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Tactical Preview: Real Madrid vs Manchester United

Since the draw was made its fair to say that most United fans have been eagerly awaiting this tie. Of course we have history with Real Madrid, a history which stretches back to the early days of this tournament. But it is recent events which makes this tie so exciting, as it is an opportunity to welcome back an old friend and a few old adversaries.

For Sir Alex this is also an opportunity to exact revenge for the tie in the 1999-2000 season when Real came to Old Trafford and tactically outwitted United, and in so doing dethroned the then Champions of Europe and halted what many Reds hoped would be a period of sustained dominance. That game has been extensively covered elsewhere, so we won’t go over old ground, but for those who wish to we would refer you to Rob Smyth’s excellent Greatest Games feature in Issue One of The Blizzard.

What can we expect from Real Madrid?

Jose Mourinho has favoured a 4-2-3-1 shape and with the emphasis on a counter attacking approach at Madrid. If you refer to the formation above this shows the starting eleven for the recent Madrid game at Valencia on 21st January 2013. This game made clear the approach often employed by Mourinho to invite the opposition to attack and then to hit on the break utilising the pace of Di Maria and Ronaldo. Selectively and intelligently they will press however, and they will not sit deep if United adopt a cautious approach where we attempt to patiently play our way out from the back.

If Madrid’s approach can be simplified we expect an approach not dissimilar to that employed in the second half of our recent home game against Southampton. Like the Saints they will press, play with width and move the ball around quickly when they have it. Unless United win well in Madrid we would not expect this approach to change when they come to Old Trafford.

Taking the formation above as a key we would highlight some of the subtleties of the Real Madrid game.


  • Ronaldo – we know so much about him that there is little we can add. What we would add is that of the two wide players he is the more flexible. Both have great pace, but Ronaldo is perhaps less predictable. He will run narrow and wide. Ronaldo will tend to stay higher than Di Maria when Madrid defends. Nothing new!
  • Di Maria – often plays as an ‘inverted winger’; his natural tendency is to run narrow or inside, he tends to run wide on fewer occasions (no doubt as a result of his poor crossing). He starts in a deeper position than Ronaldo and has more defensive qualities.
  • Ozil – is a key player. He often plays almost as high as the sole forward, but is very mobile and will run wherever necessary to find space. As an example in the Madrid derby in early December for example he was prepared to go very deep to find space when Atletico Madrid worked hard to minimise space between their defenders and midfield in the first half. However when Atletico came forward more in the second half Ozil played much higher. He will also run laterally across the field from the centre.


  • Full-backs – the injured Marcello is often used as the left back behind Ronaldo. He is an attacking player who may over commit. He is also a bit overweight so pace is important against him. Real tend to get away with this because most teams adopt a cautious approach on Ronaldo’s side of the field. Arbeloa as the right sided full-back is far more cautious.
  • Half-backs – Alonso tends to play deeper than the other half back, looking to intercept and then start moves with long balls (higher than the whole team’s average) to Ronaldo, Ozil or Di Maria. Khedria, usually the other half back will play higher, join in the pressing, tackle high up the pitch (winning 80%) and look to link the forward play.


  • Possession – Madrid will not give the ball away easily, so United must value possession, but they will not be troubled if United retain the ball. In the Classico against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in October Barcelona made 637 successful passes in the game to Real Madrid’s 237. The final score was 2-2.
  • Width – Madrid tend to defend fairly narrowly, but attack with width. They will look to get behind the United full-backs, but will leave space in wide positions in their own defensive zone.
  • Home or away tactics – Madrid are likely to employ neither, but rather are likely to employ the same game plan in both legs, (assuming the tie is not done and dusted after the first leg).
  • Mourinho will be proactive – we expect Mourinho to tinker with his tactical approach by making subtle changes throughout the games. He will not, (as is Sir Alex’s preference), wait until the 70th minute before making his first unforced substitution.


United’s tactical options

In Europe this year United have often employed a midfield diamond. We feel that we are unlikely to see that shape in this tie, simply because its narrowness would leave too much space for Di Maria and Ronaldo; especially Ronaldo.

