I wouldn’t normally even attempt to seek positives from such a miserable game and you may be wondering about the significance of it now. But the magnitude of that defeat may have had lasting consequences in altering Sir Alex’s mindset. The system employed in that match was a familiar one to United fans, who had become accustomed to seeing more defensive instincts kick in when faced with an opposition of calibre, occasionally in the Premiership and even more regularly in Europe.
It was a way of thinking with origins over a decade old. Back in ’99, United, after struggling for several years in Europe due to a combination of inexperience and a restriction on foreign players, had finally got to grips with the Champions League, culminating in that momentous, nerve-shredding final against Bayern Munich. That victory was a watershed for many reasons, not least because it confirmed to Sir Alex his beliefs were correct: he had deliberately constructed a team designed to outscore the opposition, convinced it would eventually reap rewards across Europe as it had done so handsomely in the Premier League. Despite boasting several outstanding individuals at the back – Peter Schmeichel could lay claim to be the best keeper in the world at the time, while Jaap Stam had few peers heading into the Millennium – the team from ’99 was undeniably top-heavy: the artillery of the front six designed to wreak havoc.
In ‘99 it worked. Incredibly so. Not many teams displayed a greater sense of confidence and adventure. The opposition would rarely outplay United and it seemed, given time, it was a blueprint destined to bring European success once again.
It failed to last though, and defeats in 2000 (ironically to Real Madrid) and 2001 at the quarter final and semi-final stages respectively may have begun to sow the seeds of doubt. At times in those games, United were outplayed and out-manoeuvred, to the degree it appeared to have an enduring effect on Sir Alex. Coupled with the arrival of the more tactically astute Carol Queiroz in the summer of 2002, a new pragmatism was instilled in United in Europe, seeking to gain authority of a match rather than attacking it from all sides. The introduction of Veron into midfield, and playing Paul Scholes as a deep lying number ten epitomised a new look United in Europe, one leaning more (though not exclusively) towards solidity and control, rather than flamboyance and flair.
As the system evolved, the fluidity of the attacking front four or three developed, aided in no small part by the presence of Ronaldo, but it was a significant change from the relentless attacking play we had grown used to. Eventually the approach paid off; United winning the Champions League once more in 2008 (thanks JT) and reaching two more finals against Barcelona (although we were comfortably beaten on both occasions). There is a train of thought that we would have enjoyed greater success had we retained more positive tactics prior to that period, and though Carlos Queiroz brought a great deal of technical nous and sophistication to team development, it is quite easy to forget the antagonism the more cautious approach garnered at the time, with at least part of the frustration aimed at the Portuguese coach’s influence.
This change of style was not reserved entirely for European competition and Sir Alex has often approached important Premiership games with the same principles, regularly shaping the team into a 4-5-1 for clashes against title rivals, particularly away from home, most notably in that dismal defeat at the Etihad.
Following that game last season, it was said Sir Alex felt that he made a mistake in setting out his team in the way he did. Though unsaid, there was a definite sense of regret he had not adopted a more offensive approach. Much like his way of thinking had altered in the early noughties towards a more tactical, watchful approach, this game may have seen him begin to revert back to a more offensive philosophy (albeit not the swash-buckling style of the mid-nineties).
Moreover, the evidence this season is even more compelling. In away games against City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham, it would have been little surprise to see the 4-5-1 formation wheeled out, or at least a variation of it, but on each occasion United employed a 4-2-3-1; a team designed to win the game by scoring freely. It may be the arrival of Van Persie or the defensive uncertainty from earlier in the season, but in the big games Sir Alex has conspicuously favoured a more attacking style than in recent years, underlined by the number of goals scored in those fixtures.
It certainly makes Sir Alex’s team selection against Madrid intriguing, as well the formation utilised. I have predicted, and advocated, a 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 line-up with the front six consisting of Carrick, Jones (fitness permitting), Cleverley, Kagawa, Rooney and Van Persie. A simplistic 4-4-2 would leave us too exposed, but equally a rigid 4-5-1 would restrict our greatest attributes and leave our free-scoring Dutchman isolated.
It seems likely that a couple of years ago a more defensive formation would be seen as paramount, but a similar approach now would be something of a surprise. The presence of Jones would add steel and could be seen as a backward step, but it does not necessarily detract from our forward momentum and makes sense when considering how to combat the unique threat of Ronaldo. The value of an away goal (or two) cannot be under-estimated and our strength lies in the final third of the pitch, not camped on the edge of our own area. Of course, this is likely to occur at certain points in the match but hopefully it will be interspersed with plenty of attacks of our own.
For a man now into his eighth decade, Sir Alex has been continually impressive in introducing new formations and tactical switches, especially when you consider the perceived lack of input that comes from his back-room staff. Though he will be particularly mindful of the danger Madrid pose, in particular Ronaldo, I have a feeling he will be urging his team to push forward whenever possible. Sir Alex will want United to impose their authority on this game and all the evidence of the last twelve months suggests the tie of the round will not disappoint.