So United will play Real Madrid in Champions League last 16 on February 13th. The glamour tie brings together the two most popular teams in the world, two famous managers and brings Ronaldo back to his old stomping grounds
. If that wasn’t enough, it will conclusively reveal Sir Ferguson’s strategy to address the weaknesses so ruthlessly exposed by Barcelona in the two finals.
The transfer season purchases of Robin Van Persie (RVP) and Shinji Kagawa excited and confused United supporters. Firstly, neither of them were the tackling, spitting, cursing, all-action center midfielder that supporters had been crying out for since Roy Keane left in 2005. The failure to buy said midfielder had been blamed for United’s failure to win the ball back or maintain possession against technically superior opponents. Secondly, the unique playing styles of the two players raised questions about whether Ferguson had decided to change United playing philosophy after last season’s Champion League debacle and twin defeats to City.
At Borussia Dortmund, Kagawa played in the hole behind main striker, Robert Lewandowski. From 2010 to 2012, Rooney had increasingly played in that role supporting either Chicharito or Welbeck up front. Kagawa could have been accommodated by reconverting Rooney to his old no.9 position, one he reveled in in 2009-2010 scoring 34 goals. On account of his 20 million pound price tag, 37 goals for Arsenal last season and pretty much being unstoppable, that position would surely be RVP’s. Would Rooney, United’s talisman be dropped or would Kagawa be forced to change positions as Anderson and Park had done in the past? What about the big Roy Keane shaped hole in the middle of the park?
These questions cannot be answered by games against Wigan or Sunderland. More often than not, any combination of octogenarians and youngsters that Ferguson puts out in a 4-4-2 is sufficient to get 3 points. The truly big games brings out the best of Ferguson’s tactical nous. Six points ahead and wins over City, Chelsea, Arsenal later, Sir Ferguson can claim to have cracked the puzzle. Some of the preseason questions have been answered. Some, we will have to wait for the Madrid tie to find out.
1) Will United get overrun in central midfield against quality sides (as they did against City or Bilbao last year) ? PARTIALLY ANSWERED
Much to every armchair United tacticians dismay, Ferguson yet again chose not to buy an all action midfielder to complement Carrick’s more sedate style. However, he has alluded to the existence of a problem by tweaking the formation to pack more bodies in the middle of the park. Recently, he has played a 4-2-3-1 with Rooney, Young and Valencia all helping out the midfield pairing of Carrick and Cleverley. As the excellent Zonal Marking blog points out, they did so in tricky away games against Chelsea (won 3-2) and City (won 3-2) with mixed results. United dominated the opening exchanges against both sides scoring two goals in each of the games. However, there were long periods of possession for the opposition which almost resulted in United throwing away the lead. If we were to take an optimistic view, the 4-2-3-1 formation as a solution is still a work-in-progress and Ferguson will have ironed out the kinks before Real’s formidable midfield of Alonso, Khedira and Modric come to town.
In this regard, Ferguson is helped by having wingers who make up for their lack of flair or trickery with work ethic and willingness to defend. The focus on attacking from the wings has not changed though. The attacking slack has been picked up by United’s wing backs who bomb forward and overlap at every chance. Evra seems to have overcome his poor form from last season. As Rob Smyth explains, Rafael has been positively Maicon-esque at right back chipping in with two goals and two assists.
Then, there’s Rooney. Continue reading in Part-2