Real Madrid vs Manchester United


Both teams’ attention is almost solely on Europe now interest in their respect leagues has waned, with Real Madrid out of the La Liga title race and Manchester United holding a comfortable lead at the top of the Premier League. Yet despite their varying fortunes in their domestic leagues, and with United coming into this game as group stage winners, Madrid still appear many people’s favourites going into this tie.

Jose Mourinho will continue with Madrid’s tried and tested 4-2-3-1 system for the home leg. The injured Angel Di Maria is likely to be replaced by Jose Callejon on the right, although the Argentine’s absence offers Madrid the option of moving Mesut Ozil wide and bringing in Luka Modric as a more conservative option in the middle. Mourinho will again choose between Gonzalo Higuian and Karim Benzema to lead the line.

However the real tactical interest lies with United. Sir Alex Ferguson has become the master tinkerer, constantly rotating his squad and changing formation several times a season. Before Christmas, Ferguson’s ‘big-game’ side played a 4-1-4-1 shape, which essentially began with United’s customary 4-4-1-1 but involved Wayne Rooney dropping into midfield and Michael Carrick sitting in front of the defence. However in recent weeks Ferguson has twice given a man-marking role to Phil Jones, firstly against Gareth Bale and at the weekend against Mariane Fellaini. This makes United resemble a deep 4-2-3-1 system, Jones sitting deep alongside Carrick with Tom Cleverley completing a midfield trio and Rooney operating on the left.

Despite the hyperbole from both managers about a potential classic, Ferguson is likely to focus on containment while Madrid attempt to play for a victory. In this regard, with Madrid likely to be predictable in their approach, analysis focuses on United’s tactical selection.

Manchester United's 4-2-3-1 option.

Manchester United’s 4-2-3-1 option.

Madrid’s 4-2-3-1 vs United’s 4-2-3-1

Although the formations appear similar, in reality Ferguson’s variation becomes a 4-1-3-1, with Jones purely focused on covering Cristiano Ronaldo. Against Everton and Fellaini, the system worked well, but Ferguson will be aware Tottenham were able to exploit the gaps a man marker can leave – Ozil and Callejon are more capable of exposing defensives gaps than Aaron Lennon.

The purpose of this formation would be to contain Madrid. With Jones and Carrick operating in deep positions, only Cleverley is high enough in midfield to put pressure on Madrid’s double pivot of Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. Both players are comfortable on the ball and offer varying threats – Alonso with his range of passing and Khedira with his attacking runs from deep. While Jones and Carrick may successfully stifle the space between the lines, allowing one of Alonso and Khedira time would be a risk.

An option Ferguson would have within such a system would be to instruct Rooney to play narrowly from the left, helping Cleverley press Madrid’s deep midfield. The consequence of this would be allowing Alvaro Arbeloa to go free at right full back, but given the player’s comparative lack of technical quality and Callejon filling in ahead, United may deem Madrid’s right flank as a weakness that can be relatively ignored.

Jones being occupied by Ronaldo does leave the threat of Carrick becoming isolated. Madrid often play with a large amount of space between the attacking and defensive tiers of their midfield, so if Cleverley is tempted forward to pressure Alonso and Khedira, Carrick is left with a large space in midfield to patrol. In itself this isn’t a problem. Carrick is adept at covering space, and has often found himself isolated by a gung-ho United midfield, but with Ozil as a direct opponent he must avoid being dragged out of position. The German playmaker is excellent at finding space, either by dropping deep or moving wide. With Ronaldo attracting attention, Ozil will likely exchange positions with Callejon on the right, or alternatively move into a more central midfield role near Cleverley. Either way, his movement will be designed to tempt Carrick out of position and open up gaps for the likes of Khedira or Callejon (or Ronaldo) to run into.

Manchester United's 4-1-4-1 option.

Manchester United’s 4-1-4-1 option.

