Tactical preview: Forget Ronaldo, be patient & take risks

Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United take on Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid in the Bernabeu

Author: Sleepy Nik

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United face Real Madrid on Wednesday, in the glamour tie of the round, and are tagged as underdogs in the eyes of most bookmakers and experts. Yet there remains a suspicion that they can cause Real Madrid problems given their own attacking flair and newly found confidence on the European stage, as well as the fact that Mourinho’s men currently find themselves in a relative state of flux. The tie has been billed as Ronaldo (20 hat-tricks since July 2009!) versus van Persie (19 league goals), but there is so much more to absorb in this fascinating contest.

We have the reunion of two of the silkiest, and tactically astute, players in the game in Carrick and Alonso; attack-minded fullbacks in the form of Portugal’s Coentrao (so good at Euro 2012) and United’s Brazilian maestro, Rafael. But perhaps crucially, we may well see somewhat of a reversion to the early 2000’s in terms of ‘game approach’, as both Mourinho and Ferguson – underrated tacticians in their own right – ponder the use of a classic No. 10. Whatever the specific selections, it is fairly certain that both coaches will seek to deploy the classic ‘4-2-3-1’ system, with two holding midfielders and ambitious fullbacks.

Line-up dilemmas

The two big questions for the manager are around the central defensive position, and out wide. United started with Vidic and Evans versus Everton, which probably means Ferdinand is a certainty to start. By his side, there are benefits to both Vidic and Evans playing, but perhaps the Northern Irishman’s agility and ability to ‘follow’ the attacker out gives him the edge. But Vidic’s performance against Everton has certainly given Fergie something to ponder, and the value of the Rio-Vidic axis can’t be underestimated.

In the wide positions, Fergie could elect to go with how United finished the game with Valencia wide right and Rooney wide left. But there is a sense that Young (who is fresh) may well be called upon. In much the same way as he was thrown in versus City after a similar injury lay-off, Ferguson loves to deploy the ex-Villa man in these types of games, as he works incredibly hard in defensive duties, and times his forays forward well.

In the middle, Carrick will be joined by either Jones or Cleverley (or perhaps both) and will be crucial in that pocket of space between the penalty area and the centre circle. With Jones positioned slightly to the right, Carrick’s natural game is altered (which isn’t the case if Cleverley starts just to the left of the Englishman, but this stage may be too much too soon for Tom), so it will be important for Kagawa and Rooney to assist in the centre and not hug the touchline when out wide.

Real Madrid
Mourinho has a decision to make around the goalkeeper, but not the one we were expecting. His spat with Casillas is now well known, but in a strange twist of fate, the Spaniard has ruled himself out for a dozen games or so with a broken hand. Adan is expected to get the nod ahead of Lopez. Alonso is an injury doubt but is expected to make it. Khedira should slot in alongside the Spaniard, with Ozil, di Maria and Ronaldo ahead of them, and Benzema the lone striker. Though don’t be surprised if Mourinho throws in a surprise, either in the form of Higuain or Callejon, who can provide good width and is tidy in possession.

At the back, Varane (superb in the recent encounter with Barcelona) was rested for the Sevilla game and may be called upon if Pepe isn’t 100% match fit. One of those will start alongside Ramos at centre half, who has arguably been their most consistent player after Ronaldo this season; deceptively elegant and strong in equal measure. Arebeloa and Coentrao should flank the defence. Di Maria should start, not least because he provides great (often unappreciated) defensive work in much the same way Young does for United. His penchant for providing key assists in big games is something Ferguson will be acutely aware of.


Manager Approach

Ferguson (4-2-3-1)
Ferguson will seek to play deep, with five, often six, across the middle of the park in defensive transitions, but must be bold and trust his side’s form at present. Much like the game at Chelsea and the one at the Etihad this season, the brief will be to counter attack in a timely manner, seeking to exploit the inevitable space that will inevitably open up with Madrid trying to assert their dominance early on. Key to this approach could be the use of Kagawa as playmaker, or at least with him heavily involved from the left, as United won’t want the gap between defense and attack to be unduly large. The ex-Dortmund star has great big-game experience, doesn’t waste possession and is deceptively good at pressing the ball. The in-form player would be suited to the high energy, counter-attacking transitions. Emphasis will be on getting the ball out wide, and seeking to involve van Persie in a deep forward role. Ferguson will be mindful of letting Real have too much of the ball and will ask the defensive and midfield lines to stay compact. His approach to substitutions will depend on whether an away goal is achieved. If it isn’t, expect to see Welbeck or Nani from the bench in the second half.

