MANCHESTER UNITED vs REAL MADRID
UEFA Super Cup.  Philip II Arena, Skopje. 08.08.2017

United travelled to Macedonia to face double European Champions Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup. United have appeared in this game three times before winning one and losing two. Could they add to that single victory?

PERSONNEL

Team: De Gea, Valencia, Lindelof, Smalling, Darmian, Matic, Herrera, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Lingard and Lukaku.

KEYPOINTS

  • United lost to a more accomplished, better all-round side; they are not at Madrid’s level, but who is? Reaction to this game though which has been overly negative in some quarter is over-reaction. United were competitive and were not overwhelmed.
  • Matic stood out as United’s best performer on his competitive debut. His controlled aggression and reading of the game as well as his simple but intelligent passing can be a real plus for United this season.
  • Lingard had a difficult game which raises a question, not only about him but others in the squad as well. United’s standards are rising which is a challenge to some in the group. Can they raise their game to go to the next level?
  • Jose Mourinho introduced Fellaini late in the game to shake things up as he chased the game. This had an effect even if United didn’t get the equalising goal but perhaps United also need another alternative approach. This may require Mr Woodwoodwood to get the chequebook out again before the end of the transfer window as it feels as if United need a little bit more.
  • If United are to persist with a 3 at the back strategy they will have to look at certain plyers and certain roles where there appears to be a weakness. Of course they are currently missing a few players to injury and in this game suspension, but they don’t have a obvious candidate for the left wingback position.

FIRST HALF

As anticipated Jose Mourinho set his side up ain a 3-5-2 shape with Lindelof, Smalling and Darmian as the defenders and Valencia and Lingard as the wingbacks. In front of them Matic was the deepest defender, but for much of the half Herrera and Pogba were almost as deep. Upfront Mkhitaryan sat slightly deeper than Lukaku. In opposition to this Madrid set up with a 4-4-2 diamond which was really a 4-3-1-2 with Isco just behind Benzema and Bale.

united starting shape   madrid shape

United and Real Madrid’s starting shapes

In the first 10 minutes or so the game was fairly even with both sides having periods of possession without creating that much. But then gradually Real Madrid took control and throughout the middle of the half until the 30th minute drinks break were on top. Madrid got on top simply because they moved the ball quicker and kept the ball better. They were braver in possession working harder for each other off the ball. In contrast United were quite hesitant and tended to sit deeper, especially in midfield with Pogba and Herrera too deep.

A number of features of United’s play were significant in this. With United quite deep Real Madrid’s midfield had quite a lot of time on the ball, United did not often pressurize them when they were on the ball. Modric and Kroos dropped deep and at times so did Isco. Isco was quite fluid in fact he was their stand out player in the half basically going wherever the gaps were.

In contrast to United Real Madrid did put pressure on the ball whenever United had it so after the initial period United struggled to hold the ball and instead started to rush it forward. Unfortunately this just resulted in possession being given back to Madrid.

At the start of the game United’s wing backs, Lingard and Valencia were quite high but as the half wore on they dropped deeper. Madrid were sitting deeper in the centre and pushing higher in the wide areas. Both our wing backs ended up doing more defending that attacking which is always a tell-tale sign of whether you are making this system work or not. Lingard had a particularly poor half but he wasn’t the only United player who struggled, Mkhitaryan and Herrera seemed lost and did not really affect play in the middle of the half.

The sum total of all this was that United’s back eight outfield players were too deep and Lukaku and Mkhitaryan were too high and became isolated. United then found themselves chasing shadows as Madrid circulated the ball and probed. Defensively United usually looked reasonably solid and were not overwhelmed but they were not affecting the game in a positive way and having effectively surrendered the initiative it was perhaps inevitable that Madrid would score.

The goal came in the 23rd minute. United were compressed in their own half and after a period of possession Carvajal swung a diagonal cross field pass from his position in an advanced right full back area, (again Madrid’s full backs had pushed on), behind the right side of our defence, so to the Madrid left where Casemiro was unmarked and could volley home first time.

