This piece originally appeared on thinkfootball.co.uk.
Since Real Madrid and Manchester United were drawn together in the Champions League Round of 16 on December 20th, talk in the football world has been of little else. The titans contested some classic games at the start of the 2000s but have not met in nearly a decade.
The two ties will be fascinating from a tactical perspective – primarily because they will feature the bizarre spectacle of the home sides actively trying to play as if they were the away team.
United will have analysed Real Madrid’s recent games and will know that the last thing los Blancos want is to dominate possession. They thrive on quick, precise counter-attacks and are typically at their most dangerous when the opposition has the ball in midfield or at the edge of Madrid’s defensive third.
This season, Real Betis and Granada have beaten José Mourinho’s side by shamelessly giving them as much of the ball as possible and, to borrow the Portuguese’s phrase, parking the bus. While the two sides absorbed a lot of pressure and conceded eighteen and seventeen shots on goal respectively, both got lucky and escaped with a clean sheet.
If United can stomach using tactics that unambitious, expect them to take that approach in both games – even when their fans are urging them forward at Old Trafford. Similarly, Real Madrid will most likely stick with their regular system, although I have outlined a plan below in which they can beat United by calling their bluff.
Likely formations and tactics
Real Madrid will use their familiar Plan A, a conventional 4-2-3-1 aimed at drawing the opposition onto them before breaking swiftly into the space behind their defence. Xabi Alonso will initiate attacks from his deep midfield position with the still-underrated Sami Khedira playing as the second-function midfielder.
The third band of Ángel di María, Mesut Özil and Cristiano Ronaldo will aim to interchange in order to manipulate the positioning of the back four before exchanging short, quick passes to find a way through. Karim Benzema, while not a Messi-style false nine, is no goal-hanger either: he will play what Alex Ferguson describes as a ‘nine-and-a-half’ role, essentially operating as a mobile and creative striker.
If Madrid are forced to take the initiative, a majority of their attacks will come down the left as they aim to supply Ronaldo with possession. That said, expect them to switch Ronaldo and di María at some point, playing the Argentine as a natural winger while exploiting Ronaldo’s aerial dominance over Patrice Evra, a player known to struggle with high balls at the back post.
Manchester United will almost certainly deviate from their standard 4-4-1-1 in a bid to nullify Real Madrid and, more specifically, Ronaldo. Phil Jones is expected to reprise the man-marking role he performed on Everton’s Marouane Fellaini at the weekend but while his role will remain the same, the side will be structured differently.
On Sunday, United found that Michael Carrick was hopelessly outnumbered and overran once Jones picked up Fellaini. If Alex Ferguson chooses to again employ the man-marking ploy, he will presumably start the match using the shape that United were in at the end of the Everton game: a 4-1-4-1 in which two banks of four close space, leaving Jones free to follow Cristiano Ronaldo wherever he goes.
I will be the first to admit that I have made a bold prediction by placing Wayne Rooney in central midfield. It is more likely that Tom Cleverley or Anderson will partner Carrick and Rooney will start wide on the left, but I would like to think that Ferguson will temper his cautious choice of system with a courageous selection of personnel. In any case, United’s aim will remain the same.
Due to the obvious numerical advantage for Real Madrid at the back, expect Sergio Ramos and Pepe to see plenty of the ball while Álvaro Arbeloa and Fábio Coentrão advance. Both sides will be happy with this arrangement although it probably suits United better: Arbeloa carries little attacking threat so his move forward will not hurt them; Coentrão, knowing that Ronaldo will not cover defensively, will be wary of Antonio Valencia breaking into the space vacated.
As previously stated, Madrid will play the ball through their front four and rely on them finding a swift combination to fashion scoring chances. Against a deep and disciplined United side, they will find this hard, but nonetheless expect Özil and Benzema to target the channel between Evra and Nemanja Vidić – while the Frenchman has been much improved this season, he represents the weak link given that Rafael will most likely be assisted by Valencia and Jones.