Mourinho (4-2-3-1)
Real’s strengths can briefly be described as fluid and dynamic, with emphasis on lightning quick attacking transitions – often having six players attacking the opposition penalty area. Mourinho has excelled in forming a cohesive unit (if not psychologically), which thrives in the big encounters. He sets his team out to press early on, trying to force the error in the opponent’s half (trying to get that early goal), often tiring the players even before half-time. German international Ozil (Real’s ‘10’), is the major conduit between Alonso (deep playmaking duties) and the likes of Benzema and Ronaldo, and will orchestrate proceedings beyond the half way line. Khedira is the much-underrated box-to-box midfielder who also presses high on the opposition defensive midfielder, and can contribute with a goal by arriving late. Mourinho’s strength is also his weakness. He is bold in his approach to early substitutions, but these can often backfire.

Containing Ozil

With Ozil drifting from central areas and combining with Benzema and the wide men, instead of shadowing the German (or indeed Ronaldo), which simply leaves space elsewhere, a through marking approach should be adopted. The midfield trio must work closely with the active wide player and fullback in order to show Ozil into a further defensive line. The creator’s strength is finding the killer pass once he faces goal, so Rafael in particular must do what he does best: attack the ball early. The Brazilian’s best strategy against both he and Ronaldo however could be to attack, especially if the Coentrao is caught high up the field.

Though Young is likely to start in order to assist Rafael with Ronaldo, another option would be Welbeck. His form may give him the edge, and his attributes in the form of pace, defensive acumen, as well as the ability to dribble directly through the centre would be something Mourinho mightn’t expect. The Mancunian played this role with particular aplomb versus Liverpool at home of late, and if he doesn’t start then his use in the second half could prove pivotal.

Work off van Persie intelligence

The Dutchman’s goal threat has been outstanding this season, but his overall contribution, often in midfield zones, should not be overlooked. Describing himself as a ‘nine and a half’, both he and Kagawa will be central to United’s possession play. Carrick, Jones/Cleverley and Kagawa should use van Persie’s imperious hold-up play in and around the half-way line as early as possible, allowing the wide players and fullbacks to get beyond Madrid’s high line. Its an obvious tactic, but one that could be Ferguson’s best chance of an away goal. Henry’s famous goal for Arsenal in the Bernabeu came in similar fashion, as he bypassed the backline on the counter.

Here, Rooney’s role is also crucial. If the Englishman can be released by van Persie, leaving him one on one with Arbeloa, his ability coming inside on his right foot is known. As with Rafael on the other side, Evra’s timed attacks should give di Maria something to think about. Getting in behind, Rafael and Valencia had great success at the Bridge, just as Evra and Young did against Manchester City.


Vitally, United must learn the lessons from their last two games of major significance – against City at the Etihad last season, and against Barcelona in the Champions League final in May 2011. In both games, particularly the City one, the reds were nervous, tentative and essentially set up to contain the opposition, with too much space between the attacking midfielder and the lone striker. Rooney’s tactical indiscipline played a big part in both, but Ferguson may well choose to field him out wide here, with Kagawa perhaps used in an advanced role. United are a much more experienced outfit now of course, but come up against the reigning Spanish champions who know that Champions League failure will not be tolerated back home. United’s three-man centre must ensure that Alonso isn’t given free reign, but must also watch for the threat of the accompanying German players in midfield – each carrying a different threat. Real are somewhat of a wounded beast then, but a narrow defeat or a draw (with a an away goal being the target) would be welcome by Ferguson.

Prediction: 2-2 Welbeck and van Persie

7 Comments on Tactical preview: Forget Ronaldo, be patient & take risks

  1. My lineup would be :

    ——————De Gea————–

    This way Rooney and Valencia and can help track Ronaldo either side..

