With Manchester United now needing to drop an average of a point per game for the remaining 12 matches, the league now looks like a non-question; barring a cock-up of Taibi-esque proportions, it’s in the bank. The more pressing question is just what United’s 2-0 win against Everton yesterday reveals about plans for Wednesday’s first leg away fixture to Real Madrid. Mourinho was at Old Trafford yesterday, and knowing Ferguson as he does, he understands the United boss doesn’t just give his schemes away. But there are some things that even Sir Alex can’t hide. Rafael’s rise alongside Evra’s demise is one, Valencia’s poor form another, and the limitations of United’s man-marking ploy another still.
Rafael’s prominence + Evra’s weakness = Ronaldo likely to operate on right side
Gary Neville giving a Man United right-back man of the match? Shocker. In this instance, Rafael definitely deserved it. He kept the effective Baines and Mirallas/Pienaar partnership extremely quiet, both with solid defending and well-timed forward forages. Is he ready for Ronaldo though? Fresh from scoring his 20th hat-trick for Real Madrid in only three and half seasons, Ronaldo looks an absolute menace right now. Although he operates at his absolute best from the left, Rafael’s speed, defensive strength and tenacity will remind Mourinho that United’s defensive frailties lie elsewhere.
A switch to the right, for at least a good chunk of Wednesday’s game, looks likely, rendering the question of Rafael’s preparedness irrelevant.
Patrice Evra has been a great player for United, no doubt. Clearly, though, he isn’t the defender he was. Easily turned and often caught out of position and losing his runner, the Frenchman looks ripe for the skinning by the world’s best high-speed attacker. Against Everton, Evra’s overly advanced position and reluctant defending gave Mirallas and Pienaar too much space in which to create the best of Everton’s positions in the first half, before United tightened things up for the second period. It would take a rejuvenated Evra to keep Ronaldo at bay, so Ferguson may look to set the team’s shape accordingly.
Two holding midfielders better than man-marking
With Jones being given traditional man-marking duties against Bale and Fellaini recently, the obvious suggestion is him carrying out the same role on Ronaldo, as long as he’s fit. The ploy seemed to work against the Spurs flyer and the Belgian hedge, but ‘seemed’ is the operative word. On both occasions, while effectively nullifying the dangerman in question, Jones’ strict adherence to the policy left gaping holes in midfield. It was particularly noticeable yesterday, when Gibson, Osman and co were allowed to wander forward into acres of space within the Untied half. Osman capitalised on this with three shots in quick succession.
The fact is, even if Jones were to start and remain within a metre of Ronaldo at all times- and keep him from producing anything even then- the rest of Real Madrid are simply too good not to take full advantage of the available space in midfield. It follows then that a suitable formation may instead be called upon. Playing two holding midfield players would also help to sure up the inside channels in which all three behind Higuain- Özil, Benzema and Ronaldo- flourish. But who’s going to fill these positions?
Jones or Cleverley… or the surprise package of Anderson?
Carrick will definitely start. Being rested against Everton was as clear a sign as you’re likely to see from Ferguson. When he came on for an injured Jones, he was able to dictate the game’s tempo with his usual authority. Although in the past Carrick’s slightly heavy first touch has been exposed by the crème of Europe (against Barcelona two years ago, most notably), his form has been exceptional this season, and his importance in the United midfield is clear for all to see.
Jones picked up a knock after being kicked in the calf yesterday, and will be ‘monitored’ for Wednesday’s game. Cleverley played the full match and had given England 45 minutes last Wednesday. This does seem to point, lightly at least, to a classic maverick Ferguson team selection move: starting with Anderson. I have given up making strong predictions about starting line-ups for United, as it is a fool’s game, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if Anderson is handed a midfield berth alongside Carrick. Cleverley’s recent form has been excellent though, and his partnership with Carrick is the most established.
Valencia’s form and Young’s big game frailty suggest 4-2-3-1 better option
The kindest way to describe Valencia’s performance against Everton would be ‘functional’. He looks so short of ideas these days it’s scary. It could be confidence, or more worryingly, it could be that defenders now know how to play him: keep him on his non-existent left side and maintain a small distance so he can’t knock it beyond you and whip a cross in. He is as solid and reliable as ever defensively at least, so remains a tempting starter against Madrid.
Although he is fit again, and as always, I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts, I don’t really fancy Ashley Young away at the Bernabau. From previous evidence, particularly in an England shirt, his big-game mentality appears to be lacking. Valencia and Young filled the wide positions of the 4-4-2 against Chelsea and Man City away this season. They were effective, but largely, I would argue, because at the time United were playing 4-2-3-1 as standard and the system took the opposition by surprise. Having reverted to 4-4-2 since December, the greater tactical surprise would lie in a 4-2-3-1. Between this, the greater defensive support it provides, and the fact that neither Valencia nor Young fill me with inspiration right now, this latter formation looks like the stronger option.
Possession will be the name of the game on Wednesday. Carrick will be vital in ensuring United can ‘rest in possession’ as well as springing counter-attacks. Although recently admitting he has been disappointing with his performances at United, Kagawa is undoubtedly an expert at retaining possession. His passing success rate has been consistently impressive in his eleven league appearances so far, and he possesses a level of composure perfect for the occasion on Wednesday. He would suit a start on the left-hand side of a three behind Van Persie, comprising of Rooney and one other- whether Valencia, Welbeck or Young.