Man Utd vs Real Madrid – Decisions, decisions.

An enthralling encounter at Old Trafford that produced a fascinating tactical battle. Whilst much debate will surround the referee and the dismissal of Nani in the 56th minute, that was not the sole reason why this contest altered direction. This article will focus on three issues in the game and a fourth topic on the fall out.

Man Utd Shape – As Madrid play Barcelona, so too will Man Utd play Madrid.

Even allowing for Ferguson surprising many with his starting eleven and the decision to keep Rooney on the bench, the key point from the outset was the strategy being employed. Just as Real Madrid approach clasico’s now, allowing Barcelona to have possession with a mid-level block and only pressing when they enter your territory, Man Utd would perform a similar tactical ploy against them. A tactical “what goes around comes around” from Ferguson albeit without the desired final outcome.

One of the key issues pre-match focused around the ability of Man Utd to play a patient, disciplined defensive form the outset to frustrate Madrid. The side selected produced a tactically superb performance for 56 minutes.

Giggs, making his 1,000th career appearance, began on the right to support Rafael who was tracking Ronaldo. In the first leg, Rooney had let Coentrao escape his attention on three separate occasions and the side narrowly avoided punishment. These were errors which Giggs would not replicate.

The graphic below shows Man Utd interceptions:-

Man Utd Interceptions

Man Utd Interceptions

The majority of interceptions arrived on the Man Utd right where Rafael and Giggs performed well. They were also aided by Madrid’s passing coming via the central defenders and not Alonso as discussed later.

The central midfield composed Carrick and Cleverly with Nani on the left, stationed higher than Giggs on the opposite side in an attempt to take advantage of Arbeloa’s lack of attacking intent. The full back is more conservative enabling Nani to focus more on his offensive ambitions.

Wellbeck was behind Van Persie with the task of suppressing Alonso. It was a task which he performed extremely well whilst still offering an attacking outlet, bursting from a deep position at pace.

Xabi Alonso – The Conductor

Has Xabi Alonso ever produced a quieter first half?

The deep lying playmaker attempted just 20 passes and completed just 14 as he found himself being squeezed, principally by Wellbeck with assistance from Van Persie.

Man Utd were content to allow both Varane and Ramos to have possession and bring the ball forward with Wellbeck and Van Persie positioned either side of Alonso and ready to close him down. Mourinho must have anticipated this to an extent, as Alonso seldom altered his position during the first half, remaining deep and allowing Arbeloa and Coentrao to move higher on the flanks.

The graphic below shows Alonso’s first half passes:-

Alonso Passes First Half

Alonso Passes First Half

The majority of passes are very short and any longer passes tended to be inaccurate, a consequence of being pressed quickly but also Man Utd controlling space effectively in their final third.

As the first half wore on, the quality which Alonso brings to the side becomes more prevalent. Build up play slows down as they enter the Man Utd half and there is no pattern to attack. The orchestra has lost its conductor.

As soon as Man Utd were reduced to 10 men, Xabi Alonso immediately benefited. His shadow, Danny Wellbeck, was repositioned onto the left wing and Alonso had space to move forward, collect passes and begin probing and building play with his customary diagonal passing which stretches opponents.

The man who would benefit most though, was still on the bench but would be quickly introduced at the expense of Alvaro Arbeloa.

Luka Modric – Impact and Effectiveness

As soon as Man Utd were deuced to 10 men, Mourinho responded by withdrawing Arbeloa and introducing Modric.

The Croatian had an immediate impact with a driving forward run, easily side stepping Michael Carrick and scoring the equaliser from 22 yards out. He was able to link play and stretch Man Utd across the whole pitch as he completed 32 passes out of 33 attempted.

The graphic below shows his passes:-

Modric Passes

Modric Passes

Yet it’s worth considering why this was Modric’s best performance in a Real Madrid jersey. Why was he able to influence the game so effectively when he has struggled in La Liga. The answer is probably that he was facing only 10 men and had space to play as Man Utd collapsed onto the edge of their penalty area after a period of about 10minutes incessant pressure from Madrid. Modric found the space that he is so often denied in Spain.

The decision to introduce Modric was the correct one. Arbeloa was sacrificed an Khedira moved to a right wing back position but this performance from Modric should mark the beginning of his Madrid career and not the high point. He must build upon it.

Prophets of the Past – The Revisionist Perspective

And now enter the Prophets of the Past. Those individuals who will assess the game entirely and it’s pivotal moments purely in the light of the result and the decision to dismiss Nani. Decisions before and after that moment become inconsequential as the narrative is altered to suit the pre-determined agenda.

The acquisition of Modric will be vindicated despite his inconsistent domestic form and Ferguson will avoid more probing questions regarding his tactical decisions during the game.

The outcome of this game was not decided by the red card. It was a key moment but the outcome thereafter was not inevitable. The resulting space in the midfield area was a direct consequence of a Man Utd tactical reshuffle, enabling Madrid and primarily Alonso and then Modric to begin constructing play.

