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Tactical Analysis: Real Madrid 2-1 Manchester United | Real dominate centre with midfield quartet

Miles Olusina writes a detailed tactical analysis about the UEFA Super Cup game that finished Real Madrid 2-1 Manchester United

Twelve-time European champions Real Madrid came up against fellow European giants and Europa League winners, Manchester United in the curtain raiser for the European season. Despite a major trophy not being at stake, the game would prove to be a good indicator of the level of both sides and provide some insight on what could be expected from the two sides coming into the new European season.

Reigning European champions Real kicked off this game with a near full strength side, with the only exception being star man Cristiano Ronaldo, who was rested against his former club. United were also more or less at full strength with new summer signings Romelu Lukaku, Victor Lindelof, and Nemanja Matic all making their competitive debuts. United would have to try and take home the European Super Cup without arguably their strongest defender Eric Bailly, who was serving the second of a three game suspension.

Although fairly one sided for large periods, the game was an interesting one. The game appeared very even in the opening stages, with United controlling possession for brief spells and creating one or two half chances. However, Real began to take control of the game as their midfield four of Casemiro, Modric, Kroos and Isco began to dominate the midfield, disrupting United’s defensive organization and creating space between the lines for the forwards who occasionally dropped off.

A sweeping through ball over the top from Dani Carvajal into the path of Casemiro gave Real the lead in the 24th minute before a fantastic combination between Isco and Bale saw the Spaniard double the advantage on 52 minutes. United fought back, halving the deficit in the 62nd minute after Lukaku pounced on the rebound of Matic’s long range drive. It was too little too late though, as Real saw out the game to take home their second consecutive Super Cup.



Real Madrid (4-3-3/4-4-2): 1. Navas // 2. Carvajal, 5. Varane, 4. Ramos, 12. Marcelo // 14. Casemiro, 10. Modric, 8. Kroos, 22. Isco // 11. Bale, 9. Benzema

Man Utd (4-3-3/5-3-2): 1. De Gea // 25. Valencia, 12. Smalling. 2. Lindelof, 36. Darmian // 31. Matic, 21. Herrera, 6. Pogba // 22. Mkhitaryan, 9. Lukaku, 14. Lingard

Substitutions: 74’ Asensio (Bale), 74’ Vazquez (Isco), 83’ Ronaldo (Benzema) // 46’ Rashford (Lingard), 56’ Fellaini (Herrera)

Goals: 24’ Casemiro, 52’ Isco // 62’ Lukaku

United’s 5 man defensive line

With Real Madrid coming in as slight favourites, United were always expected to be on the back foot at some stages of the game. Unexpectedly, Mourinho deployed a situational 5-3-2 out of possession, possibly looking to create a defensive overload against Real Madrid’s front three.

United’s change in shape was very much dependent on the movement of the wide players, Lingard and Mkhitaryan. When the ball was lost, Mkhitaryan would vacate his initial position on the right of midfield and move onto the same line as Lukaku, forming a front two. Lingard on the other hand, would drop significantly deeper, moving onto the same line to create a back 5 as Darmian at left back moved infield to become a third centre back.

As can be seen in the previous image and image above, the front two of United did not apply pressure to the centre backs in the buildup phase. Instead they looked to block passing lanes into midfield and inhibit Casemiro from receiving possession by overloading the 6 space. This gave United a more compact shape vertically and also stopped Real’s midfielders from finding space and receiving possession between the midfield and attacking lines.

United applied a pendulating back 5 with the ball out wide, as the ball near full back would go and press the opposition wide player in possession. In this image, Valencia vacates the defensive line in order to gain access to Marcelo. Lindelof along with the rest of the back 5 slide across to cover the space and add an additional line of cover in case the initial pressure from Valencia is bypassed.

United persisted with the situational back 5 after the introduction of Rashford; however it did have its downsides as it mean that United were underloaded in midfield which is suicidal against a team like Real Madrid. In response to this, Mourinho deployed a 4-1-4-1 with a flat midfield line and Matic in the 6 space behind, giving his side greater vertical compactness and reducing the space between the lines. It had the desired effect, as Real did not exploit the overload in midfield as effectively and could not exploit the right half space which had been exposed by Mkhitaryan. The wide players moving more narrowly gave United more compactness horizontally as well, forcing Real to play around United’s block as opposed to through it.

United did struggle though, in their attempts to regain possession particularly as they had a number of issues with their pressing and organization during Real’s period of domination. Often times, their pressing was disjointed and individualistic, making it far easier for Real to play through the waves of pressure as they had the overload in midfield. In addition their pressure lacked intensity as it did little to unsettle the Real Madrid ball carrier. It only had negative effects as it created space between the lines for Modric who would move into the 10 space and Bale, who dropped off from the forward line.

Real midfield four control possession

Without a doubt the driving force behind Real’s victory in this fixture, with the absence of Ronaldo, was the role played by Real’s midfield three and Isco, who was incredible throughout, putting in a man of the match performance as he roamed freely in midfield.

