongside Jonesy, who had a shocker, but we have to remember that the lad is only 19 years old and it is almost impossible to find a solid centre back at that age. His best position remains at right back, at least until he has gotten more experience in his game. There was one time in the second half, with the score at 2-2, where he chased after the Benfica striker until he was at the centre circle, which is not really the position he should find himself in. He needs maturity and patience, but he will get that with age. As for now, use him at right back and watch him excel.