When the line-ups were announced, it appeared Sir Alex Ferguson had gone for quite a ballsy attacking eleven. It wouldn’t be the first time Ferguson had thrown a curveball in his team selection, but it wouldn’t have been the first time it had backfired either, and a knockout tie away at the Bernabeu isn’t really the place to be experimenting.
Nevertheless, despite its personnel, the line-up was primarily defensive. Ferguson may have started three strikers but Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney were shunted wide, where their main job was to protect the full-backs. Despite being attackers, they were the most cautious choice Ferguson could make: Ryan Giggs is too old to do that much legwork, Nani couldn’t be counted on to do so, Ashley Young wouldn’t be fit enough and Antonio Valencia is out of form. Welbeck hasn’t flourished on the wing, but he’s hard-working and an excellent team player, while Rooney excelled in the role when Cristiano Ronaldo was still at the club. He could have perhaps picked someone a bit heavier than Shinji Kagawa to solidify the midfield further but otherwise Ferguson’s decisions made perfect sense.
United sat deep in a 4-2-3-1, denying Real Madrid the space in behind them they need to flourish, which left the Spanish champions out of ideas for the most part. Still, it was Real who had full control over the game as they forced United back further and further, depending on the saves of David de Gea to keep them in it. Ferguson acknowledged United’s , saying “The disappointing thing for me was in the first half we sat back off them and they had a lot of play around the edge of our box and that’s unlike us”. Had Karim Benzema been a more reliable frontman, Real may be heading into the return leg with the advantage.
United unimpressive in attack
Given their safety-first gameplan, there is little to take from the fact United’s frontline fed off scraps for most of the first leg. As soon as they got the ball they looked to play it forward quickly, but if the attack broke down, the frontmen would look to slow the game down by moving it back for the defence and holding midfielders to pass amongst themselves – more of a solid timewasting technique than chance creation.
While they posed a danger from set pieces, United were mostly harmless in open play. Given it will be expected, and probably required, that United offer more going forward at Old Trafford, Ferguson faces an interesting headache. Should he look to give his attackers more support, he will have to open his side up more, yet this plays directly into Madrid’s hands. Like most of Jose Mourinho’s teams, Real are at their best on the counter, and they appear to be finding it increasingly difficult to break down those that don’t give them the space to do so.
Ronaldo not the key man
Playing against United for the first time since his transfer and as the undisputed star for Real, Cristiano Ronaldo’s return was always going to be heavily scrutinised. In the run up to the game, attention was firmly locked on the Portuguese, highlighted as the one to watch. However, while he was able to evade criticism with an impressive leap to equalise for Madrid, Ronaldo wasn’t at his best against his former club.
Ronaldo was cruelly dismissed as a “flat-track bully” by The Mirror’s Derek McGovern, yet this misses the point of someone like Ronaldo in a big tie. While in any other game the star man is expected to be the main threat, in a higher profile, more tactical encounter, someone like Ronaldo is mainly used as a decoy.
To minimise Ronaldo’s threat, United had Phil Jones track him closely while Rafael tucked in more too. Between them they, goal aside, managed to keep him quiet, but in focusing on him they left space for others to use. As Ronaldo roamed further and further inside looking to influence the game, Fabio Coentrao, too often untracked by Rooney, found himself with acres of space to run into and looked Real’s most dangerous player early on.
With Jones distracted by Ronaldo, it also meant Michael Carrick was left alone to cover Mesut Ozil in the middle, so he was unable to help Patrice Evra with Angel di Maria, allowing the Argentinian winger to stand out as one of Madrid’s better performers. Ozil was kept out of the game for the most part until Ronaldo began to come inside more, allowing him to sneak out to the left and join Coentrao – by the time the teams went in for half time, he and Ronaldo seemed to have permanently switched positions.
Alonso keeps Madrid ticking
Prior to the game, Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp, whose team won and drew against Madrid in the group stage, warned United that it was Xabi Alonso, not Ronaldo, that they had to stop: “We knew where they would send their passes, how they look for Cristiano. Our plan was to take Xabi [Alonso] out of the game. Because if Alonso can play as he wants it is impossible to defend against Madrid. And [Mario] Gotze covered him. We knew that if our full-backs, [Lukasz] Piszczek and [Marcel] Schmelzer, moved around a lot, the advantage would be on our side against Cristiano. If you block Xabi, you make it so Pepe always has the ball. That is a big difference.”
In the first leg, it became clear what happens if United leave Alonso free. With Jones following Ronaldo, Carrick keeping an eye on Ozil and Kagawa forced back by the runs of Sami Khedira, Alonso was given freedom at the base of the midfield to do what he wanted. For the most part this was pretty low key play, with long raking passes few and far between, but it allowed Madrid complete control of the ball. Whenever a Real attack faced a dead end, Alonso was free to receive the ball, allowing them to switch play quickly. When Di Maria was squeezed out down the right, he could play a simple ball back to Alonso for him to knock out to the free Coentrao – Di Maria could do it himself, but it was far easier for Alonso to, ensuring they didn’t lose the ball cheaply.
This advantage was wasted by Mourinho settling for a draw, bringing on Luka Modric to switch to a 4-3-3 and eventually taking off Alonso for Pepe. Nevertheless, the problem was there and Ferguson acknowledged it in his post-match interview – how exactly he intends to curb Alonso’s influence without creating a shortfall elsewhere remains unclear however.
This post first appeared on Betting Expert.