They appeared to be set up in a 4-3-3 on paper with Isco starting out on the right. He very rarely occupied that position throughout the game as Real looked to exploit the left hand side due to the advanced positioning of Mkhitaryan on United’s right hand side. The shape resembled more of a 4-3-1-2 with Bale operating almost as a forward who occasionally dropped off into the 10 space, giving Real Madrid a 5v3 overload in midfield.

Real’s midfielders were key also in the build-up, in particular Casemiro. With United’s front two opting not to press the defensive line and instead cover shadow the Real Madrid 8s, Casemiro had to drop in between the centre backs, creating a back 3, thus giving Real an overload. As you can see, both Varane and Ramos have used almost the entire width of the pitch. As a result, the two United players leading the press now have a substantial distance to cover should Casemiro decide to play to Varane. If they choose not to press then Varane now has space and time to drive into midfield or play a vertical pass.

Despite circulating the ball well and dominating possession, Real did find space in the centre hard to come by at times due to United’s compactness. In order to combat this, Real used a number of different strategies, one of which being backwards passing. This proved effective in that it created space between the lines by inviting pressure from the United players.

In this image above, Kroos lays the ball off to Ramos which triggers a press from Mkhitaryan who leaves his position to put pressure on Ramos. However, the space he vacates is not covered by a teammate and as a result Marcelo is now free between the lines.

As mentioned before, the central positioning of Mkhitaryan was duly exploited by Real, in particular Toni Kroos. He could be frequently seen during the game dropping off into the left half-space to aid switches of play as Real constantly built play on the right hand side then switched play onto the left once the United block has completely shifted to one side.

As we can see here, United’s block is firmly in the centre as it is in the process of shifting from right to left. Kroos who initially was on the same line as Isco, in Herrera’s cover shadow, moves deeper in the half space to create a passing angle for Ramos to play to him. He also has an overload of 2v1 with Marcelo, which could be taken advantage of against Antonio Valencia.

Arguably the best player on the pitch though, was Isco who was instrumental in everything Real did during this game. He was initially positioned on the left hand side but was able to occupy different areas of the field based on the position of the ball. His intelligent movement and positioning was key in creating overload and positional structures to play between United’s pressure.

Here we can see Isco receiving the ball deep in the right half space having vacated his initial position on the left. He receives the ball here, creating a 2v1 overload with Bale who has dropped off from his position in the 10 space to receive possession. Should Mkhitaryan go to apply pressure on Isco then it leaves Bale free to run at the back line of United and combine with Marcelo.

In addition, he often rotated with Bale as he moved into the forward line alongside Benzema as Bale moved into the centre of midfield. As United began deploying man marking, this movement between the two became essential in disorganizing the man marking in midfield. His movement into deeper areas aided this also, as the player marking him in that moment would be reluctant to follow him into such a deep area as it would risk creating gaps in United’s defensive block.

United’s direct, wing focused attack

As expected with most Mourinho sides, United were quite direct in this game, favouring a style based more on counter attacking and crossing from wide areas, which was understandable as they were unlikely to dominate the ball against Real Madrid. They looked to sit deep against Real and counter when most of the Real players were ahead of the ball, making it easier to find space in behind the Real defence in attacking transitions.

United’s attacks were primarily focused on the right hand side in the 1st half, possibly due to the fact that the only player in the United line up providing width was Valencia; as the other three players played on the ‘wrong’ side. Valencia was tasked with playing as wide as possible which was effective not only in giving him space to cross but also to open up passing lanes in the half space for Mkhitaryan.

Herrera has possession here and lays the ball off to Mkhitaryan, who has plenty of time to receive possession due to Marcelo’s positioning. Valencia on the touchline is forcing Marcelo to position himself much wider which leads to a disconnect in the Real Madrid defensive line.

The introduction of Rashford in the 2nd half gave United a different approach when attacking out wide. Unlike Mkhitaryan, Rashford would position himself very wide on the left hand side in order to draw Carvajal out of position and open up the RB-CB channel for Pogba. His 1v1 ability would also prove useful as he beat Carvajal on a few occasions, causing multiple Real players to leave their position to support Carvajal. This led to more space being created centrally and eventually Lukaku’s goal which originated from the left hand side.


A convincing and dominant performance from Real who laid down a significant marker for the start of the European season, a performance made all the more impressive by the fact that star man Ronaldo was on the bench. After becoming the first side in history to retain the Champions League, they will surely go into this season’s competition as one of the favourites and should performances like this continue, not many would bet against them winning it for the third time in a row.

A disappointing yet promising performance from this United side, who still have much work to be done if they are to reach the same level as their opponents in this game. With marquee signing Lukaku scoring on his competitive debut and big summer signings from last season Pogba and Mkhitaryan having a season under their belt to settle in, United will look to go all the way in their return to Europe’s premier competition.

Read all our tactical analyses here

Miles Olusina

Miles Olusina

Miles is a 19 year-old writer and aspiring manager with a fascination for tactics and the psychological side of the game. He is an avid Manchester United supporter and follower of Barcelona
Miles Olusina

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