Top-heavy and as porous as a sieve, Louis van Gaal's team always invited opponents but had an abundance of options in attack. No, that is not a description of Manchester United's defeat at Leicester last week but an accurate summary of the Dutchman's Bayern Munich side that vanquished United in 2010.
Bayern's back five for their two-legged quarter-final against Sir Alex Ferguson's champions consisted of goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt, Philipp Lahm, Martín Demichelis, Daniel van Buyten and Holger Badstuber. United scored four goals against Bayern in two games but were matched by the Bavarians' fire power, and Arjen Robben's stunningly sliced volley sent Van Gaal's team through on the maligned away-goals rule.
Despite their defensive deficiencies, Bayern had two imposing central midfielders in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mark van Bommel, matchwinners in Robben and Franck Ribéry, the pesky Thomas Müller and the efficient Ivica Olić. They ended the season with a German domestic double and were denied a fifth European Cup by José Mourinho's disciplined Internazionale in the Madrid final. United supporters shouldn't be surprised by the state of the current team.
It was negligible not to replace an axis as integral as Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić's, despite their powers waning, however Van Gaal has a patchy track record when it comes to defenders. He bought Winston Bogarde twice, failed to successfully implement three in defence during his second stint at Barcelona and didn't redress Bayern's backline when Jürgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund hovered onto the radar.
UNITED'S RECORD VS VAN GAAL
- 98/99: Barcelona (H) 3-3
- 98/99: Barcelona (A) 3-3
- 09/10: Bayern Munich (A) 1-2
- 09/10: Bayern Munich (H) 3-2
Those with longer memories will recall United's momentous 3-3 draws with Van Gaal's Barcelona in 1998. Abelardo and Sergi were hopelessly immobile against Ryan Giggs and Dwight Yorke at Old Trafford while in Catalonia Sergi and Michael Reiziger were joined by Samuel Okunowo, who looked like a Real Madrid fan that had been discovered outside the Camp Nou. Barça had Rivaldo, Luís Figo and Sonny Anderson yet went out at the group stage and Frank de Boer arrived a year too late.
Van Gaal has invariably worked wonders with forgettable defences. Few outside Holland will be able to name any members of AZ Alkmaar's 2008-09 champions and Holland reached the World Cup semi-finals with a defensive trio reliant on Ron Vlaar. The exception was Ajax's 1995 Champions League winners, one of club football's greatest sides of the last 20 years. Lead by Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard with De Boer and Reiziger at full-back and the impregnable Edwin van der Sar behind them, Ajax conceded four goals in 11 games en route to weaving music in Vienna.
Van Gaal wanted Thomas Vermaelen and Mats Hummels in the summer and could return for the latter in the new year. Hummels, though, is one of a handful of undisputed world-class centre-backs in the modern game. Yes, "world-class" is an abstract term, but try naming five top-drawer centre-halves. Sergio Ramos is an instant inclusion. Thiago Silva? Arguably, although he could struggle to regain his place in the Paris Saint-Germain side. Gerard Piqué is better at playing the game than defending it and Raphaël Varane spends too much time on the substitutes' bench. Neven Subotic has experienced an injury-plagued year although Atlético Madrid's pairing of Diego Godín and Miranda have performed impeccably.
Ultimately, Van Gaal will probably have to develop youngsters, which he will relish. Tyler Blackett was bound to fall flat on his face as he took his first baby steps in the first-team a season after becoming Birmingham City fans' whipping boy and Marcos Rojo, who hadn't played in any of Europe's four big leagues before he joined United, could face similar difficulties against West Ham on Saturday.
Ferguson's finest defenders endured awkward starts. Gary Pallister was part of the United defence that haemorrhaged five goals against Manchester City in 1989 on his fifth appearance, his de facto replacement, Jaap Stam, was embarrassed by Nicolas Anelka on his debut nine years later and Nemanja Vidić took eight months in Manchester to settle into the first-team.
Realistically, Rojo and Blackett are unlikely to forge long-term careers at centre-half. The future is turning a shade bleak for Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans, so injury-prone they make Louis Saha look durable, too. Ferguson forged stellar pairings for his three best sides and that might dictate who Van Gaal looks to next.
The Dutchman prefers a right-footed and left-footed pairing, although that concept could be abandoned at the weekend if Daley Blind partners fellow leftie Rojo. United were risibly accused of losing their identity after selling Danny Welbeck but the defensive dearth could see Van Gaal promote another teenager from the Carrington pitches.Suggest a correction