That Modrid was only introduced after the red card is worthy of closer scrutiny. Why not introduce him when Di Maria was removed through injury? Why was Kaka chosen to come on when both play centrally and Ozil was shuffled to the right? Does Mourinho still not rate the Croatian that highly? Or does he recognise that in tight spaces, the effectiveness of Modric is reduced?

Man Utd played Madrid perfectly; to a point. By closing out Alonso and allowing Madrid possession in safe areas, they reduced the effectiveness of Madrid and falling back to a low block greatly altered Madrid’s tempo when they entered the final third.

In the aftermath of this game, the tactical success that Man Utd enjoyed until the dismissal of Nani must not be forgotten. Ferguson has established a template for defeating Real Madrid. True, some sides such as Jurgen Klopps’ Borussia Dortmund will attack them but for the vast majority, the plan to be followed has now been clearly identified.

But equally, should questions not be asked of Ferguson’s response to his side being reduced to 10 men?

Just as Mourinho reacted quickly, introducing Modric and seizing the initiative, could Ferguson have taken an alternative course of action? Given how crucial controlling Alonso had been, should Wellbeck have remained positioned on him leaving Khedira free on the right wing instead?

The German does not possess the same passing range as his midfield counterpart. It would have been a risk enabling Khedira and Ozil to combine on the right but it was a significantly greater risk allowing Alonso time and space. Evra would have been told to stay back and retain shape with assistance from Cleverly.

Could Van Persie have been sacrificed with an additional player such as Kagawa in midfield to enable Man Utd to hold out? Perhaps even introducing Evans as a third centre back for 30 minutes permitting Celverly and Carrick to run and harass the Madrid pairing of Alonso and Modric.

It’s all entirely hypothetical of course but there is the lingering thought that as good as Ferguson’s initial team selection had been, when key decision were made correctly, when Mourinho reacted and forced the issue, allowing for the mitigating circumstances, Ferguson failed to respond.

Mourinho’s assertion following the match that:-

“Independent of the decision, the best team lost. We didn’t deserve to win but football is like this”

is easy to say when you win. Would he have been so magnanimous if Madrid had vacated the tournament?

For Madrid, there remain questions. Mourinho has built an excellent side but has he now tweaked his side to achieve one aim and one aim only; the defeat of Barcelona.

And in doing so has Madrid lost sight of the requirements to break down sides who adopt a defensive approach with a low block?

Does Madrid possess an alternative course of action? When Man Utd tightened up during the second half in the Bernabeu and followed a similar gameplan for 56 mines last night, Madrid were bereft of ideas.

Mourinho and Madrid still have time to address this area as they enter the quarter finals, their pursuit of la decima still intact following a thorough examination.

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Press, Press and More Pressing

A great game of football with Athletic running out 3-2 winners, a scoreline that arguably flatters Man Utd given the overall balance of play. After the initial stutter under Bielsa early on in the season, Athletic have gradually adapted to his methods demonstrated by the current run of just 3 defeats in the last 21 games in all competitions.

The performance against Man Utd was arguably their best under Bielsa, drawing the various strands of his game together and executing them brilliantly.

Line Ups

Athletic lined up in their variation of the 4-1-2-3 formation against Manchester Utd. With Amorebieta suspended, there was no real decision to be made for Bielsa and he went with his strongest line up.

The Starting Line Ups

 

Ferguson had stated prior to the game how Man Utd needed to improve in the Europa League and how an experienced team would be fielded against Athletic.

Man Utd lined up in a 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2 formation.

Ferguson does not like to pair two similar players in midfield i.e. Carrick and Giggs or Anderson and Fletcher due to it making Man Utd lack mobility in the former or creativity in the latter.

The pairing of Giggs and Jones was designed to pair a passer with a runner. Man Utd had gone with a central midfield pairing of Carrick and Giggs against Newcastle and fell victim to a high press with neither Giggs or Carrick offering enough mobility in midfield.

First Half

Athletic started with their usual aggressive high pressing. Llorente aimed to press the centre backs whilst Evra and Rafael were closed down by Muniain and Susaeta when they moved forward.

Man Utd made a number of misplaced passes, some of which were due to sloppy play whilst others were forced from Athletic’s intensive pressing.

With Rooney behind Hernandez and Iturraspe the deepest of the Athletic midfielders, Rooney should have pressed him more during the game but failed to do so, in a similar fashion to how Rooney failed to press Busquets in the Champions League Final last season. This allowed Iturraspe to collect the ball and begin constructing moves, linking with Herrara in the centre of the pitch.

Athletic were content to play slow patient passing in their own half of the pitch before accelerating the speed of the play as they approached the Man Utd penalty area with Llorente used as a focal point, laying off the ball to De Marcos, Muniain and Susaeta as they moved forward at pace. They looked for quick 1-2’s and runners breaking in behind the defence which they repeatedly did on the right flank.

