Date: 13th February 2013 at 3:30am
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Will Sir Alex use attack as the best form of defence against his old pal?

Is it sooner rather than later for the Special One?

It is incredibly unlikely you’ll find a United supporter who reflects on last season’s game at the Etihad with any sort of fondness. We all recall what a depressing night it was: the narrow loss was painful enough – meaning the title was no longer in our control – but the insipid performance was equally jarring. As was often the case in important games, Sir Alex lined his team up in a 4-5-1 formation, packing the midfield in an attempt to contain City. As it turned out, it simply strangled United.

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.


2 responses to “United Set To Attack Madrid With Bold Formation?”

  1. timbo says:

    You missed the salient point to your constant reference of the 4-5-1- formation. It was brought in, albeit reluctantly, to shore up a midfield that was very short on class and constantly overrun and exposed when it featured only two regular midfielders. Basically, the extra man was there to try and bolster the area through numbers, in lieu of class.

  2. Michael says:

    Attack, attack, attack even. more! And then stack even more! Left .. right, center, all three, ATTACK! Real.. sorry Mourinho’s teams never play possession based football! All they do is attack relentlessly! And are EASILY caught out at back! But they try to counter this by playing stop-him-at-all-cost defensive play! They aren’t afraid of a red card or two! They have a squad large enough to deal with that! So no play diving please! If you’re in a good position, take the chance! Don’t rely on the refs sympathy! It could backfire massiveley, this CL football where Blatter thinks he’s Napoleon come to rid football of its English influence! That said, Real have weaknesses! Big ones! One is even named, Essien! Foul prone, red card flirting, slow RB! Nani can take him apart all night, and will probably get him sent off! So that Nani in the starting line-up! Another weakness is their keeper! A bit of composure and quality in finishing will see this guy tangled to the back of the net picking the ball out so many times! They’ll pro’lly use Varane, who is fast no doubt, but is inexperienced! Prone to 19 yr old mistakes! Playing through balls trying to beat the offside trap will be difficult with him around! He dash back before you realise you have the ball at your feet! But he doesn’t quite know how to deal with skill and close contact! A shimmy here and step over there will see him diving past, and because he’s usually the last covering defender making last ditch goal line clearances, you’ll be having an empty net to stick the ball into! Threats from their side include Ronaldo, who still plays the role he did, come inside and shoot or pass while making a run intobspace in the box to head or backheel, or go out wide and.. cross! Not much to do out wide so he going to want to come inside and that’s where Raphael comes in! Keep him out wide as much as possible and he’ll be rolling on the grass all night moaning! Xavi the former Scouse, has range in his passes therefore fullbacks, the intercepting defender and De Gea will need to pay attention! Full backs need to keep an eye on him so when he has the intention of libbing one over, just step up or stay in cover! De Gea needs to judge correctly when the striker through on the lob is far enough for him to come out and clear or collect, otherwise just stay and cover, make yourself big and scare the bugger into an error! The intercepting defender needs to come out and HEAD THE BALL CLEAR out of the danger zone! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO BRING THE LOBBED BALL DOWN! Another weakness is Albiol, who should play! If he does, he’s a CB in a LB position! No pace, just tactical fouling to stop runs! Valencia should ha e joy with this guy! Just get the ball beyond him and go and run after it like it was your last meal! But steer clear of him, HE WILL MAJE AN ATTEMPT TO FOUL! Lastly, Mourinho is an ego with a human body, doesn’t have any tactics other than being on top all the time, and his teams adopt this attitude! So as long as United dominate proceedings, Real with get more temperamental and lose concentration and then they’ll be sitting ducks! God bless Manchester United.