Madrid’s 4-2-3-1 vs United’s 4-1-4-1

United’s other ‘big-game’ system of choice has been a 4-1-4-1 shape, converted from Ferguson’s customary 4-4-1-1, used in quick succession against Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal back in the autumn. The idea is that Carrick drops back into a deep midfield position to cover the space between the lines, necessitating that Rooney also drops back from a deep forward role to become an auxiliary midfielder, although against Madrid he is likely to be used on the left of midfield to allow the inclusion of an extra defensive player. The formation maintains United’s strengths on the wings and allows the team to move into a 4-4-2 shape with the ball. Once again the system is heavily reliant on Rooney’s energy and movement to move between two positions.

The system would offer Ferguson greater control of midfield, with the negative midfield triangle of Carrick, Cleverley and Rooney (or more likely Jones) mirroring Madrid’s positive triangle of Alonso, Khedira and Ozil. However the system would offer no special dispensation for Ronaldo as Jones would be unable to cover the Portuguese winger from a central midfield position.

On the plus side, the midfield formation would protect the space between the lines and allow greater pressure on Alonso, preventing the Spaniard from dictating play from deep. Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp explained that his side’s success against Madrid in the group stage was built around preventing Alonso having time on the ball, thus cutting the supply to Ronaldo, rather than marking the winger directly. Ferguson may be aware of this, and will need to decide on whether to put pressure on Madrid’s deep playmaker or focus on stifling the forwards that he feeds.

United in attack

In attack, Robin van Persie will offer a mobile target up front and is likely to be supported from wide by Rooney and Valencia. Valencia’s energy down the right wing is often utilised in games of this magnitude, while Rooney’s versatility becomes invaluable – It is difficult to think of another player in the world capable of shuttling between a wide midfield position and a creative attacking role as adeptly. Beyond these three, Cleverley will get forward to support attacks, but United’s other central midfielders and full backs are likely to be conservative in their approach.

Madrid should dominate possession and territory, but Ferguson will demand an attacking threat from his team. Without De Maria, Madrid’s front four can switch off without the ball, meaning Carrick and the defenders should enjoy time to find vertical passes. United’s problem in recent years against Barcelona has been an inability to beat the first press and get the ball into advanced players – Madrid should not offer this challenge, at least not for the entire game. Valencia often offers a target by making quick runs past the opposing full back, so Carrick should look for space behind Fabio Coentrao.

Rafael will have an interesting role. While both he and Patrice Evra are likely to be cautious in their attacking, Rafael will be aware of Ronaldo’s lack of defensive cover, and the Brazilian has had great success against Chelsea and Manchester City by combining with Valenica down United’s right. If Jones is given a marking role on Ronaldo, Rafeal may have an opportunity to attack Madrid’s left flank, although the risks are obvious. Once again, this will greatly depend on United’s requirements throughout the match.


In the build-up to the game, Sergio Ramos has spoken of the difficulty in marking Rooney because of his positioning and movement. In reality it won’t be a problem for the Spanish centre back in this game as Ferguson will be intent on smothering Madrid’s attacking resources and Rooney is likely to feature on the left of midfield. Nevertheless Ramos is right – Rooney’s movement makes Ferguson’s formations viable, and it is his capacity to defend and attack that offers United the chance to defend deep away to Madrid whilst also offering a constant attacking threat. United are no longer the naïve team of the 1990s, and whatever formation Ferguson’s decides to use will be primarily geared at stopping the opposition.

It won’t have escaped Ferguson’s attention that this has actually become the default method of combating Madrid. With Ronaldo central to everything they do, Mourinho has built a team primarily designed to attack space and destroy teams on the break. They are far less adept at breaking down a packed defence, and numerous teams have taken points from Madrid this season in La Liga by doing exactly that. It is unreasonable to think that Mourinho is not aware of this. Ultimately Madrid are at their best when attacked, but with the weight of expectation on the club he is unable to send his players out against domestic opponents with the instruction to sit back and counter. At home in the Champions League, Madrid will be expected to be the aggressor, so in theory this plays into Ferguson’s hands.

This may not be a vintage United side, but an acknowledgement of this has allowed Ferguson to be far more proactive against elite opposition than he has previously, an approach that should serve them well against Madrid.

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