Jones often tried to break forward for Man Utd in the midfield but arguably the lack of discipline shown here contributed to Muniain having space to move infield from the left and attack the centre of the pitch. Giggs is no defensive midfielder and lacks mobility now. Jones should have stayed deep and offered protection to the defence.

Evra Attacked?

Athletic frequently overloaded the right wing in the first half. Was this a conscious decision to attack Evra? With Park naturally tucking in, it left Evra exposed to attacks from Iraola, Susaeta and De Marcos.

Indeed, on two occasions, Muniain also drifted to the right wing, swamping Man Utd in this area.

A number of long passed were hit between Evra and Evans in the first half with Susaeta or Iraola overlapping as the intended recipients potentially looking to expose positional flaws in Evra’s game.

Susaeta exposed the space between Evans and Evra for his lobbed chance in the latter part of the first half.

Athletic’s equalizer came from a ball to the right with Evra and Park tucking in, allowing Susaeta time to deliver the cross for Llorente to head in. Jones who was challenging Llorente on the edge of the penalty area failed to track his run.

Second Half

Man Utd attempted to press quicker and higher up early in the second half and Rooney appeared to be positioned further upfield but it was not a coherent press.

Giggs is too old in central midfield to press which led to an undisciplined, slightly half hearted press which Athletic were able to pass around. The general picture of the first half was replicated early in the second half.

Muniain forced a good save from De Gea in 49th minute but he was allowed far too much time to take his shot. Again, Jones was positioned in a line with the centre backs here but surely he should have been challenging Muniain and positioned in front of the centre backs?

The lack of pressure was apparent for De Marcos scoring. Herrara had time and space to lift the ball over the defence for De Marcos (in an offside position) to run onto and score.

The final Athletic goal was a compilation of defensive errors.

Firstly, Evans and Jones failed to communicate and challenged for the same ball, secondly, De Marcos managed to beat a fresh Anderson to the loose ball and get his shot at goal and finally, Rafael stood and watched as Muniain made up a gap of 15 yards to beat De Gea to the rebound.

Man Utd though had several chances in the second half mostly all on the counter attack.

For all their attacking intent, Bielsa teams are still prone to being exploited on the counter and were fortunate that the referee was quite lenient in the game with a few cynical fouls by Athletic to break up Man Utd counters.

It should come as no surprise that, although Athletic dominated possession, they also committed more fouls, 16 to Man Utd’s 11.

Substitutions

Man Utd made three second half substitutions, none of which had any impact upon the general direction of the game but each forced a reshuffle on the pitch.

Smalling was replaced by Carrick following his head knock early in the second half. Jones replaced Smalling in central defence and Carrick added a bit more composure to the Man Utd midfield. However, with two passers side by side, Carrick and Giggs, Man Utd were going to continue to struggle even against an Athletic side which was beginning to tire slightly.

In the 60th minute, Park was taken off and replaced by Anderson. Surprisingly, Rooney appeared to go wide left for a spell with Giggs behind Hernandez.

Was Rooney pushed wide left to assist Evra deal with Iraola etc attacking? Rooney was the deepest Man Utd player in the 65th minute as he cleared the ball from the corner flag.

In the 74th minute Giggs was replaced by Nani. Ashley Young moved to the left wing and Nani went onto the right wing with Rooney moved back into a central area.

Two subs for Athletic late on for straight replacements. Torquero for Llorente and Inigo Perez for Herrara. Torquero continued the aggressive pressing whilst Perez had no opportunity for any real impact.

Conclusions

A nearly flawless game from Athletic although they do still leave large gaps at the back for teams to exploit on the counter. They dominated possession and had more shots on and off target than Man Utd.

Questions remain though. Can such a small squad maintain such a high energy approach for the remainder of the season? With Osasuna at the weekend before facing Man Utd again, will their league form falter? How can they improve defensively without sacrificing any of their attacking intent?

From Man Utd’s perspective, they knew what Athletic would do and how they would approach the game yet they failed to respond.

The implementation of the 4-4-2ish system was wrong. Rooney did not press, Hernandez looked short on confidence when he had the ball and the team in general appeared laboured and slow.

The inclusion of Hernandez, who has fallen behind Wellbeck in recent times, was probably due to his pace with the aim being to exploit the high line which Athletic use. It was a tactic which failed as Hernandez was unable to exploit the space behind Athletic as Man Utd passed too slowly and were not direct enough.

The space against Athletic is behind the full backs. Iraola and Aurtenexte push high upfield and Martinez and Amorebieta or San Jose are not comfortable being pulled wide. Space can also be found in the midfield, with a noticeable gap between Iturraspe and the pairing of De Marcos and Herrera.

The constant reshuffling by Man Utd that took place between the 60th minute and 74th minute looked desperate as Man Utd searched for a solution.

Guardiola commented previously on the relentless pressing by Athletic. Perhaps Man Utd were caught out by the sheer intensity of their pressing and the high tempo which occurred for the duration of the game.

In my view, they should have known how Athletic would play in advance. The line up and tactics were in no way surprising.