English: Manchester United – Real Madrid 1:2
The game the whole world was, allegedly, waiting for – and not without reason. There were many interesting aspects for the tactics fan too.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Surprising Selection
United changed on four positions. Among others, Phil Jones had to miss the game due to injury and Wayne Rooney found himself on the bench, a surprise. Some were expecting a 4-3-3 with Ryan Giggs as central midfielder in his 1000th game as a professional, but Ferguson chose differently. The Welshman started on the right flank in a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2, while Nani started on the left. Danny Welbeck played slightly staggered behind Robin Van Persie. The two acted occasionally at the same height defensively and changed positions offensively.
Most of the time Van Persie’s job was to look for openings and help transition. Time and again he was looking for open space and dropped back shortly to help with his great technique. Jürgen Klopp once called Van Persie the best striker in the world, because he thought him able to play all positions in attack.
One has to add that Van Persie is able to play any way as a central forward, too. He is able to drop back depending on the situation, he is able to help combinations, his pressing resistance makes him an option in transition and last but not least, he is capable of world class performances as a classical forward centred on the box.
Welbeck complimented him well in attack. The young Englishman moves intelligently and knows how to use space. He also plays combinations well and has great athletic abilities. More than once he ran into space with determination and speed and tried to offer himself for through-balls. One example from the 25th minute: Van Persie stops a long ball, Welbeck passes him running, carries the ball forward and gets to finish in the box.
Almost as if in passing he also played an important role defensively, in combination with Van Persie.
United’s Pressing and Xabi Alonso
Within United’s highest pressing formation, they paid attention to Xabi Alonso. The two Real centre backs were rarely pressed in possession. United formed a tight 4-4-2 instead, with Van Persie and Welbeck positioned next to Alonso. Consequently, Alonso was lacking space and was rarely a safe passing option. This denied Real their playmaker and most important player in build up.
Real was forced to the flanks. When they advanced on the flanks, their connection to the centre was cut well. Xabo Alonso could not even serve as a safe backwards passing option, because Welbeck man marked him in these situations. United’s formation worked well, when Real advanced.
Ryan Giggs sat deeper and wider on the right than Nani on the left. He could separate Fabio Coentrao from Christiano Ronaldo this way and support Rafael very well. United’s full backs were man marking Real’s wingers and only gave them over to others when the wingers moved to the centre.
Gigg’s experience and intelligent play shone that way. Nani was better positioned to start early to break and with Arbeloa, he was up against a less offensively-minded opponent anyway, explaining the reason for the reversed positions. Patrice Evra took care of Di Maria with loose man marking. The latter had been stellar during the first leg. In the end, few balls found their way to Di Maria’s flank.
Covering Movements and Attacking Interplay
Real’s attacks rarely found their way to United’s goal, where Real usually had to finish under pressure. The great coverage and interplay on United’s side was especially impressive. Michael Carrick covered for the movements of the advancing full backs without mistakes. The right six moved back and forth horizontally and closed the space behind the attacks down the wings.
Ferguson’s team was able to exploit the defensive freedoms afforded to Ronaldo this way. Rafael advanced past Giggs often and gave the game depth. Giggs was able to play a few good passes into the middle or to the front, because of his inverted role, the open space created by his nominal full back and his pressing resistance. United overloaded flanks to get balls to the centre. They wanted to get more out of the the interplay between the forwards this way.
Away from the ball, United showed more interesting movement to cover. The full back on the ball-less flank stayed deep and supported the centre backs. Together with Carrick, there were four players covering, allowing Tom Cleverley, strong in combinations, to move up and get involved. The winger on the same flank was looking to give width and moved toward the second post for crosses from half space.
Similar ideas were used when United was shifting. Away from the ball, one player stayed farther wide than usual. The offensive outside player was also staying relatively deep and wide depending on the situation, covering the opposition full backs.
Defending the Penalty Area and Counter Pressing Dependent on the Situation
Finally, United showcased one of their classic strengths as well as a new one. First the classical strength: United defended their penalty area well. Real was able to finish a number of times, but many were from a distance, from bad positions or under pressure. Thanks to Ferguson’s genius, United’s formation was harmonious.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are, despite their injury problems and advanced age, still world class when it comes to defending the penalty area on good days. Their defensive work tonight consisted mainly of intelligent advances, good synchronisation, covering for the players next and in front of them as well as the blocking of shots and crosses.