A more likely formation is a 4-2-3-1 or a lob-sided 4-3-3 whilst an alternative is a 4-5-1, (which is a stronger possibility in the away leg), but we have not seen much of that shape this year. Last year when it was used, the one up-front became isolated and United tended to lack an ‘out-ball’, as such they surrendered the initiative and went too deep. On two significant occasions using 4-5-1 they lost, to Liverpool in the Cup and the second League derby.


If this shape is employed we would anticipate that it would be a 4-4-1-1 when we are pushed back, morphing into the 4-2-3-1 when we attack. We think this is a strong possibility because Sir Alex often chooses this shape in big games when the opposition are also expected to go this way. Examples of this are the games at Chelsea and Manchester City this year when United started both games by taking the game adventurously to the opposition from the start.

The danger with this approach is when the opposition successfully press Carrick, as we saw in the recent Southampton home game and has happened in other games this year. Carrick needs space to work in and Ozil and Khedria will work hard to deny him that space. If United do feature this shape we feel that it is important that he is partnered by Cleverley rather than Giggs, Scholes or Anderson. Giggs and Scholes will not push Madrid back by running into higher positions. Anderson and Cleverley will, but of the two Cleverley is the preference because his runs are more threatening and he tends to exhibit greater tactical and positional discipline than the Brazilian.

The other danger with this approach is that after starting well United might fade, failing to maintain the high tempo which makes it a success. This happened in both the recent away games sited above, and if it does in the Real games, United will find it tough to get back into the game.

The advantage of this shape is that it might allow United to attack Real Madrid’s narrowness. United’s wide players are not in form, but they could be key players here. Valencia could have fun pushing Marcello back, and by preventing the Madrid full-back from linking up with Ronaldo he could prove the old adage that the best form of defence is attack.

Who should play on the left? Help! It may possibly be Kagawa who had a good first half here against Southampton but the problem is that he tends to fade in the second half when we might see the unpredictability of Nani introduced. The formation above shows a possible United line – up in this shape.

A lob-sided 4-3-3.

So where does this formation come from? We have recently played this shape in an away game against one of the better sides in England, Tottenham, who employ two fast attacking wide players and have a tendency to sit back and counter-attack. The formation above shows the starting eleven used in the recent game at White Hart Lane.

If this game was a rehearsal for the Champions League tie it is perhaps worth reviewing United’s approach to that game and what actually transpired. Firstly, it was an approach paid Spurs a huge compliment after they won at Old Trafford earlier in the season and Sir Alex was clearly determined to prevent a repeat. His principal concern appeared to be the twin threats posed by Bale and Lennon, Tottenham’s wide attacking players, particularly when ably supported by fullbacks, who might help to overload on United’s fullbacks. United have played a similar shape to the lob-sided 4-3-3 previously, most notably on repeated visits to Arsenal and often with great success.

The key points to note from the Spurs game are as follows:

  • Looking again at the starting formation, Sir Alex made an unusually early change, swapping the positions of Cleverley and Welbeck. This swap happened around the 20 minute mark. Perhaps before the game Sir Alex had identified Bale as the main threat, but in the early stages the threat came from Lennon who was supported by Walker advancing from fullback. The switch meant that Welbeck now occupied Walker thus preventing him from advancing and relieving the initial pressure on Evra.
  • Jones played an important role in this game. He was positioned centrally to occupy the space in front of the United backline and to pick up whoever moved into that space, (usually Dempsey). Jones’ presence removed some of the pressure on Carrick. Note that in the recent Southamption game when Carrick was brought under pressure by the visitors’ second half press, one of Sir Alex’s adjustments was to move Jones alongside Carrick in the halfback area. Was this also an attempt to relieve pressure on Carrick? News that Jones is suffering with shingles is not good news!
  • In the first half Kagawa and Welbeck worked well to link with Van Persie. Van Persie tended to stay central and in a high position. The running of Cleverley, (after his switch to a deep position), also created problems for Spurs, restricting the opportunities for Bale to affect the game. Naughton, the fullback behind Bale, tended to stay deeper to cover Cleverley.
  • In the second half, Tottenham chased the game, were more assertive playing a higher line and made a number of adjustments in both approach and personnel. The most critical problem for United was Spurs’ lateral movements into the space in front of the back line. Kagawa faded and was replaced by Rooney, whilst Cleverley was replaced by Valencia. Neither Rooney nor Valencia linked play as well as the players who they replaced and neither dropped deep enough. This resulted in Tottenham seeing more of the ball and the frequency and intensity of their attacks increased.

