Real Madrid 1-1 Manchester United: Real dominate but United withstand the pressure

February 14, 2013

The starting line-ups

A headed goal for either side – and all to play for the in the second leg.

Jose Mourinho chose Rafael Varane at the back, and Karim Benzema upfront – elsewhere, his side was as expected.

Sir Alex Ferguson named a very positive starting XI, with four outright attacking players in the side – Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa both started. Jonny Evans played at centre-back rather than Nemanja Vidic.

Real Madrid dominated in terms of possession, territory and shots – but both sides had chances to win the game.

Ferguson strategy

We knew how Real Madrid would play, and this was about how Ferguson would respond. Manchester United’s strategy might have reminded Jose Mourinho of his Inter side that were victorious in this competition three years ago – there may have been four attackers in the side (three forwards and a number ten) but two of the forwards were placed on the flanks and asked to play very defensive-minded roles, protecting the two United full-backs.

Wayne Rooney and Welbeck both offer great attacking ability, of course, but this wasn’t about Ferguson trying to cram as many attackers into his side as possible, more about choosing the best men for a particular, defensive-minded job. A younger Ryan Giggs, an on-form Antonio Valencia or Park Ji-Sung, who specialised in counter-attacking displays away at big clubs in his prime, would probably have started here.

Caution and counter

United’s performance was cautious and patient. They sat back and invited Real pressure (a little too much for Ferguson’s liking, judging by his post-match interview) before attempting to play on the counter-attack, and providing their main goalscoring threat from set-pieces. That caution was crucial, because it meant Real were unable to attack the space in behind on the counter-attack, which is Mourinho’s side speciality. It’s difficult to remember Real launching any particularly dangerous breaks.

The one way United were brave was when attacking corners – Real are ruthless in the way they transfer the ball quickly into attack having defended set-pieces, and they score an astonishing number of goals in this manner. There was one briefly dangerous Real counter-attack that came to a halt on the left touchline from United’s first corner, but Ferguson’s decision to put plenty of men into the opposition box at corners was justified when Welbeck headed in.

Stopping Ronaldo

The specific question, of course, was how United would go about stopping Cristiano Ronaldo. As expected, Ferguson used Phil Jones up against him, and told Jones to follow Ronaldo pretty much wherever he went. Jones’ main position, however, was in a right-sided defensive midfield role, the same position he played against Gareth Bale a few weeks ago, which stopped Ronaldo cutting inside and shooting with his right foot.

Now, while Ronaldo scored the equaliser with a superb header, it’s fair to say United’s approach against him worked reasonably well. Yes, he had a typical number of attempts from goal, but the majority were from long-range, with three attempts from free-kick situations. By forcing Ronaldo over to the opposite side, United had moved him away from his preferred position – and he plays on the left because he’s most prolific from that zone. His tendency to drift away from that flank was also helpful to Rafael, who had an extremely nervous period towards the end of the first half, but was rarely tested after half-time.

Jones stuck tight to Ronaldo, and although his job was unglamorous, scrappy and depended on Ronaldo missing half-chances, it was overall a pretty good performance.

Di Maria v Evra

United had two problems, however. The first was from the other side, where Angel Di Maria was also cutting inside to shoot with his left foot – he was probably the game’s brightest player, which made it surprising Mourinho removed him midway through the second half.

We should have known United would have been troubled by him – it was essentially the same situation as in the game against Tottenham (see the headline of the report from that game) – by using Jones so far to the right, and with Michael Carrick forced to stay central and watch Mesut Ozil, Patrice Evra was left exposed. Aaron Lennon was the most dangerous player in the Spurs game, Di Maria was most dangerous here.

Evra started off sticking extremely tight to him (at one point, he followed him so far across the pitch that they ended up tangling on the opposite touchline) but kept his position more regularly in the second half, and Di Maria had two shots from centre-right positions that went close. That space, in the right-sided channel, was also exploited by Sami Khedira moving forward from midfield – he’s not an overly creative player, but the statistics show he created five chances (no other player created more than three) purely because he was given time and space to play simple passes.

Coentrao v Rooney

The other problem with focusing on Ronaldo was that Fabio Coentrao got space on the overlap. Rooney didn’t look comfortable in his right-sided role – he sometimes appeared too keen to move up the pitch as if trying to start counters (when Real hadn’t yet lost possession) and his passing was frequently wayward.

But more problematic was Rooney’s defensive mistakes. There were three in particular. In the first ten minutes, he charged back to help defend against Ronaldo (despite the fact Rafael and Jones were already doubling up against him) and left Coentrao free – the left-back hit the post.