The „modern“ strength was the counter pressing. It was not practised as collectively as by Josep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona and Jürgen Klopp’s BVB during the two championship seasons, but it was used effectively a few times.
United moved towards the ball aggressively with a fanned out formation if possible. Tom Cleverly, Ryan Giggs and Denny Welbeck were especially strong. From them originated the non-verbal call to pressing – the others mostly moved up intelligently. Potential breaks by Real could be broken up.
Real’s Formation and Pressing
How aggresiv was Real going to be after the first leg draw? There was no attack-pressing, but Real’s way of playing was higher and more active. Somewhat surprisingly Real did not use their usual 4-4-2 pressing. Mesut Özil seldom played next to Gonzalo Higuain.
Usually the Argentinian centre forward was the only one to try and throw a wrench into United’s build up. He tried to isolate the two centre backs by running at the centre back in possession in an arch-like movement, cutting off the other. This was supposed to benefit the two-three midfield, but was only partially successful.
Other than that, Real was not convincing most of the time. After the beginning, United adapted their passing patterns to use some long, high balls and there was little pressure. In attack, Higuain moved to the flanks and opened space for Christiano Ronaldo, who had a free role. Mourinho was constantly looking for a solution with many micro-tactical changes.
Di Maria was given more freedom over time. From the 25th minute on, he tended to the left flank and gave width to free Ronaldo once and for all. Coentrao played more diagonally. The two were trying to open gaps for Christiano Ronaldo, who almost acted like a centre forward. Higuain moved more as well, drifting right or dropping deep to allow Ronaldo to occupy the centre forward position.
Because of United’s compact formation and intelligece in defence, there was little effect. Real hindered their own build up instead. Mourinho was tinkering here, too. Khedira moved more vertically for a short period, later he occupied the half space. He dropped back to the right, between full and centre back, pushed Arbeloa up and so compensated for Di Maria’s movement.
More tinkering followed: After Di Maria’s injury, Özil was playing on the right flank. Kakà, who was introduced for Di Maria, took Özil’s place in the middle, while Coentrao moved up even higher on the left. Xabi dropped deeper and was released to be another passing option in attack by Ramos a few times. However, the only successful change was due to United.
Nani’s Red Card, the Goals and the Consequences
Mourinho reacted immediately when Nani was sent off. He took off Alvaro Arbeloa for Luka Modric. Mesut Özil was working the right flank alone in attack, covered by Khedira. Modric played Xabi’s role, but higher up the pitch. He was now the team’s focal point and structured play.
United formed a 4-4-1 with Welbeck on the left, but became too passiv and deep. Modric had too much space and was able to get off a great shot, which led to the equaliser. Only minutes later Real scored again. Now both managers reacted.
Real substituted Özil and formed a 4-4-1-1/4-5-1. Ronaldo and Higuain occupied the wings, Pepè was introduced to play the right full back an Kakà was the focal point for breaks next to Modric. Kakà also helped out in defence and there were many changes of position of the central players, offensively and defensively. Real’s play was extraordinarily fluid and, as usual, Ronaldo gambled when appropriate.
United on the other hand introduced Rooney to build play with three forwards. Rooney played left, after Ashley Young’s introduction he went to the right. The central in the 4-2-3 were Carrick and Giggs. The full backs continued to move up as well, especially Rafael, who was supposed to grant Rooney an inverted free role. There was no change to the score, but United generated a few good scoring opportunities.
Defensively it was an outstanding game by Manchester United, who seemed to have disheartened Real after twenty balanced minutes. Before the sending off, they looked very stable, defended well and were able to create a few opportunities on the break. They appeared to have lost the thread for a short time after going one man down. Real Madrid were able to use this after many changes and Modric’s introduction.
After the 1:2 the game went flat, tactically and technically. There were more opportunities to score, but the intensity and concentration in transition was lost. Neither team worked as much in defence. In the end, it was a lucky win for Real Madrid at Old Trafford.
In this hour of defeat, we should remember the losing side – Ryan Giggs, the collective and Alex Ferguson. All of them impressed for long stretches, adding good tactical ideas and implementing them well. They were surprisingly “modern“ with their situation-dependent counter pressing and very strong pressing resistance.
For Real we have to applaud Luka Modric and José Mourinho.
Translated by Fabian I. – highly appreciated! Spielverlagerung thanks you!