Winning the ball from Madrid’s front four and breaking into space behind the full-backs will be Manchester United’s primary idea. While United often pin sides in their own penalty areas and rain down crosses, this will be a more calculated use of the wide zones. They will look to destabilise the Madrid defence one player at a time: first, a full-back is drawn out; then a centre-back comes out to cover, leaving space in the penalty area; then that space is accessed via a simple square pass. Think Ronaldo’s second goal against Arsenal in the 2008/09 semi-final.
Although Shinji Kagawa and Antonio Valencia have not been in the best of form, they represent United’s best hopes of exploiting these transitions – Kagawa made his name by doing exactly this at Dortmund – and Wayne Rooney will come forward to give United a theoretical four-on-three whenever possible.
Real Madrid: Plan B
While Real Madrid will be loath to take inspiration from their Catalan nemeses, Barcelona have shown how to beat Manchester United: play a high and fluid 4-3-3, keep the ball and play between their lines as much as possible.
In Luka Modrić, José Mourinho has a player who can emulate Xavi as the deep-lying playmaker, orchestrating play all over the pitch while never relinquishing possession. Sami Khedira is a very different type of player to Andrés Iniesta, but his verticality will be useful assuming United see this 4-3-3 and sit two banks of four in front of their own area. José María Callejón is the closest thing Mourinho has to Pedro Rodríguez and his movement will lead to chances – either for himself or via the space in front of the defence created by his natural width.
There are three big advantages to this system. First is having Xabi Alonso in the pivote role. Barcelona dominated the 2011 Champions League final simply because in Sergio Busquets they had a player that was always free and willing to receive the ball. Rooney was detailed to pick him up but simply did not, deserting his position to chase after the ball, his ‘passion’ having got the better of him.
It is a gamble to assume that the same could happen here – Ferguson could easily stick Kagawa on Alonso and move Rooney left – but given this system’s history of success against United, it is one worth taking. After all, if Madrid have the ball, United can’t score.
The second advantage of having an extra body in deep midfield is that it will free up Ronaldo: although Jones would mark him in the original system, doing so now gives Madrid and obvious advantage in midfield. Either United will have to move Jones to the centre and resort to an orthodox zonal marking system, leaving Ronaldo isolated against Rafael, or they will instruct Valencia to double-up on the Portuguese, leaving Coentrão free to attack at will.
The third and most important advantage of starting with this system is that it is only required until a lead has been established. If Real Madrid go one or two-nil up, United will have to attack. At that point, Mourinho can bring di María and Özil on for Callejón and Modrić and revert to Plan A.
Manchester United: Plan B
United’s secondary strategy will surely be an extension of their principal idea: to cede possession and the flanks, draw Madrid out and counter into space. To that end, it would make sense to play a 4-3-2-1: this system sees United’s defensive third secure and well-populated while leaving Madrid’s easily exposed from multiple angles.
In open play, Ronaldo will always have to beat two men before he can get a shot away. Özil will have to come into deep, unthreatening areas to find space. di María’s crosses will fly into zones full of red shirts. Furthermore, the presence a third body in the second band will allow Rafael and Evra to think about getting forward if the field is appropriately set.
In Jones and Anderson, United have players not only flexible and diligent but also capable of carrying the ball forty or fifty yards when they get it. Their ability to play vertically will allow Kagawa and Rooney the chance to make runs with a view to the second phase of attack, meaning they can swiftly find the right position to play or receive killer passes. With no need to contribute defensively beyond ensuring the first pass goes wide, Robin Van Persie can position himself with a view to attacking almost all the time.
Of course, it is extremely unlikely that Ferguson will use anything as bold as the above plan, but he must surely know that sticking with 4-4-1-1 and throwing the kitchen sink at Madrid would be his side’s undoing.
On talent alone it is almost impossible to see anything other than Real Madrid progressing with plenty left in the tank but football is rarely that simple. The fact that Madrid have lost five times in La Liga – and played badly in several games they have won – means Manchester United stand a chance of upsetting the odds. It could well be the case that the manager that wins the tactical battle could lose the tie. Simply put, the quality of finishing on either side will decide everything.
If over two games United can create four good chances for Robin Van Persie, the odds are he will score two goals. Whether or not United can create and finish that many without leaving themselves wide open for Mourinho’s men on the counter remains to be seen.
If push came to shove and I had to make a call, I’d say Real Madrid will progress by two clear goals.