Manchester United squeezed into the quarter-finals but Sir Alex Ferguson would have been concerned by the number of efforts Marseille mustered on the home side's goal. The Premier League leaders missed their spine here. Darren Fletcher in midfield and Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand at centre-half would have protected the goal far more securely and made this more comfortable viewing.
Vidic, in particular, was a notable absentee. With Loïc Rémy and André Ayew lively down the flanks for the visitors, United gave the French team too much room out wide to supply balls into the box from dangerous positions (see diagram). The hosts sat too deep on Edwin van der Sar, whereas the experienced Vidic would have demanded his fellow defenders moved further up and pressed the ball. The Serb would have ordered his full-backs to be tighter on the Marseille wingers, thus denying Rémy space to deliver.
Without their older heads in the centre of their defence, this United backline lacked a natural leader, and a voice to instruct and dictate. Wes Brown and Chris Smalling are quieter characters who are not so used to playing together. They battled gamely here but always looked too vulnerable for comfort, and nerves crept into United's play as a result. André-Pierre Gignac's early miss in front of goal clearly demonstrated the value and importance of a good centre-back understanding and, at times here, that was lacking.
Against a lone striker, one centre-half must be tight at all times while the other covers. Indeed, "cover" is the by-word for the second central defender: he must be ready for any mistake from his team-mate and never end up square on to his partner, but he must also be aware of opposition runners breaking from behind his midfield shield. There was a rustiness and uncertainty to the Brown and Smalling combination at times and, with jitters settling in, there was little opportunity for the "free" centre-half to venture into midfield to overload. In truth, England has produced few stylish centre-backs who cover like a "Beckenbauer", and a two-versus-one advantage at the back is rarely transformed into a midfield advantage in this country.
As it was, Nani and Ryan Giggs limited the impact of the Marseille full-backs as an attacking force. Sir Alex bravely sought to stretch opponents. Here Antonio Valencia, on for Nani, stayed wide like Giggs, with Paul Scholes always seeking to distribute to the flanks and Michael Carrick more confident as the game ticked on. The 4-4-2 is bold, even if the flipside is that the opposition can counter with bodies in midfield. United might be exposed playing this way against a team of Barcelona's calibre. They would certainly need their big players back for any such encounter but, for now, they have battled through.