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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