Midfield? Who needs a midfield anyway? In fact who needs the ball at all? For 66 minutes at Old Trafford it looked as though David Moyes might have mustered one of the more defiantly retro tactical triumphs of recent years. On a night that began slowly but built to a second-half barrage of rolling noise, Manchester United produced an intriguingly old-school performance of condensed, fast-breaking, midfield-bypassing football, the kind of football that might have come served up drizzled with horseradish and spritzed with gravy and labelled modern British with a twist.
Bayern remain favourites in this tie after Bastian Schweinsteiger's equaliser cancelled out United's opening goal, a sublime, twisting header from by Nemanja Vidic from a corner. Plus there will be those who dismiss this as familiar narrow-horizon tactical territory for Moyes, an Everton rehash on the big stage as his straight-lines team, complete with obdurate Belgian ball-shield, spoiled against opponents with more interest in passing the ball. Bayern were effectively spiked for long periods in a tight but oddly lopsided match, a meeting of pass-and-move and hit-and-run that leaves United with some hope in Bavaria.
As Bayern kicked off on a lovely clear crisp Manchester evening and immediately set about shuttling the ball among themselves it was already clear how this match was likely to go. United adopted a kind of guerilla-football approach, giving the opposition what they are geared up to take – territory, possession – in order to strike from behind the lines of a staged retreat.
This tie was always likely to hinge on how exactly United chose to counter Bayern's overwhelming, almost obsessional strength in midfield in the Jupp-Pep era, a process that has only accelerated under a manager who famously announced "I love midfielders" and whose teams are testament to this, one of football's great, if rather schmaltzy, modern love affairs.
Guardiola will never cede the ground here. He is the master of one-upmanship: you pick five in midfield, he'll pick six. This is a man whose midfields have midfields: midfields within midfields, lines between the lines.
This was the challenge Bayern posed at Old Trafford, a team so well-drilled in their passing and compressing of the game into one central swathe that at times playing them must feel a bit like being jostled to death on a tennis court by at least 20 scurrying, little, short-passing midfield generals.
It is exactly the kind of high-stakes tactical riddle many had expected Moyes to falter over. But he had a plan. And it worked. For a while, at least, before its basic limitations – mainly the almost complete concession of the ball in the first 70 minutes – began to nag at the edges. Guardiola picked seven midfielders in all, one of them, Javi Martínez, in defence, another a converted full-back.
Moyes replied by allowing his condensed midfield-five simply to back off. With Wayne Rooney the extra man when Bayern had the ball (unless stated otherwise, Bayern always had the ball) this left Danny Welbeck a lone but significant central striker in what was for a while a fancified game of kick-and-rush.
It is a tactic that has sometimes worked against Guardiola teams, the condensed swarming midfield treated not as a strength but a weakness, a high defensive line offering space beyond. Here Ryan Giggs played his first diagonal pass over the top for Welbeck in the opening minute, and Welbeck even had the ball in the net moments later but the goal was disallowed – a little limply; this is a gymnastic, contact sport – for a high boot in the buildup.
Steadily the Bayern midfield began to thrum through the high gears as Philipp Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos shuttled the ball between them with the usual upright muscular deftness, but Moyes' tactics of deep resistance and pace on the break created a kind of managed stasis. At times, as Bayern took 80% possession of the ball in the opening quarter of the match, this all seemed at times a little too cowed and dutiful for the club of footballing dreams.
It worked well enough. United began to strike from behind their guard, their earliest concerted attacks coming when Marouane Fellaini stationed himself briefly in that Everton-style bruiser-trequartista position, shielding and nudging and holding up the ball while Jérôme Boateng flailed at his back. At the same time Bayern's condensing of the play looked bizarrely high-risk as Welbeck had the beating of both central defenders for speed. With half-time approaching United had the clearest chance, Welbeck running on to Rooney's through pass but finding Manuel Neuer equal to his attempted dink. There is a time to dink. This was not it.
Five minutes after half-time, midfield still swamped, abandoned, given up to the surging tides, United took the lead. Rooney's left-wing corner found Vidic seeming to levitate above the Bayern defence in order to plant a genuinely thrilling set-piece header into the far corner. The lead lasted just eight minutes as Bayern's possession finally paid off with a lovely goal created via another moment of old-school aerial ball, Mario Mandzukic heading down for Schweinsteiger to finish beautifully. Advantage Bayern, but Moyes will take a little retro acclaim, and even some confidence, as United began to discover some midfield control of their own in the dying minutes.