Perhaps the key Tottenham change was the replacement of Naugthon with Ekotto, a more attack minded fullback. There was now a gap between the advanced United players and the defence and halfbacks, that is in the space in front of Jones. Jones was occupied by Dempsey, whilst the lively and mobile Defoe kept the United centre backs busy as Bale and Lennon took every opportunity to run from their wide starting positions into that space. The United fullbacks, Evra and Rafael were unsure whether to follow this lateral movement due to their concern over the advancing Spurs fullbacks and generally they did not. The result of this was two-fold.

Firstly Jones in the centre rather than as is more usual a fullback in a wide position was overloaded, having to cover Dempsey and either Bale or Lennon as they ran across the pitch.

Secondly there was space in the inside channels, especially inside Evra. (Jones is a more right-sided player and so was more inclined to cover the other side). The Tottenham Halfbacks, as well as Lennon when he moved inside, were able to exploit this space and that resulted eventually in the equalizing goal.

  • As the game wore on the United defence and midfield went deeper and deeper, this was part of the reason that the space opened up in front of Jones. We have seen this in several games this season, notably a week before in the game against Liverpool, when fortunately the visitors failed to capitalise late in the game. Tottenham did.


We would expect the Real Madrid versus United games to be fairly tight. Madrid is a counter-attacking side who invite the opposition onto them awaiting a situation where they have overcommitted, subsequently hitting on the break. In the away leg, should United adopt a cautious approach Madrid may simply wait, as they would be more than happy to keep a clean sheet and avoid the away goal. The scene would then be set for the Old Trafford game where they would expect United to take the initiative. We would expect the Madrid strategy to be much the same in both games.

It is anyone’s guess what United’s strategy will be; you never know what will come out of the “Fergie Tombola”, but this will be a fascinating tactical dual.

To succeed United must be brave. Against Spurs they started the game well and were not afraid to attack. When United had the ball, players were willing to move well off the ball. Attacking with width, particularly behind Ronaldo, is important. United must work hard to occupy the Madrid fullbacks, denying them opportunities to support Ronaldo and Di Maria, but also exploiting the space outside Madrid’s narrow defence.

Madrid usually attack with width. Again, United must be brave and defend with width, resisting the temptation to come narrow to track the movement of Ozil. When United defend they must defend as a team, with forward players dropping deeper to close spaces in front of the defence. Jones, if he plays, is a key player as he has to track Ozil, but he will need help from those around him.

Conversely United must make space for Carrick to work and he must resist the press. He cannot do this alone and will rely on more advanced players coming deep and moving well to present passing angles.

United must present a controlled threat when going forward and not over commit, but ensure that Madrid are always aware of a threat. Getting that balance right, one between a controlled attack and a resolute defence is the key.

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  1. LucasUTD says:

    Shit… I’m fucking nervous…

  2. Jrdonl says:

    Whatever happens in spain..the tie wil be decided in theatre of dreams…glory glory man utd

  3. Bobby Charlton's combover says:

    I’d be amazed if we kept a clean sheet. We’ve had very few this season and we’ve shipped a lot of goals in all shapes and forms in all competitions. For that reasaon I think there is no point inviting Madrid onto us as we won’t be able to keep them out over 90 minutes. I’m not saying we should attack with wild abandon but it could be the best form of defence in this kind of tie.
    I reckon we’ll go for the line up in figure 3 and I’d be happy with a 1-1 or 2-2 but I wouldn’t rule out a win for us either. If Dortmund and City had been a bit more composed they would both have gotten a win there. We’re a better team so let’s hope we can go one better.

  4. Indian Devil says:

    Is it just me or there are only 10 United players in Figure 5 – United second half 11 vs Spurs:?

