Once the sofa-punching frenzy of Clint Dempsey’s late equaliser had subsided on Sunday, and Twitter had stop wailing and screaming, I was left feeling surprisingly positive. Not simply due to the fact we were five points clear in the league in mid January. I also had the definite feeling I’d just witnessed a game that could have a significant impact in the Champions League. A game that could shape how we play against Real Madrid.
As usual, no-one could predict Sir Alex’s line up against Spurs, yet there was a fair amount of surprise to see a midfield trio of Carrick, Cleverley and Phil Jones. Carrick and Cleverley have excelled of late in their combination play, but Phil Jones, despite showing promise in the position, had not played in midfield for some time. The snowy conditions may have been a factor, but Sir Alex was also wary of being overrun in the middle of the field, conscious of Dempsey’s propensity to drop deep and Bale’s tendency to drift inside.
With Kagawa, Welbeck and Van Persie up front, it appeared to be a 4-3-3 formation. As it turned out, Welbeck and Cleverley occupied wide positions, with Kagawa tucked in behind RVP. There was a real fluidity in the roles, with an improving Kagawa drifting and prompting, Cleverley and Welbeck often moving infield; it effectively was a 4-2-3-1 in possession and 4-4-1-1 without the ball. The key word was tempo. Spurs were closed down at pace, funnelling their players into areas they did not want to go, United as a team combining to cover gaps and retain shape. More impressively, Carrick and Jones almost had two roles, diligently covering in the middle but also assisting the full-backs, Carrick on the left, Jones on the right.
In possession, United moved the ball swiftly whenever possible, exemplified by the first goal, where slick exchanges through midfield eventually led to Van Persie scoring his obligatory goal. It also highlighted the other advantage of Cleverley out wide – his crossing ability.
The first half it worked perfectly. While there was much to admire from United in the second half, they sat too deep, invited too much pressure and were disappointing on the counter-attack. This was exacerbated by a tiring Cleverley and the withdrawal of Kagawa. It seemed an obvious decision to bring Rooney into the game as he provides greater drive and power, but it was at the expensive of the neat and quick ball retention of Kagawa. With Antonio Valencia once again failing to ignite as Cleverley’s replacement, our attacking thrust became increasingly disjointed. It’s certainty something we cannot afford too often and food for thought for Sir Alex.
There is better and more in-depth analysis of the game against Spurs on this site: the focus here lies solely with Madrid. Could this formation be the way to combat Real? The personnel may change slightly, but as a system it certainly has its merits.
There remains a lingering feeling amongst the United faithful that we should just go 4-4-2 in every fixture, stick wingers on the touchline, attack attack attack, and let the opposition worry about us. Of course, this can work – at times. Even with our mis-firing wide-men it’s more than enough for most of the Premiership but it would be foolish not to recognise Madrid as a superior team, and therefore one that demands greater tactical consideration. It is to Sir Alex’s credit that he has recognised the need to adapt to a changing game over the last year or so, introducing new formations and tactical tweaks that many people thought would only occur if Carlos Queiroz was still his assistant.
We need to contemplate how Madrid will play. Jose Mourinho has long favoured a 4-3-3, going as far back as his Porto days, and while he didn’t introduce it to the Premier League, he certainly popularised it in his time at Chelsea. A formation, incidentally, very similar to Spurs, and it hasn’t altered too much at Real. A solid anchor in midfield (Alonso) allied to energy and drive (Kherida/Modric), behind a creative number ten (Ozil). Pace and trickery on the flanks (Ronaldo and Di Maria), complemented by a powerful forward (Benzema/Higuain). Consider that midfield trio – Alonso, Kherida and Ozil. Fancy matching up to that with just Carrick and Cleverley? Surely the extra security of Phil Jones makes sense.
And what about Ronaldo? Leave him one-on-one with Rafeal? Our right-back has had a brilliant season but he needs protection in this game. Ronaldo always warrants extra attention and he is likely to occupy a similar role to Bale – ostensibly on the left wing but likely to roam infield. The way Rafeal and Jones combined to keep Bale on the fringes on Sunday’s game would be an excellent way to tackle Ronaldo too.
There are obvious pitfalls. One worry is our best player, Van Persie, becomes isolated when we need him in the game as much as possible. We need to resist the temptation to drop too deep, something we have notably failed to avoid in the second half against Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool and now Spurs.
If we do utilise this formation against Madrid, it is likely Rooney will be drafted in at the expense of Welbeck. While I agree with the change, it would be a shame to lose Welbeck’s raw pace. With no wingers in the team either, it further reinforces the need for the defence to push up and allow our attacking players to play in the final third as much as possible. As is always the case in Europe, scoring a precious away goal is key, and as much as our defensive discipline will be a crucial factor, we need to claim greater possession of the ball than we achieved on Sunday.
We never know how a game will pan out. But with Carrick and Jones working with Evra and Rafeal to help nullify the twin threat of Ronaldo and Di Maria, a great deal of Madrid’s potency would be diminished. Carrick and Jones would have to be equally mindful of Kherida or Modric through the middle, but they showed on Sunday that they possess the energy, discipline and intelligence to achieve it. Rooney and Kagawa would need to snap around the full-backs as well as Alonso, squeezing the play. Considering the tempo we would aim to maintain in possession, it would be a demanding effort and the use and timing of substitutes would be vital. If this is the team, then we would have excellent options from the bench should the game-plan need adjusting – Nani, Young, Anderson, Welbeck, Hernandez, Giggs, Scholes to name a few.
One further point on the possible inclusion of Jones. Real Madrid have been atrocious at defending set-pieces this season whilst we have significantly improved in an offensive sense, mostly due to a certain Dutchman’s left foot and those goal-machines Evra and Evans. Jones is a powerful presence in the air and would further enhance our threat in what could be a crucial area of the match.
Let’s be honest, if there was a perfect formation to combat Madrid, they wouldn’t be the current La Liga champions. They have struggled at times this season but their 5-0 rout of Valencia at the weekend confirmed they still possess the weaponry to destroy teams. In fact, their patchy league form is bad news for United, as their main focus is now likely to be on the Champions League and I’m sure they will be resting key players in advance of both the home and away legs. With United fighting hard to reclaim ‘our trophy’ that is a luxury we must be wary of indulging in.
You may still feel it would be a better option to employ a more attacking style, even in the away leg. The idea of attempting to contain Madrid to hit them on the counter may be anathema to some United fans. However we line-up, we need to replicate the impressive amount of resilience, organisation and, above all, determination to keep a clean sheet we showed against Spurs. But I also feel we should use the same formation. I just have a feeling we have discovered the Bernabau blueprint.