United vs Madrid Part 1: How will United line up?

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February 12, 2013 by Wayne.

After the Everton game, there seems to be an odd consensus that Jones will play a deep right-midfield role, just slightly in front of Rafael to track and negate Ronaldo. Quite frankly, that’d be a terrible tactical decision. Ronaldo typically starts out on the left but he quickly moves around the pitch to find where he can carry out the most damage without being shackled. Assuming Jones stays in a static right midfield position, Ronnie will likely switch over to the right flank and tear away at Evra.

But what if Jones tracks him throughout the pitch (ie. the Fellaini job, instead of the doubling up on Bale)? IF Jones plays, this will almost certainly be his role. We’ll have to take a closer look at the implications of this free role and the alternatives to it.

Here’s a photo I ripped off a blog (that somewhat advocates the right-Jones role):

Now, I’m using this to show the Real Madrid line up, since this is almost certainly how they WILL line up.

Here’s what’s wrong with this United formation:
Assuming Valencia plays right wing, he’ll be tasked with pinning back Coentrao and preventing overlaps. While Valencia’s form has dipped of late, he’s pretty much the only defensive winger we have and he does that part of his job well enough. Further up Madrid’s left flank, Jones and Rafael will be tasked with doubling up on Ronaldo. Fair enough then. The problem with this static view is that Ronaldo is highly unlikely to stick to the left flank and be content with being doubled up on the entire game.

There are thus two situations, the first being purely hypothetical and almost certainly unrealistic:

1. Ronaldo sticks to the left flank –  We’ll be vulnerable on the right

When defending, United will essentially be playing with a man short, Jones being sacrificed to track Ronaldo. Consequently, Carrick will be left to deal with Ozil alone. The most Carrick will be able to do is cut out a couple of through balls through his positioning but Ozil is a good deal more mobile than Carrick and will easily get past without additional players pressing him. Carrick will thus almost definitely position himself deeper to compensate for the lack of pace. All well and good, but RM have Khedira. He’ll likely play a bit further forward than the diagram indicates, stepping back to offer Alonso a short passing option/assist in defending against Rooney and bursting forward in attacks.

So who defends against Khedira? Cleverley or Anderson will likely be played in the nominal left winger position (more of a left-midfield role, think Giggs’ role in the Everton match). The player will thus drift inwards to cut off Khedira’s runs. At which point he’ll pass the ball to Madrid’s right flank, which has been left very much free.

All signs do indeed indicate that Arbeloa will be left free to roam – he’s more dangerous than Phil Neville but certainly not as incisive as the other Madrid players. The real danger here is that he’ll then be able to carry out simple overlaps with di Maria against Evra – hardly the most solid left back when it comes to defensive duties. By overloading United’s shape to the right, we’ll leave ourselves wide open to crosses (and runs!) from the left and have to rely on everyone else shackling their respective targets as tightly as possible.

Rooney will sit on Alonso and force him into easy back passes, so he’ll be unable to help out the left wing in the same manner as the Everton game. Van Persie, on the other hand, will look to occupy the center backs as much as possible.

In attack, we should typically play the way we’ve done all season. Jones, Evra and Cleverley/Anderson will have to sit back a lot more than usual though to prevent quick counter attacks from Madrid (which are, quite frankly, terrifying).

2. Ronaldo switches around as always We could actually be better off if he switches flanks!

Plenty of ways to do this.

(i) He could cut inside and sit off Carrick, letting Ozil move further back, link up with Khedira and boss the midfield – effectively neutering Carrick completely. If Carrick moves up to press Khedira, he’ll be allowing Benzema and Ronaldo  to run directly at Vidic and Ferdinand (or, more likely, overload one of them). If Carrick tries to track Ronaldo, the midfield will be exposed and overrun.

Assuming Jones tracks Ronaldo throughout the pitch, Angel di Maria can then switch over to the empty flank and attempt one-on-ones with Rafael. If that doesn’t work, he can stay on Madrid’s right flank and continue overloading Evra. Essentially, we’ll still be vulnerable on our left flank albeit with Ronaldo moving into an even more dangerous position (one break away from Jones and he’ll be right up against a single defender).

On the bright side, this will let Rafael link up with Valencia a bit more for attacks.

(ii) He could switch with di Maria and link up with Arbeloa against Evra. If Jones tracks him across to that side, Ozil will be free to drift further to his left and double up with di Maria against Rafael. On the surface, this appears to be simply shifting the overload to the other flank. If this situation does occur, though, United could actually be better off.

First of all, Vidic would be the final defender against Ronaldo in this situation, and he’s slightly better placed when it comes to matching the danger of Ronaldo’s acceleration.

Secondly, while unlikely, Phil Jones could potentially stop marking Ronaldo and Rooney would put in a shift as a defensive left winger instead. Look at Real Madrid’s setup again:

If Rooney sits in front of Evra (ie. where the ‘LW’ is, but sticking closer to Ronaldo), he’d be able to match Ronnie for pace and strength. So when United defend, Phil Jones would replace Cleverley/Anderson and slot into a true central midfield position, pressuring Khedira or cutting off his supply to Ozil. The replaced man would then move even deeper into the center of the field (basically the CAM position in the diagram but slightly lower down). United would then have two bodies in the center to stop the midfield from being overrun – a direct 2 on 2 match with Alonso being more dangerous with the passing and the United midfielders being more mobile and physical. If Ozil pulls back deeper to outnumber the two midfielders and lend pace to Madrid’s game, he’ll free up Carrick to push higher up and help out – leading to a 3 on 3 with both sides having 2 mobile midfielders and 1 deep lying playmaker.

Of course, Rooney could perform that role (ie. Jones would just track and there wouldn’t be a switch) but I have a feeling that Jones would be better off contesting with Khedira than with Ronaldo. In attack, Rooney could push forward with Jones replacing him to keep an eye on Ronaldo.




If I have time, I’ll put up another post tomorrow about a couple of whacky formations that could just do the trick against Real Madrid!

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