Schalke v Manchester United: tactical preview

April 26, 2011

Possible starting line-ups

Schalke have reached their first-ever European Cup semi, whilst United are in their fourth in the last five seasons.

Team news

The headline news is that Dimitar Berbatov hasn’t travelled because of a groin strain. On face value, the absence of the Premier League’s top scorer should be quite a blow, but considering that Ferguson has only picked Berbatov for one of United’s last ten Champions League knockout games, it really shouldn’t cause too much concern.

Darren Fletcher is also still out. He is more of a loss, as he would have been used in the centre of midfield. Aside from that, Sir Alex Ferguson has no major injury concerns.

Ralf Rangnick is waiting to see whether centre-back Benedikt Höwedes is fit enough to play. If not, midfield Joel Matip can drop in to play centre-back.

Selection decisions

Rangnick’s back four and front two pretty much pick themselves – with the exception of the left-back spot, where Sergio Escudero’s younger legs could be preferred to veteran Hans Sarpei.

His major decisions are in midfield. We can assume that Jefferson Farfan will start wide on the right, and it also seems likely that Greek youngster Kyriakos Papadopoulos still play in a deep midfield position. He, like Matip, is another who can play either at centre-back or in the centre of midfield, and he’ll probably be told to stick close to Wayne Rooney, having done a good marking job on Wesley Sneijder in Schalke’s previous tie.

The choice in the midfield is between playing the creative Jurado in the centre, with Alexander Baumjohann providing another attacking outlet on the left flank, or to ask Jurado to drift inside from the left, and insert another more sturdy central midfielder – probably Matip, but possibly Peer Kluge. It essentially depends on how open Rangnick wants his midfield to be – against Inter, Schalke often looked vulnerable to direct attacks down the centre, but Leonardo’s side were too ponderous to be able to exploit these gaps. United won’t be as foolish.

Ferguson’s usual decision is whether to play 4-4-2, his natural shape, or switch to a 4-5-1 to give himself extra protection in the centre of the pitch. A 4-4-2 seems more likely, though, for various reasons – but chiefly because Schalke aren’t a side United should have problems with in the centre, and also because the German side’s backline often looks very prone to pace. That would encourage the use of Javier Hernandez upfront, with Rooney in the hole. From there, United could easily revert to 4-5-1 should they need to, taking advantage of Rooney’s versatility, as they did late on away at Chelsea.

Ferguson’s selections in big games recently have been very unpredictable. Who expected Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick in the centre against Chelsea? Or Darron Gibson and John O’Shea against Arsenal (with the slight caveat that he was resting players) ? Considering how well Giggs and Carrick did in that tie, it seems likely they’ll be used again. Carrick was rested at the weekend in preparation for this contest, and his patient passing style may be vital to United’s gameplan.

On the flanks, Park Ji-Sung is made for this sort of match, in order to nullify one of the opposition full-backs. The other choice would be between Antonio Valencia and Nani. Nani’s form has dipped recently after Valencia’s return has pushed him to the right, but Ferguson may prefer Nani for his versatility. The last time United travelled to Germany, to play Bayern, Ferguson indicated that he left out Valencia (in favour of Park and Nani) because those two had the ability to switch if needed, whereas Valencia was restricted to the right. Still, on form, it would probably be Valencia who gets the nod.

The other decision is at right-back, between Rafael and John O’Shea. Rafael has become more trustworthy since this time last year, but O’Shea’s big game experience might be favoured. In truth, Rafael’s pace would be a better bet against Baumjohann and O’Shea’s positional sense would be more useful against Jurado – Ferguson’s selection there may be influenced by how, and who, he thinks Schalke will play.

Key areas

The most important part of Schalke’s gameplan against Inter (and to a certain extent against Valencia, although that was under the previous management) was to switch play across the pitch to the full-backs, and take advantage of the fact that they were constantly in space. This won’t happen against United, though – if there’s one thing Ferguson has been good at in recent years in European games like this, it’s been his ability to nullify opposition full-backs, most famously with his use of Park.

Therefore, Schalke will have to construct attacks differently. Direct wing play is one option – Patrice Evra is a fine full-back but Farfan will fancy his chances in 1 v 1 situations, but the key man will be Raul. United lack a midfield destroyer and Nemanja Vidic can be uncomfortable coming out of defence to pick up deep-lying forwards. Therefore, Ferguson’s side may be prone between the lines – and whilst Raul’s goalscoring ability will be a threat, his link-up play is even more important.

Raul has also been impressive this season with his performances without the ball. Against Valencia and Inter he’s dropped onto the opposition’s holding midfielder in the defensive phase of play, so it’s likely to see him occupying Carrick in this match. United may have to work harder to keep the ball, so the passing ability of Rio Ferdinand, stepping out from the back, and Rooney, dropping into midfield to scamper away from Papadopoulos, will be important in getting the ball from flank to flank.

United’s usual strategy away in Europe is quite cautious – reasonably happy with a 0-0, delighted with a 0-1. This might be a rare occasion when Ferguson feels the need to break more quickly, though. Schalke can be vulnerable to rapid breaks, especially if they play Jurado in the centre and therefore have three attacking midfielders in the side, and pace at the back remains a problem. This year’s Champions League first legs haven’t been as tight as usual – as Schalke know all too well after winning 2-5 in the last round – so a cagey match here isn’t a given.

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