Originally published online for Can They Score? on February 13 2013.
In the build-up to their first leg encounter with Madrid, much has been made of Phil Jones as United’s key tactical agent in the battle to muzzle Cristiano Ronaldo. Secondary concerns have also been raised around Xabi Alonso and Mesut Ozil, with suggested solutions ranging from a dropping Wayne Rooney in deep to unsettle the Spaniard and unleashing Danny Welbeck or Ashely Young on the left to harry the German playmaker.
Negating Alonso’s influence is key – cutting off Real’s supply line will isolate and wither their starving forwards who can often rely on the midfielder’s quick, sharp distribution from deep – but with his fitness in doubt, it’s possible that Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley may instead find themselves facing Luka Modric, Madrid’s almost forgotten man.
With Sami Khedira paired alongside him in a midfield pivot, Modric’s will be a different proposition to the slow-moving, long-pass artillery piece that usually feeds the attack. An effective dribbler and lithe space creator, the Croatian has the ability to beat a man or two in order to unshackle himself of his markers – cutting out opposition players and giving himself room to pick a more penetrative passing option.
It is likely, should Ferguson go for a tactic of suffocation deep in Real Madrid’s midfield that United’s wingmen and full-backs will attempt to push up and shut down their opposite numbers by pinning them up within their own half. This should be particularly effective on Real’s left, with Ronaldo likely to wander, leaving Marcelo under-fire, and freeing Rafael to bomb forward. However, the potential inclusion of Modric would mean that Real instead have a secondary option able to shift from the middle, laterally onto the flanks to ping diagonal through balls to the attack and cover the space left by Marcelo’s wing-back routine. Perhaps, should he be selected, Modric might be a better target for Sir Alex’s new favourite pit bull, Phil Jones, than the potentially marginalised Ronaldo?
Talk of Real’s strikers has also been strangely absent in the match preview hype. Benezema and Higuain offer two distinct and potent threats that, with the proper service, can seriously damage United’s prospects of reaching the quarter finals before they’ve reached the second leg in Old Trafford. Such is the state of the United backline this season – however improved its form may have been in the past few weeks – that a policy of prevention lower down field rather attempting to cure the ailment of Real’s forward line running at De Gea with the ball at their feet.
While the likes of Rooney, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Phil Jones are busying themselves trying to contain Madrid’s hotspots, how can United look to add attacking bite to their defensive stratagem?
The movement and finishing of Robin van Persie will of course be key – by drifting back into the hole and out onto the flanks, the Dutchman will hope to prise Ramos and Pepe from their defensive holdings to create opportunities for others. However, if those immediately around him have their hands full foiling Madrid’s plans, he must be properly serviced and kept involved with the game from elsewhere.
Michael Carrick will be fire fighting throughout night in Madrid, making the long-ball deliveries of Jonny Evans and the driving support play of Evra and Rafael vital to keep the front fed. Should Sir Alex decide to select Tom Cleverley instead of Jones, the midfielder – with his hard running and tidy technique – can be Rooney’s foil and deputy, switching roles as required and offering reinforcements to both the attack and defense.
Ball retention and recycling of possession will be imperative such is Madrid’s counter-attacking pedigree and their eerie self-billing as the cornered, wounded underdog. United have been clinical but not dominant in their previous big games this season, such as against Manchester City and Liverpool, and will need to stay composed to ensure they can profit from tonight’s first leg tie rather than open themselves up to disaster. Calm, unhurried patience, and the ability to throw the sucker punch when their opponents are off-balance , will be the order of the day.
What do you think will be United’s game plan for tonight and where will Madrid’s goal threat come from besides Ronaldo?