  5. Andromeda says:

    I would fancy Fergie to take a cautious approach.I remember when last time we met Lose in champions league, that was against Inter milan.anyway 4-2-3-1 is my favorite formation and whether we will go with Nani or Tony, its a matter of what we want!if we want to retain possession and halt Ronaldo’s threat them we must go with latter as Nani is somewhat lazy with his defensive duty.

  6. DiegoForlanDK says:

    Nervous as hell. Hoping to see kagawa play as I expect he will be key to holding on to the ball if, as expected, Carrick is more or less contained by khedira. ALso, I have high expectations for De Gea. This is a match where he has the chance to show off his shot stopping abilities rather than his physical abilities. So, DG will be key and hopefully he can get off to a good start and boostour defensive confidence from the get go.

  7. FletchTHEMAN says:

    Indian Devil That would be Welbs with leg snapped by Pepe and no action by the FIFA Ref. ;)

    Mark my words, They’ll be fouling us from the off and ref won’t lift a finger to stop it until something blows up.

  8. parryheid says:

    Fletch The Man

    Are you thinking our Freckled Demon,the Barrel of Gunpowder might explode?

  9. foxinthebox says:

    It has to be a 4-3-3 or a 4-3-2-1. I hope Ando/ Jones & Cleverley play with Carrick – as they provide lots of energy. Valencia has not been doing too great of late and can be a sub to alter the approach if need be. But we need experience and I have a sneaky suspicion that Giggs cud start on the left side of a front 3. Real do play over the wings however. They are probably very English sometimes in their approach. Am still smarting from the last time these teams met. Bla the Spanish media can shag itself over the pedigree and technical ability of Spanish/ Italian / German teams but I honestly don’t think English teams are behind them in terms of technical ability. I want to shut Higuain’s mouth. Why is it that Spanish / Italian team players love to talk so much bull and feel superior to English teams all the frigging time. Manutd has won the Champions League twice in the new format and these poops talk abt THE DECIMAL. I hope we beat them off the park and get a standing ovation – that’ll do nicely for me.

    De Gea
    Jones(Ando) – Carrick – Cleverley
    Rooney-Giggs (Kagawa)

  10. foxinthebox says:

    Btw the ref has been involved in 3 or 4 RM matches and they have never lost. I am thinking something’s gonna bust. We won’t be hearing abt Mou – Fergie love BAHAHAHA.

  11. harry hill says:

    I think you mean “lopsided” not “lob-sided”

  12. FletchTHEMAN says:

    We have also had 3 games and not lost. Both teams have 2 wins and 1 draw under this ref.

    But we did get Vidic sent off in one and there is an argument that he treats english teams poorly, but I think it is week.

  13. Indian Devil says:

    @FletchTHEMAN :lol:

  14. wayne says:

    I’d be shocked if Tony V isn’t playing,the Tony V Carrick,Clevs,Kagawa is more than likely Utds midfield,with Rooney then RVP

  15. parryheid says:



  16. MansionOfTheReds says:

    Disagree on the possession bit. Madrid keeps the ball alot. It’s only in the barca games that they play with so less ball time. That’s their strategy to cope with barca. I doubt if they’ll allow us as much possession.

  17. pzred says:

    Tony V and Young (if 100% ready) should play at any cost. Or perhaps Welbeck instead of Young. But I hope no Nani will feature today. Nothing against the lad, but in this game we will need 100% effort in defensive also from our offensive players. And in offensive there will not be so many chances I think to let Nani miss even one of them with long range , out of target shots.

  18. MansionOfTheReds says:

    Otherwise, brilliant analysis. Cheers

  19. chicole says:

    Fucking excited, watched a bunch of united videos this season we can take madrid only worried about the possible jet lag of the players

  20. slim says:

    Patrick barclay is such a cunt. Cant stand the smug look on face. He’s in the studio with some other cunts talking about how we gonna get stuffed. Yeah cos madrid have been fantastic themselves yeah?
    Fuck, i hope the lads go over there and put up a masterclass. Keep saying there is no reason we cannot win over there. No fucking reason. We got the players and we got the manager and we are fucking Manchester United, we do what the fuck we want. Get in lads

  21. In David We Trust says:

    wayne – yea that’s the midfield I think we should go for, it shocks me how many fans feel dropping cleverly is a good idea, our sensational run of form has been down to a big part of the rise of cleverly. It is when jones has played, we start to struggle. But when its C and C, we look very dominant

  22. says:

    Indian Devil, FletchTHEMAN its Welbeck who is missing from Figure 5. He was quite high up on the left hand side at that point in the Spurs game. He wasn’t really helping Evra.

