Philip II Arena, Skopje. 08.08.2016

Having won the Europa League United have qualified to play Champions League winners Real Madrid for the UEFA Super Cup in a match to be played in Macedonia. The UEFA Super Cup feels line the European equivalent of the Community Shield, although it is a tournament held in high regard around the continent.

Some History

United have won the Super Cup once back in 1991 when a Neil Webb goal sealed a 1-0 victory against European Champions Red Star Belgrade with the game being played at Old Trafford rather than at a neutral venue due to social and political unrest which eventually led to the disintegration of the old Yugoslavia. At that time it was usual for the tie to be a two legged affair. Since 1998 the tie has been played as a one-off game at a neutral venue.

Steve Bruce with the Super Cup after victory over Red Star Belgrade in 1991

Steve Bruce with the Super Cup after victory over Red Star Belgrade in 1991

United have appeared in two other Super Cup games, both played in Monaco after their Champions League wins in 1999 and 2008. They lost on both occasions, 0-1 to Lazio in 1999 and 1-2 to Zenit St Petersburg. On both those occasions you got the impression that Sir Alex wasn’t really taking the game all that seriously but was rather using the fixture as part of the pre-season preparations for the season ahead. In contrast we feel sure Jose Mourinho will take this game seriously seeing it as a prestigious piece of silverware, after all he made much of winning the Community Shield last season when holding three fingers aloft after the Europa League final in Stockholm. He will also of course see this as a confidence building exercise for the year ahead much as Sir Alex triumph back in 1991 was part of the confidence building exercise as he built his first great side.

Real Madrid 2017

It is always a difficult task to draw conclusions from pre-season with coaches trialling strategies and various players returning to training and so fitness at varying times. This makes it difficult to predict what we might get from a side. It’s even more difficult when the game under consideration is the very first competitive game of the season. Perhaps all we can do is look at how the opponent finished last year and not worry too much about the personnel who may or may not be involved.

Real Madrid - Champions League winners 2017

Real Madrid – Champions League winners 2017

Of course Madrid finished last season well; they wouldn’t be in this Super Cup game if they hadn’t done so. Having won La Liga they then defeated Juventus convincingly, or at least convincingly by the end, in a much anticipated Champions League final tie which had been billed in the preview as “the unstoppable force” (Madrid) against the “unbreakable barrier” (Juventus). The final didn’t run smoothly to plan however so perhaps we should take a closer look at this game to consider Madrid’s general approach under Zidane and try to spot some clues as to how Mourinho might approach this game.

The previous year Zidane had employed a 4-3-3 system for most of the season but through last season he had gradually changed this approach to what might be described either as a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-4-2 with a diamond. In truth it was somewhere between the two with the flatter midfield three shifting into shape in the defensive phase. This was the orthodoxy by the end of the campaign but with Madrid dominating most domestic sides the shape was usually more of a midfield diamond. The question many were asking then was would Madrid’s midfield narrowness be a weakness that Juventus could exploit. Allegri the Juventus manager set his side up as a 4-2-3-1, an essentially defensive strategy for counter-attacking after transition with the possibility of exploiting the space outside and behind the two wider Madrid midfield players, Modric and Kroos.

Real Madrids starting eleven for the 2017 Champions League Final

Real Madrids starting eleven for the 2017 Champions League Final

In terms of the ebb and flow of the scoring Madrid took a first half lead against the run of play before Juventus hit back late in the half. The score line felt about right at halftime although many felt that Juventus had shaded the half. Madrid took control after the break and looked a team transformed. Their control allowed them to score two goals before finishing the game off with another goal late in the game. Forgetting that last goal for by that time Juventus were a beaten side the questions we should ask are how did Juventus not only control Madrid in the first half, but look the stronger side for most of it, and what did Madrid change to enable them to dominate the second? The follow-on question is what could Juventus have done better in that second period?

Juventus started the first half well with a high energy approach, Madrid’s midfield four quite compact and trying to press but they therefore lacked defensive width.  What we saw was that Juventus were able to retain the ball against this press by good ball circulation and Madrid couldn’t then transition quickly enough into the flatter midfield three to form  low block. Modric and Kroos are great on ball and when pressing in tight areas but neither has a big engine so can’t cover distances to get into shape that low block shape. Juventus held the ball and worked it into wide areas, then looked to switch play. From wide areas they produced plenty of pressure on the Madrid goal via crosses and cut backs. Juventus fullbacks were Barzagli on right and Sandro on left with former Barcelona fullback Dani Alves playing as a wide midfield player on the Juventus right all looked to join in the build up play to get crosses. Was Alves chosen for this role as he has the engine to get up and down on side where Juventus were aware Ronaldo would operate; would a more conventional wide player have made more of Juventus first half crossing opportunities?

