Real Madrid vs. Manchester United: Tactical preview

Denis Doyle

Manchester United and Real Madrid both have plenty of options to choose from tonight - our soccer staff consider who's likely to start for both sides.

Update: Real Madrid 1-1 Manchester United, match report

Real Madrid and Manchester United's first leg tonight throws up many questions about how each tea will line up and how they'll look to progress. SB Nation's Soccer staff pore over the details of both teams....

Ryan Rosenblatt: So - Jose is going to play Michael Essien at right-back vs United, isn't he?

Kevin McCauley: It's going to be tough to drop him after the Barcelona performance. He was phenomenal.

Ryan R: Honestly, if he does and puts Pepe in the midfield then I think he needs to start Luka Modric over Xabi Alonso. He won't, but he needs someone to push higher from that midfield.

Callum Hamilton: At first you'd think he'd be mad to put Pepe in midfield, because, well, what the hell would he be guarding against But I if Ferguson goes with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie it makes sense. That said, it's United's midfield we're talking about, so you might as well just pick three midfielders who can play and go for it

Graham Macaree: It makes a lot more sense to go with Pepe and Raphael Varane at centre-back, with Sergio Ramos at right-back and Essien in midfield though. If Essien's in good form he can maul United.

Ryan R: But would he play Essien in place of Xabi Alonso or in a three-man midfield?

Callum H: Even if Sami Khedira plays like he did against Barca he'd maul United. It's United. If it's Jose, he may do that thing he does sometimes where he plays Pepe quite far forward.... he doesn't do it very often but if he's got any sense he'll get someone physical to stick to Michael Carrick. Essentially, he wants someone who is aggressive but can also play high up the pitch. You'd think that would rule out Pepe, but he's done it before.

Ryan R: I wish Jose had someone who really was just a physical midfield harasser. That'd be fun.

Callum H: He can certainly use Essien in that way.

Ryan R: Can he still do it, though?

Graham M: Some days yes, some days no. The problem is that it's impossible to guess which day is which.

Callum H: His alternative is to play Modric in the hole instead and get him to stay near Carrick but I don't think he'll do that. It's too much of a risk on both counts - leaving out Ozil and relying on Modric to be your muscle. It'll be interesting because I think United cope with a rigid 4-2-3-1 setup pretty well. It's when teams just pick three good midfielders and let them blow stuff up that they get overpowered.

Graham M: And Mourinho will know that.

Ryan R: I really like the 4-3-3 with Pepe, Khedira and Modric.

Callum H: That would definitely work. Basically, he has a dilemma. Teams playing 4-2-3-1 against United: Cleverley or Anderson tend to deal with the one in the hole and leave Carrick fairly free, and they almost completely cede possession to the two deeper midfielders. If Jose plays with two attackers in midfield he'll really disrupt Carrick, and in turn disrupt United, but that would require him to either leave Alonso to deal with defensive midfield on his own (very risky if Rooney plays) or drop Alonso for someone sturdier (in which case you miss a big advantage of having that dominance, IE having someone there who can create.) If I'm Jose, I drop Alonso. But it's a big call.

Graham M: I think you drop Alonso too.

Ryan R: I do too, but I don't think he will.

Callum H: The second question is, of course: How do we think United will line up?

Kevin M: Deciding how United is going to line up is always really difficult. Obviously, Ferguson throws out random curveballs all the time. But if I had to guess, I'd say he goes 4-3-3 with Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick.

Callum H: That means that Rooney can't play behind Van Persie of course, and presumably goes over to the left - which makes sense, since Ashley Young will either be out or not 100% fit. Antonio Valencia is probably a certain starter too - classic Ferguson is to put in a winger who will keep fullbacks occupied, and Valencia's good at that, even if his attacking form has tailed off somewhat.

Kevin M: Yep, I agree with that. He then has Shinji Kagawa as a sub who could potentially do a lot of things depending on the game situation.

Callum H: There are basically three ways this can go: Firstly, he could do what we just said, a 4-3-3. The second thing is he goes 4-2-3-1 with one of Cleverley or Jones partnering Carrick, probably Kagawa on the left, and Rooney behind Van Persie. And the real curveball he can throw at us is that he uses the diamond.

Ryan R: The diamond seems like a good way to get ruined by Ronaldo.

Callum H: Not necessarily - it means they always have the numbers in midfield, even if Phil Jones, say, is deployed to basically stick close to him. It's by far the least likely of the three, but it's not impossible.

Kevin M: Basically, it looks like it's going to be a 4-3-3.

Callum H: Yes. The thing is, of course, that if this was last year, or three years before that, we could figure out that Ferguson's going to tell his team to sit deep, have his wingers sit on the fullbacks, and hope they can nick something on the break. But that's not this United - in their two biggest away games this season, they've won both of them 3-2. They can soak up pressure because they don't really have an alternative, but I'd be surprised if Ferguson has any confidence in his team being able to keep the score low.

Kevin M: Do you think they can play that way, though? Maybe they just haven't wanted to.

Callum H: I doubt it. Their defence just plain hasn't been very good this season. It is odd, how in previous years, United's away record in Europe was phenomenal and yet they didn't have such a good record in big games in the league. This year they've beaten Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and City away from home, and it'd be a huge call from Ferguson to use a different system than the one that won them those games. He's been making noises about how he was too "cautious" last season. So I think United won't be there to just defend.

Ryan R: Is this going to be the match where United miss Park Ji-Sung?

Callum H: Probably not - most of United's team are quite hard-working now. I do think his love of that tactic to deal with fullbacks means there's always an outside chance we'll get something daft like Cleverley on the wing, but that's this United team. There's about ten different things Ferguson could do to try and set his team up correctly. Of course, not every problem has a solution. Sometimes you're screwed no matter what you do...

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For more on the Red Devils, check out Manchester United blog The Busby Babe. For more on Los Merengues, head over to Real Madrid blog Managing Madrid.

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