After the drinks break in the 30th minute United did improve slightly but this might have been more to with the fact that the rhythm of the game was broken up by the break and Mourinho had obviously asked them to push up a little higher. Half time 0-1.

SECOND HALF

At half time Jose replaced Lingard with Rashford and switched to a 4-3-3 with Darmian and Valencia now playing as fullbacks and Rashford playing on the left side of a front three. The team also moved up the pitch slightly but initially it was Real Madrid still in the ascendency. At the start of the half their midfield functioned really well with Kroos and Modric circulating the ball quickly from side to side and the fullbacks pushing on to provide attacking width. Isco floated. All three of these players showed just how good they are finding little pockets of space, often between the lines of United’s midfield and defence. There combination play lead directly to Madrid’s second goal which came when a 1-2 outside United’s box saw Isco in space to bare down on De Gea from the Madrid left. He confidently slotted home. We could single players out for criticism here but in truth two or three players were ball watching, each a slit second off the pace in terms of thought processes and so positions. In fairness Madrid were superb doing what they do well.

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United’s shape at the start of the second half with the introduction of Rashford

Immediately after the goal United had a golden chance to get a goal back when Pogba’s header was saved by Navas but pushed out to Lukaku. Unfortunately he lacked the composure to finish and blased over with the goal begging.

Mourinho now made a change introducing Fellaini in place of Herrera. Initially the shape stayed as a 4-3-3 but Fellaini made an impact by playing higher and getting in the faces of Madrid players. Effectively he was pressing them as they hadn’t been pressed before and in so doing he dragged other players with him. His introduction and the changes it instigated highlighted how passive United had become.

Lukaku gets a goal back

Lukaku gets a goal back

Within a few minutes this yielded results when a Matic shot was parried by Navas. Again the ball was pushed out to Lukaku and this time he finished comfortably. Boom! 1-2. The interesting thing about this goal tactically is that Fellaini made the goal by challenging and winning a second phase ball in the Real Madrid half. Up until his introduction United hadn’t been winning loose balls in the Madrid half or even challenging Madrid players aggressively as they had simply been too deep and too passive.

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United’s shape late in the game as with the introduction of Fellaini

Now as United chased the game Fellaini pushed even higher and for the rest of the game their shape became more of a 4-3-1-2 with Fellaini just behind the front two and Mkhitarayan deeper. United moved the ball forward more quickly and often towards Fellaini who got into a bit of a battle with Ramos. For the first time in the game Madrid didn’t look comfortable. On 72 minutes they removed Isco and Bale introducing Asensio and Lucas Vasquez and attempted to retain a more compact shape. Ironically despite United generally looking to hit balls towards Fellaini and then play off him in the final third the best chance came from a different source when Mkhitaryan slid a low pass into the feet of Rashford. He was clean through to the left had side but his shot across the keeper to Rashfords right, which was probably going wide anyway was saved by Navas. Rashford often shoots to this side and should vary this more; on this occasion there appeared a bigger gap to the left.

On 81 minutes Madrid introduced Ronaldo in place of Benzema but thereafter they were able to break the game up via a series of stoppages. They used the physicality of Fellaini and the histrionics of Ronaldo to manage the remaining time and prevent any rhythm developing in United last push.

CONCLUSION

There is no disgrace in losing to the champions League winners so we should not worry too much at this stage about this result. The obvious problems to concern us here are the issues we are already aware of; combination play in the final third, attacking width and poor finishing. Especially poor finishing for whilst we were outplayed at times we had enough chances in this game to have at least taken the contest to extra time.

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The other question coming out of this game is whether United had an inferiority complex against this opponent. They were too deep and too respectful at times and those players who didn’t conform to this pattern were our better player, Matic and in the second half Fellaini. United need to shake themselves out of that mind set, although they won’t of course be playing the European Champions every week.