    No place for Cleverley though… He could come on for Jones in the second half if we are chasing the game..

    Second half substitutions if we chase the game
    Jones OFF Cleverley ON
    Valencia OFF Nani/Young ON
    Kagawa OFF Chicharito ON(making it a 4-4-2)

  2. Starting vidic and rio would be sucidial for this game with the pace madrid possess. Both are comfartable dealing but still they lack pace. Evans alongside vidic would be perfect but vidic fitness is an issue. Jones needs to be on the mark everytime united lose the possession. Jones left huge spaces against everton to close down fellaini but that wont work with madrid coz each of them has quality of their own. United best bet should be to atleast get a scored draw. With all the hype about persie and ronaldo, there is one man who is missing the attention here, Rooney, He will be the difference between the two teams. If he can keep himself in a right state of mind thru out the game, then united should have a favourable result.(Coz he is crazy when united lose, so keeping rooney happy at the end of game literally assures a favourable result) :). GGMU

  3. Haven’t posted on here in a while. Just felt like getting this off my chest so here goes.
    Spoken to a couple United supporting mates recently about tomorrow’s game and every one of them has said they think it’ll be a close game while on the other hand, I honestly feel we are in line for an absolute drubbing. Look don’t get me wrong, we’re a decent side with some quality players but there’s no doubt this MUFC team is not the best team Fergies ever had. There’s been a lot of talk about us winning the treble again. I just laugh everytime I hear or read about it. Absolute NO chance that’ll happen! Midfield a shambles, wingers out of form, a defense that has only just started to shape up. Michael carrick has the most fantasy football points out of all MUFC’s midfielders. That says it all really! Our attack has been our saviour though and RvP has been our main man. Our performances have been shambolic at times this season. Yes we’ve been picking up the points and scoring the goals but I can’t remember the last time I was genuinly chuffed with the way we have played. Honestly. We’ve played good football for periods of matches but that’s not good enough for a Man United side. Its been an absolute rollercoaster following United over the last few seasons. I’ll take the league this season and the league only. I’d love us to take Madrid out but with the team we have I simply just can’t see us progressing. I’m not being negative at all. Just being realistic. We’re nowhere near good enough a side to compete with the likes of barca, real, munich etc. A couple of seasons ago, it was a different story. When we won the CL Ronaldo was our main man…berbatov and tevez were instrumental as well during that season. Hargreaves as well. Ever since Ronnie and Tevez left, we’ve been on the slide and until we sign a worldbeater centre midfielder, winger – we’ll still be behind the likes of europes best and elite teams. Fact! The likes of phil jones(jack of all trades, master of none), ash young, cleverley, smalling(whose clueless on the ground) are all average players. Cleverley a bit above avearge. They all get into the England team because of 1 thing and 1 thing only – they’re MUFC players. Simples. I can’t class Welbz as 1 of these players. I think he’s different class and is no doubt the future of our club!

    Regarding tomorrows team selection, throwing Ashley Young in the mix and giving him a start would be suicidal! He’s been injured for a number of weeks(shock) and I just feel that throwing the lad into the deep end at the Berabao would be madness! I’d go with either valencia or nani on the right and kagawa on the other side. I’d start anderson alongside carrick. We’re gonna need some energy and drive tomorrow night and he’s just the player for that. Cleverley?? Will he get the nod ahead of Ando? He played against Everton just the other day so who knows what SAF is thinking. Rio and Vidic simply HAVE to play! Vidic was immense against Everton! Unbelievable! He just has to start! Evans has had a great 2 seasons or so but u just can’t compare the 2. Rooney and RvP are KEY!

    Althouh I cam see Ronaldo ripping his old team a new one, I hope that’s not the case. Then there’s ozil, di maria, alonso, modric, benzema etc who can all cause huge damgage. We’re gonna have to be ontop of our game. Huge occasion. Let’s hope United can handle it. Its been a Fucking long long time since we’ve been involved in a game the size of tomorrows. Come on lads – prove me wrong! UNITED!

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