Next was a poor piece of play for Real’s goal – Rooney had enough time to get out to Di Maria, but he gave the Argentine space to whip the ball into the box for Ronaldo at the far post, after Real’s two wingers had briefly swapped sides.

Finally, midway through the second half, Rooney allowed Coentrao to run past him towards the far post, and diverted the ball towards the goal, where David De Gea made an unconventional save with his feet. They were probably Real’s best three efforts of the game, and all stemmed from poor positional play by Rooney.

Welbeck and United break

On the other flank, Welbeck was much better. He was up against a weaker full-back, admittedly, but he had the acceleration to sprint past Alvaro Arbeloa on the break, and got himself into good goalscoring positions.

Ahead of him, Kagawa wasn’t permanently involved but did attempt a couple of neat one-twos with Van Persie, and his overall contribution when he received possession was good. He showed an understanding of his role – playing in midfield to deny Real’s midfielders complete freedom on the ball, and then darting in behind on the break. That was what he did so well at Dortmund, and although he’s not yet up to full speed at Real, it was encouraging to see Ferguson use him in his proper position.


Second half

That said, Ferguson switched Kagawa and Welbeck after the break. This was an understandable move – United could afford to ‘experiment’ in the zone against Arbeloa, and Welbeck’s pace had looked so promising that it was worth moving him into a more advanced position. Besides, Kagawa’s link-up play could theoretically help United retain possession in the centre of the pitch.

The second half situation was an exaggerated version of the first half – Real played higher up the pitch, United dropped deeper and still tried to break. In fact, the away side’s best moment of the game came shortly after the break, when a classic ‘up, back and through’ saw Evra racing through on goal, where he was halted by a slightly clumsy Varane challenge.


There were essentially three stages to the substitutions. The first was a straight Real swap – Benzema off, Gonzalo Higuain on. Neither offered a significant threat, which both summarises Real’s main weakness, and highlights how impressive United’s centre-back pairing was.

Next, Ferguson added fresh legs to the flanks, with Giggs and Valencia playing the final 20 minutes in the wide midfield positions – considering how exhausting those roles were for Rooney and Welbeck, two players who prefer playing upfront anyway, it made sense.

Finally, Mourinho seemed to introduce extra caution to his midfield zone. Luka Modric replaced Di Maria with Ozil going right – that’s usually a substitution you’d associate with ball retention rather than penetration, and Di Maria had been very lively. Mourinho then brought on Pepe for Xabi Alonso – maybe in the knowlegde that Alonso was one booking away from a suspension. Still, Mourinho was hardly going for the win – Kaka, for example, remained on the bench.


The scoreline owed much to individual contributions in the penalty box. Van Persie could have won it with two late chances, which came about following a quick United attack – but the real star was De Gea. His centre-backs did well, but the Spaniard was still forced to make at least two top-class saves, and a succession of other decent stops.

His performance tonight showed exactly why Ferguson signed him, but in a way this was a demonstration of the fact De Gea isn’t a natural Manchester United goalkeeper. He’s always been capable of these brilliant saves, but it’s extremely rare United require their goalkeeper to make a succession of fine stops (previous goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar wasn’t as agile, but had more of a presence about him when taking aerial balls, and playing the ball with his feet, which is the kind of thing United require more consistently from their keeper).

By playing for such a dominant side, De Gea is unable to show his best attribute on a regular basis within one game – but when United do have their backs against the wall, he’s a fine safety net.


“The disappointing thing for me was that in the first half, we sat back off them too much,” said Ferguson. “They got a lot of play around the box – it’s not healthy, it’s not good to watch.”

That proved United conceded more pressure than he intended, and their draw depended too much on De Gea’s display to consider this a fine tactical display from United. Still, they did certain things well – Ronaldo was not invisible but certainly not at his best either, the centre-backs performed excellently, and Welbeck’s pace was a threat.

“They changed the way they play,” said Mourinho. “Their block was very very low…they were waiting for a set-piece or a counter-attack to score a second goal, but they defended well.”

Real didn’t do enough to break down the deep United defence, and the lack of a genuinely top-class centre-forward in these type of situations is perhaps Real’s biggest weakness.

(I’m away to watch some football in Italy this weekend, so no updates until the CL action next week. It also means that (a) I don’t have time to cover Shakhtar v Dortmund – will do the second leg, of course and (b) I can’t moderate the comments so will have to leave this one closed. Sorry!)

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