We tend to think of Manchester United as a monolithic entity, often just referring to them as United, though they are certainly not the only club bearing that label. In reality, United can be quite paradoxical, often undermining their own reputation.
Take, for example, their style of play. While the Red Devils aren't considered footballing artistes like Barcelona and English Barcelona (a.k.a., Arsenal), they're still thought to have one of the more attractive approaches amongst UEFA's major leagues. Ask most who follow European football about entertaining clubs and it's unlikely United would lie far down an unbiased list, with words like progressive, ambitious, and aggressive often associated with Alex Ferguson's tactics.
Yet in UEFA Champions League, when United opens a knockout round tie on the road, they go out of their way to contradict this reputation, typically employing very conservative tactics. Put more bluntly, United tends to be boring as hell when starting a tie away from Manchester.
The exemplar of this was United's 0-0 at the Nou Camp in 2008. That match saw Ferguson perfect the "bunker and hope" approach most have since employed against Barcelona. Infuriating to watch, it was approach that forever changed how many Barça fans think of Manchester United. But it also worked. United would go on to eliminate Barcelona and win Champions League.
The match is part of a six match stretch from 2007 to 2009 where United's opening, road legs averaged 1.3 goals. To be clear, that's both teams' combined goal total, United being shutout twice while keeping four clean sheets. They usually set-up in a 4-5-1, often playing their central midfielders deep, and unfortunately for those hoping their tactics would meet with negative reinforcement, United was almost always successful. On all six occasions, United advanced to the next round, going 2-3-1 in those first legs.
But then came last year, where everything changed. All of a sudden, Manchester United was being drawn into shootouts on the road, winning 3-2 over Milan before losing 2-1 at Bayern Munich. Is it a coincidence that United met with an early exit the same season their road performances saw an uptick in scoring? Probably, considering United's approach (particularly in the match at the Allianz Arena) was not appreciably different than the one that got a 0-0 result at Inter Milan in 2009. Still, there may be something to the idea of getting United out of their comfort zone, giving them reason to think themselves vulnerable. Perhaps United becomes a little less United-y when they have to engage in a shootout (lest an Arjen Robben wonder strike send them home early).
Which brings us to Wednesday's match. Again, United is on the road to start a tie, and as was the case in 2007 and 2008, they start their knock-out phase in France. In those tournaments, the Red Devils started at Stade Gerland, putting up 1-0 and 1-1 results en route to comfortable defeats of French champions Olympique Lyonnais. This year, it's a different titlist, Olympique de Marseille, that will try and derail the Red Devils.
Coming off their first French championship since 1991-92, Marseille finished second to Chelsea in Group F, shaking-off an early, shock loss to Spartak Moscow, winning four of their last five group matches. Along the way, l'OM gave up only three goals, tied with a number of other clubs for the second best defensive record in group play.
For those hoping for goals Wednesday, that's bad news, given Manchester United allowed only one goal in group. In addition, Marseille is missing one of their main offensive threats, with Andre Pierre Gignac injured in weekend league action. His striker partners, Brandão and Loic Remy, are also hobbled, though each is expected to play. With Mathieu Valbuena limited to a substitute's role, Marseille seem ill-equipped to defy a defensive United.
And based on what we saw from Marseille in group play, a full strength team would have major problems unlocking United's defense. Against Chelsea, l'OM did get a 1-0 win at the Velodrome. But that result came in the sixth round, when Chelsea had already sewn up first place in the group. In their trip to Stamford Bridge, Marseille was convincingly beaten, 2-0.
Further complicating matters for l'OM is how Deschamps sets-up his team. Marseille have been staunchly 4-3-3 since early last season. And this isn't one of those 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrids. This is a legitimate three forward attack, likely to feature Brandão, Remy and Andre Ayew on Wednesday.
More importantly, it's also a three midfielder set-up, with Edouard Cissé, Benoit Cheyrou and Lucho Gonzalez unlikely to vex a United midfield that may feature five, with Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes (possibly Darren Gibson) all playing deep, central roles. While Rio Ferdinand will be missing from central defense (and United's goal prevention rate has been markedly worse without him), it's difficult to see how Marseille will succeed where so many of United's previous opponents have failed. If United decides to congest the midfield in an effort to take a nil-nil back to Old Trafford, they're likely to keep a clean sheet.
At the other end of the pitch, Marseille have to stop Wayne Rooney and Nani, with the bulk of that responsibility falling on former United defender Gabriel Heinze and left back Taye Taiwo. Souleymane Daiwara, the right-center partner of Heinze, will also be important, but against a United attack that naturally tends to go right, Heinze's side will be too big a target to resist. The veteran Argentine's foot speed is suspect, and while Taiwo's athleticism will give him a better chance than most against Nani, Rooney using his speed against his former teammate - running through the channel opened when Taiwo is dealing with Nani - could represent the match's decisive match-up.
And in that way, this match is likely to be like United's 2007 trip to Stade Gerland or their 2008 trip to the Stadio Olimpico. In both cases United kept a clean sheet, scored on the road, and was able to employ a similar, measured, controlled approach at Old Trafford. They returned to England without the uncertainties that surrounded the second leg of last year's quarterfinal, able to execute a formula that's been tried-and-true ever since United missed the knockout round in 2006. If l'OM's to avoid their role in that equation, Deschamps' best hopes my be a bit of magic from Lucho, Brandão overpowering Chris Smalling, or something freakish.
And as those who have followed United's season know, freakish things have been all too frequent for this year's Red Devils. Sometimes Edwin van der Sar drops a ball and allows a team like West Bromwich Albion to get a result at Old Trafford. Sometimes United forgets how to defend set pieces and allows a team like Wolverhampton to ruin their undefeated league record. And more than sometimes - far too often, this season - United will give up an inexplicable late goal, costing them points they had pocketed.
The last four tournaments give us ample reason to believe United will get a clean sheet in Marseille, probably recording a goal along the way, ahead of a controlling win at Old Trafford. Yet there is something about this season's team that doesn't seem right, a weakness at the end of matches that gives hope to sides that would normally wilt beneath United's previously ruthless closing. For this year's United, history only tells us so much. It's another way Ferguson's team is undermining its own reputation, a way that may see Marseille happen upon a result.