Despite an important match against Norwich coming up on Saturday, it’s natural that, with less than a week to go, thoughts are already starting to turn towards the momentous, nerve-shredding second leg against Real Madrid. Sir Alex was in Spain two nights ago to watch them impressively beat Barcelona 3-1, and he will be giving next week’s game serious thought to ensure United fare better than the Catalan giants.
Leading up to the first encounter, we only had a vague idea of what to expect. We probably knew how Madrid would play, utilising a style and formation that’s well established, but United surprised a few with the inclusion of Danny Welbeck on the wing, Phil Jones in midfield (although we had been given a taster of this), and Wayne Rooney on the right-hand side.
Now it’s different. Ninety minutes in and both managers have shown their hands. With both sides claiming to be satisfied with their night’s work after the first match, it will be fascinating to see how they approach the second and decisive leg.
Considering the result, the performance, and the fact United created several good chances other than the goal (let’s hope they don’t haunt us), it would make some sense to continue in the same manner; with the same team and the same approach (fitness permitting). Saying that, there are various factors to consider, and lessons to be learned from the game at the Bernabeu.
Team selection will probably consume the bulk of Sir Alex’s thoughts, and it would be a surprise if there were significant changes. Vidic was reported to have missed out on the first leg purely because it was felt he may struggle after playing just three days previously. Of course, Sir Alex did not have to play Vidic against Everton and I believe he made his choice that Evans and Rio would be his pairing at the Bernabeu when considering his team to play Everton. I’m not sure Vidic will get the nod this time either – for all of the Serbian’s commanding qualities, Evans looks sharp and does provide additional pace; an asset which may be crucial considering Madrid will aim to play largely on the counter.
Straight after the first leg, I heard a few claims for Smalling to replace Rafeal, but even accounting for his rashness in the first half, he displayed a maturity and resilience after the break (particularly in light of the fact he had been booked), a point noted by Sir Alex. Following his match-winning performance at QPR last weekend, he looks certain to play.
Jones and Carrick, even though they were often outnumbered with Ozil dropping deep, combined impressively in midfield. Jones, in particular, provided the strength and tenacity we have often been lacking in these games, and, as long as he’s fit, it would seem unlikely there will be any changes in the centre.
The only obvious doubt is Kagawa. Welbeck was so effective during the first leg he has switched from ‘unlikely starter’ to ‘very probable’ with just one performance, while our Japanese international struggled. I wrote last week that he appeared a little weak physically and was unable to impress himself upon the game. The likely move would be to replace with him Nani, Young, Cleverley or Valencia.
However, we bought Kagawa with Europe in mind and we shouldn’t dismiss him from this tie just yet. The main problem at the Bernabeu was that he often received the ball with his back to goal, surrounded by uncompromising defenders, a role suited to a Drogba-type figure rather than a diminutive creative forward. At home, with Madrid sitting deeper, our offensive players will mostly be in possession facing the goal, seeking to penetrate the Spanish team’s defence. Bearing in mind how the game may pan out, he remains worthy of consideration.
A further issue is the deployment of Rooney. Shunned out to the right, he worked hard but now he needs to be afforded greater capacity to harm Madrid. Starting from the right wing and tracking back is hardly likely to see him do that: a more central role surely beckons. If, as seems to be universally accepted, Madrid grab an away goal, we need to score at least twice to win outright and so our most likely goal-scorers must be prominent in our attack. If this does happen, the role of Kagawa, if selected, would require further thought. A further dilemma comes from Nani, who has played well in the last two games and could force his way into the side.
I imagine Sir Alex will consider his defensive tactics for some time. Madrid operate with an attacking trio of Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria who freely switch positions throughout the game. At the Bernabeu, Sir Alex asked his defenders to follow their man, causing Rafeal and Evra to drift inside at times, tightening up the central area but leaving space on the flanks. This was most evident in the second half when Madrid had significant joy attacking down the left with Evra tucked in. Thankfully, it brought no reward, but it is not something we should encourage again. It would make more sense for our defenders to maintain their positions and trust that the players will deal with their opponent when they drift into their area of the pitch.
The scoreline presents an interesting challenge for Sir Alex, in terms of how attacking he should instruct United to play. I doubt any United fan is suggesting we attempt a nil-nil draw, not unless they have nerves of steel and enjoy casual torture. At Old Trafford, we often aim to obliterate teams, but surely such a swashbuckling style would allow too much room for Madrid to spring their counter-attacks.
With this in mind, I would like to see us adopt an attacking stance, aiming to maintain possession and continually push into the final third, but balanced with a sense of control and containment. Madrid are renowned for rapier counters, especially with Ronaldo, and the inclusion of Phil Jones alongside a deep-lying Carrick suggests a safety-net of some description will be sought.
Ronaldo was devastating in the first half: running past defenders at will, causing panic in the box whenever he had it, and was the fulcrum of all their attacks. He was subdued in the second half, however, so much so that Ozil and Di Maria were arguably bigger threats over the ninety minutes. The way we defended against Ronaldo in the second half – getting tighter, compressing space, frustrating him – is something we must repeat from the start next time. In fact, we must press better all over the pitch than we did in the first half.
One aspect in which we disappointed in the first game was set-pieces. Madrid have been woeful all season at defending corners and free-kicks, and following Welbeck’s goal – which, though he took it very well, was incredibly straight-forward – we never threatened enough again. Van Persie, who has provided excellent delivery all season, often hit corners too high and too long during the game, and left us little chance to create problems. If he can find his usual delivery, it could be a crucial part of the match.
Both managers expressed equal satisfaction with the result and the performance after the first leg, but with a home tie to come, I feel this tie is (just about) in United’s favour. When away goals come into play, it changes the perspective, and tends to make it a more tactical battle. But, with a nil-nil very unlikely and another one-one draw taking us towards dreaded extra time, the current score-line makes United’s objective seem as simple as possible: win the game.
Now if only it actually was that simple….
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