    Further thoughts on tonight are that when we don’t have the ball, Rooney must close down Alonso, Valencia, (who we would like to see play), needs to drop deep and get close to Ronaldo helping the fullback, and Jones or one of our halfbacks, (but preferably Jones), must get close to Ozil, much as he did to Fellaini on Sunday.

    When we get forward we will need to take our chances and in RVP we do have the man for the job. So don’t be nervous LucasUTD, be confident, positive vibes – BELIEVE!

  23. wayne says:

    In David We Trust if Sir Alex decides to start Jones as a shadow Rooney could end up on the left with RVP on his own Kagawa probably wouldn’t start

  24. Hans says:

    I hope Rooney uses the insults by fascist media to motivate him even further!

  25. In David We Trust says:

    wayne – that backline of Madrid is there to be taken out, I always look at the blueprints of the man shitty and chelsea games, when we went for them we tore them to pieces. Now I am not go all out attack, but if we start playing players all out of position just to contain them, we aint going to score an away goal,and we will most likely lose. United are not playing barcelona, and ronaldo will be a horrible to try and contain, but to try and play all out defensively we will be undone. I and I still state, jones will be the wrong move to play tonight, he is not exactly fully fit, and I also feel welbeck can do the jones job on the left. We do need to keep possession, and jones will unbalance the side

  26. kk says:

    Nani will start. I think this was the match he has been preparing for. Him missing games of late might have been by design so that he slips under the radar. Kagawa plays too. Oh hell we should just batter them. A United win for me.

  27. jay says:

    …………de gea
    rafael ferdinand vidic evra
    ……….. carrick
    ………….van persie
    kagawa or rooney to replace ando at bout 60 minz

  28. Red Pepper says:

    Chicharito deserves to play in this game!

  29. Anthony says:

    Think tonight’s game is made for Hernandez. There will be plenty of space in behind Madrids back four. I would go with Rooney playing from the left with RVP in behind Hernandez. Would also consider playing Jones right back with Rafael playing ahead of him. Well see anyway.

  30. parryheid says:

    In my eyes it would be madness to have Anderson in the lineup he cant offer nothing at this level and he does not have the fitness to last even one half in what is sure to be a fast moving game imo.

  31. King Eric says:

    slim – That cunt Barclay needs a good fucking hiding. Always having a pop at Fergie and United just because Fergie fucked his shit book off. He loves fucking Wenger and rates him better than Fergie. Fucking tosser. Detest him. Why will we get hammered? Aside from City when have we EVER got hammered?

  32. King Eric says:

    parry – Agreed. I don’t think for one minute Anderson will start. Gives the ball away FAR too many times and hasn’t the nous Cleverley has.

  33. montanared says:

    For some reason I am stuck on Welbz on the the left wing and Chico up front by himself, Carrick and Clevs in front of the back four pulling strings, Rooney in the hole to support Chico and more importantly to defend when necessary. Rafa and Tony in tandem on right, Welbz and Evra in tandem on left, speed width and defensive responsibility. Hopefully all the different formations and player positions used this year will give Jose and his crew a headache while trying to anticipate how we will play. Also think the Spurs comparison is pretty accurate Di Maria like Lennon likes to come inside when he gets close to the box, hope Evra is ready for this since he has always been a little vulnerable to the cut back. Crazy to leave RVP on the bench, I know, but they will have been preparing for him and lil’ pea might just torch them. Excited as hell, Come on United.

  34. parryheid says:

    I’m pretty sure later when subs are made Hernandez will prove to be tailor made to give Real even more problems tonight.

  35. oresegunrahmon says:

    Pepe you are wicked you want him to play so that you can give him 2 year injury foolish man

  36. montanared says:

    There will be room in behind the back 4 and a back up goalie, starter or sub– lil’ pea to score!!


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