Dani Alves seen here challenging Marcelo; Alves had an unusual role in the Champions League final

Dani Alves seen here challenging Marcelo; Alves had an unusual role in the Champions League final

Juventus often pressed the ball well in the first half. Their basic shape in possession was a 4-2-3-1 but as they pressed this transformed into a 4-3-3 with one of the wider more advanced midfield players pressing depending which side the ball was on. So if the ball was on the Madrid right Mandzukic would press backed up by Higuain and Dybala with the others behind adjusting to maintain shape.

juventus press to left       juventus shape to press

Juventus pressing transformed their shape from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 when Madrid were trying to build up play from the back in the first half

Madrid struggled to get out at times with Juventus winning the ball in high areas on a number of occasions. This problem was exacerbated by the poor positioning of Modric and Kroos for whilst Madrid didn’t form up in 4-3-1-2 shape quickly on transitions leaving themselves exposed laterally when they lost the ball, when they had the ball themselves this was exactly the shape they were in and so Modric and Kroos weren’t offering the passing angles to Casemiro and those at the back that Madrid needed to develop play. Zidane is known to prefer Kroos and Modric to start deeper, presumably because he doesn’t trust Casemiro’s ability to develop play from the deep but in the first half here it didn’t work so well.

rm basic       rm in possession

Real Madrid’s usual and preferred 4-1-2-1-2 shape, (a 4-4-2 diamond) and the flatter shape in which they found themselves as they tried to build up play in the first half. They reverted to their usual shape by pushing Kroos and Modric higher in the second half

After the break this all changed. A summary of the first half might be that Madrid were in the wrong shape in possession and the wrong shape out of possession. In possession they were in a 4-3-1-2 when they needed to be in a 4-1-2-1-2, whilst out of possession they were frequently in a 4-1-2-1-2 when they needed to be in the flatter 4-3-1-2. At half time Zidane changed that simply by pushing Modric and Kroos forward ahead of Casemiro when in possession and they dropped back down the spine of the pitch when needed. This allowed Madrid to hold the ball and move forward through the centre of the pitch with a more varied attacking emphasis. Madrid could now resist the Juventus press and move the ball up the pitch more gradually through the centre whilst still maintaining their team shape. This worked and meant that with patience Madrid could move into the Juventus final third as a unit whilst still maintaining a shape which allowed them to press Juventus quickly if they lost the ball. They did this frequently and began to dominate possession. Once in the final third they continued to hold the ball often turning down the first crossing or through ball opportunity and waiting for the optimum moment. To be clear this wasn’t and Van Gaal like exercise in patient possession, there was a patient urgency here with highly talented players with perfect first touch and intelligent movement moving the ball quickly. The pressure grew and Juventus broke. Modric and Kroos were everywhere and they were excellent.

FBL-EUR-C1-JUVENTUS-REAL MADRID                Toni+Kroos+8Sis-40rOJ5m

Modric and Kroos, excellent in the second half against Juventus

So what could Juventus have done better in that second period? It is tempting to say that they couldn’t have done very much as Madrid are clearly a better side who perhaps got it wrong in the first half. When they got it right in the second half they were irresistible. This is of course the case but we still need to ask how could Juventus negated the second half performances of Kross and Modric. Effectively Madrid created overloads in the central midfield area. With Casemiro in the deep Modric and Kroos positioned themselves to be able to link with him in the deep and Isco, who had a great second half, in the number 10 area. Jose Mourinho is usually prepared to surrender some control of space in wide areas to ensure he does not do so in the centre. Surely he will not allow these central overloads.

United’s approach

The most straight forward way of equalising numbers in the middle of the pitch is to man mark. If an opponent generally has three central midfield players as was the case when United faced Ajax in Stockholm that is a fairly simple task. If the opposition has four players in the central area then in theory it is harder especially as Jose won’t want to completely surrender the initiative to Madrid; he will want to retain some attacking threat as simply sitting back eventually see Madrid find a way through. United would need to commit a man from another areas. That would either be an attacking player, a defender or a bit of both. On the basis of what we have seen in pre-season we imagine it might be a bit of both.

Conventional defensive theory dictates that you should always have one extra defender over and above the opposition’s forward players. If Madrid go with two advanced forwards, Higuaín and if ready Ronaldo, Mourinho may decide he doesn’t need four defenders but three. This might see the manager move to the 3-5-2 strategy he has used on several occasions in recent weeks. Have those experiments in fact been a dress rehearsal for this game?

If he did this he would probably ask one or both of the wingbacks to sit narrow and close down Kroos and Modric. Matic would be expected to sit close to Isco. We would imagine that Mourinho would be happy to let Casemiro have more time on the ball but he may even ask one of the front pair in the 3-5-2 to drop deeper towards him when Madrid have possession. The danger here is that it would allow Madrid’s fullbacks to come forward and in those situations Marcelo can be a real handful so instead he may ask Rashford to track to that side to block Marcelo’s advance on the basis that he feels that Marcelo is a greater threat than Casemiro when Madrid have the ball in much the same way that he detailed Rashford to channel Ajax movement out of defence via Sanchez rather than De Ligt.

1st half VS rm pre-season       1ST HALF vs samp

United in the first half of the recent pre-season game against Real Madrid and as they lined up against Sampdoria last week

The advantage of playing this way is that it allows Mourinho to keep two forwards in the side to make sure that Madrid always need to keep a weather eye on United’s attacking potential, particularly as he now has the pace of Rashford and Lukaku as runners for Pogba to pick out. This is all speculation of course and United did not play that way in their recent pre-season tour game with Real instead utilising a 4-3-3 shape. The question is was that a bluff designed to conceal Jose’s hand. Only time will tell.